Of Tweets, Facts And Relevance: A Chat With NPR's Ombudsman

Feb 16, 2017

At NPR, the Ombudsman serves as a liaison between the audience and the newsroom.  They review listener concerns or questions over coverage, including whether a specific candidate or event is getting due attention from reporters.

Sometimes there are issues regarding terminology…such as whether or not NPR should call the NFL team in Washington D.C. by its official name.

Elizabeth Jensen, NPR's Ombudsman, at KLCC studios.
Credit Brian Bull / KLCC

NPR’s current Ombudsman is Elizabeth Jensen.  She’s touring Oregon this week, which included a visit to KLCC studios.  KLCC's Brian Bull asked Jensen how busy she and her editorial researcher have been lately. 

JENSEN:  We got -- just from November to January -- 2,900 emails…uh, (laughs) which is a lot

BULL:  Wow, I mean…2,900 emails…in a three month period. If you were to compare from maybe a year, two years ago -- that same track of time -- is that a significant increase?  Because I’m thinking “election”…

JENSEN:  It is!  You got it, (laughs) you got it!  So it’s election, and then January included the inauguration of President Trump and his early moves.  We’re living in a very, very intense political time and people are weighing in and they are interested in our coverage.  So I guess a year ago, we were probably getting 800 emails a month, and in January we got 1,400.  So that’s a significant increase. 

NPR's Ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, talks with KLCC's Brian Bull.
Credit Don Hein / KLCC

BULL:  Is there a need for ramped-up fact checking with this president?  Are you hearing anything from NPR’s editors, producers, and reporters on how they keep up with what appears to be an almost daily barrage of statements that later turn out to be exaggerated, wrong, or false? For instance, the president’s claim on the national crime rate, which contrasted sharply with that of the FBI.

JENSEN:  Right, so this has been an issue.  It was an issue in the presidential primaries. So NPR really had a chance to start to figure out how to address that. So yes, absolutely, fact-checking at all news organizations I think become really, really important in this time.  So NPR…chose to address this starting with the – I think – it was the first presidential candidate debate.  They created an online fact checking tool, and this has now been used for press conferences, it was used for President Obama’s final farewell address, it was used for President Obama’s last press conference…so it’s essentially a running transcript – a real time transcript -- of what’s being said, and then NPR reporters and editors weigh in and fact check, annotate, and context to what’s being said. 

I think this is a great tool, that’s really giving listeners instant understanding, of where these statements fall on the (laughs) factual chain. 

Some things aren’t necessarily wrong, but you need more context. So this is a way to do that.  So NPR has also a tool that is fact-checking the president’s tweets, which also I think has been proven to be a successful tool.

The real challenge at NPR is in live interviews.  There have been a number of times where misinformation’s being spread during a live interview.   The hosts are really great, they’re briefed really well, you still can’t be on top of every little statistic that is thrown out in an interview.  And so sometimes it’s hard to catch it. 

The NPR hosts – when they hear something inaccurate -- they catch it, then ask the guest to clarify or correct them.  It’s not always possible.  So that is the real challenge for me these days, is how to keep misinformation from being spread during a live interview.

BULL:   Previous presidents used to issue statements via news conference, or press release.  President Trump is very fond of Twitter, which means that he can fire off a steady stream of concise and often tersely-phrased, punchy statements within the limitations of a tweet.  Are these newsworthy? 

Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States.
Credit Gage Skidmore / Flickr.com

JENSEN: We get that question from listeners a lot. There are a lot of listeners who just don’t want us to report on the President’s tweets. 

My own view of this is, this is how the president has chosen to communicate.  In and of itself, it’s newsworthy.  So of course like any other newsworthy statement, you have to put it into context, you have to consider whether the information in it is accurate…so what NPR shouldn’t be doing –and I don’t feel it has been doing for the most part is…these tweets should not be reported on uncritically. Is it a policy change that’s being communicated in this tweet?  Is it just an insult?  You have to bring all your news judgment to bear, these tweets cannot be sorta passed along, uncritically, and unfact-checked. 

BULL:  Are there other media organizations that you know that have an ombudsman?

JENSEN:  PBS has an ombudsman, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has its own ombudsman.  Other than that…it’s sort of a shrinking business these days.  The Washington Post had an ombudsman, they no longer do.  But the New York Times has a public editor.  ESPN has a public editor.  They still see the value in the role.

So the question of course of whether you need an ombudsman, is an interesting one. Some news organizations have argued that with the rise of social media, if you have mistake it’s going to be pointed out within seconds by someone on Twitter, you’re going to catch it, you’re going to make the change.

But you know, from my vantage point, having an ombudsman, you have someone in house, who can go directly to the newsroom, and I hope that I provide thoughtful conversations. (laughs) We all have the same goal, which is to make sure the journalism at NPR stays as strong as possible. Sometimes having someone in house who’s looking at these issues provides value that maybe an outside social media critic does not.

EXTENDED INTERVIEW

BULL: First off, what is an ombudsman, exactly? 

JENSEN:  Right, well…an ombudsman is a really interesting role.  There aren’t a lot of us in American newsrooms, there were more of us in the past. So essentially I’m a liaison between the public and the newsroom at NPR.  Lots of news organizations have a standards editor, who really sets ethics policy, and decrees what language is to be used. An ombudsman is in some ways that role but outside the newsroom.  So I’m outside the newsroom, I report to CEO, in this case Jarl Mohn.  I’m a completely independent critic. 

So NPR essentially pays me to be a critic of their journalism.  And the goal is to provide transparency at the newsroom, so listeners really understand how news decisions are being made, and they have a pathway to weigh in if they’re unhappy with some of those decisions.

NPR Ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, visits with KLCC's Brian Bull.
Credit Don Hein / KLCC

I tend to call myself a public editor.  Many news organizations have changed the title to “public editor” instead of an “ombudsman”.  That’s partly because there are other organizations that use “ombudsman”. 

So hospitals --if you have a billing problem -- the ombudsman may get involved and sort out the billing.  A news ombudsman can’t solve every problem.  Right?  We’ve got listeners who have complaints that are diametrically opposed. So an ombudsman can’t solve all those problems. So “public editor” describes a little bit better, which is to bring the public into the newsroom.

BULL:  But for now, you’re an “ombudsman”. 

JENSEN:  Yes, for now I’m an ombudsman! (laughs)

BULL:  So what exactly are your qualifications?

JENSEN:  Well, I have an interesting background, I was a reporter for 30 years.  And I covered the media essentially my entire career, with one little diversion covering food and alcohol, and I covered wireless for a little bit. I worked almost exclusively at newspapers.  So I worked at New York Daily News, then The Wall Street Journal, where I covered broadcasting. I spent a brief amount of time at a national media magazine called Brill's Content.  Then at The Los Angeles Times as their New York TV reporter, then I spent 10 years freelancing for The New York Times where I covered public media. 

So I’ve covered this for 30 years, So I think I have a pretty good understanding the challenges public media faces, how it operates, and NPR was looking for someone – so they told me -- who understood public media and its own challenges but wasn’t of public media.  Obviously, the role is to be independent and outside and again, an in-house critic.

BULL:  But again, you had that familiarity from previous experience.

JENSEN:  Right!  Public radio is a very complicated system.  You have stations, which are independent but also dependent on NPR programming.  So it’s a little bit of a complicated puzzle the way public radio and public television operate in the United States, so they wanted someone who understood that that going in.

BULL:   So how exactly do you interact with NPR, Elizabeth?  Do you approach them, do they approach you, to weigh in on their coverage or on a particular story?

JENSEN:  So our main vehicle…we respond to public. It’s a very small office,  there’s me and our wonderful researcher, Annie Johnson, sometimes an intern.  That’s it.  We have inbox – contact the ombudsman link -- and we get quite a few emails, and we go through those, and that for the most part is our starting point.  So we’re representing the listeners. So we want to hear the concerns of the listeners. 

We got…just to give you some statistics from November to January, so the three month period…we ended up with 2,900 emails just to my office.  (laughs) which is a lot.  We categorize all those emails, so we understand what issues are really on the minds of our listeners. And we pretty much start from there, we sometimes get input by Twitter, it’s a social media universe these days.  We have a  Facebook page…which I’d love your listeners to check out.  We try to get some dialog going there.  So we’ll look at issues raised on our Facebook page, if people post there, but otherwise people will just in conversation raise an issue.  So we really try to start there.

So NPR doesn’t approach me so much as listeners approach me, and then from there I take it to NPR.  Sometimes it’s a one-off question, like “This needs a correction,” or “I don’t understand this headline”, or, “Why did you make that choice?”  We try to answer as much of those as possible. 

We had 1,400 emails requests alone in January, so it’s not possible to give everyone an individualized reply.  But we try to get to the thoughtful ones.  and if there’s something that really bubbles up…I try to make it into a column.

BULL:   Wow, 2,900 emails…in a three month period. Now…if you were to compare from maybe a year, two years ago, that same track of time, is that a significant increase?  Because I’m thinking “election”…

JENSEN:  It is!  You got it, you got it!  So it’s the election, and then of course, it’s the inauguration, and new administration.  January included the inauguration of President Trump and his early moves.  And so…listeners have..right!   We’re living in a very, uh, very intense political time and people are weighing in and they are interested in our coverage.  So I guess about a year ago, we were probably getting around 800 emails a month, and again in January we had 1,400.  So that’s a significant increase. 

BULL:  There seems to be an almost unprecedented level of rhetoric, bluster, and some would say outright lies from this administration.  (Jensen: Yes) Do you feel that there’s been a surge in interest and accountability for NPR and its reporters to parse through President Trump’s claims and statements more than any other president?

JENSEN:   More than any other president?  Uhm…I was not at NPR…sorta when…well, I guess  I overlapped a couple years with the Obama Administration.  I should say I’ve been at NPR for two years, and I have one more with my contract.  But again news reporting is situational, so you report on what’s in front of you.  Sometimes listeners do ask us to make comparisons with the coverage of the previous president, sometimes that’s hard to do.  So if misinformation out there, in a communications from the White House NPR will definitely (laughs) call it out if you will.  Or attempt to.

BULL:   Is there a need for ramped-up fact checking with this President?  Are you hearing anything from NPR’s editors, producers, and reporters on how they keep up with what appears to be an almost daily barrage of statements that later turn out to be exaggerated, wrong, or false? For instance, the President’s claim on the national crime rate that contrasted sharply with that of the FBI.

JENSEN:  Right, so this has been an issue.  It was an issue in the presidential primaries. So NPR really had a chance to start to figure out how to address that. So yes, absolutely, fact-checking at all news organizations I think has become really important in this time.  So NPR…chose to address this starting with the – I think it was the first presidential candidate debate.  They created online fact checking tool, and this has now been used for press conferences, it was used for President Obama’s final farewell address, it was used for President Obama’s last press conference…so essentially it’s a running transcript – a real time transcript -- of what’s being said, then NPR reporters and editors weigh in and fact check, annotate, and add context to what’s being said. 

I think this is a great tool, that’s really giving listeners instant understanding, of where these statements fall on the factual chain. 

Some things aren’t necessarily wrong, but you need more context. So this is just a way to do that.  And NPR has a tool that is fact-checking the president’s tweets, which also I think has proven to be a successful tool.

You know, getting back to challenge though, the real challenge at NPR is in live interviews.  NPR does quite a bit of live interviews these days, they do it to be on top of news, and sometimes there’s an event or development that happens overnight, and you need to get someone…and you don’t have time for show that comes on early to pre-tape an interview. 

So in doing a live interview, the challenge is there have been a number of times where misinformation’s being spread.  The hosts are really great, they’re briefed really well, you still can’t be on top of every statistic thrown out during interview.  So sometimes it’s hard to catch it.  NPR hosts when they hear something inaccurate, they catch it, they ask the guest to clarify or correct them.  That’s my challenge, is how to keep misinformation from being spread during a live interview.

BULL:   Previous presidents used to issue statements via news conference, or press release.  These were often formal affairs or elaborately phrased passages that would go on for several paragraphs.  President Trump is very fond of Twitter, which means he can fire off a steady stream of concise and often tersely-phrased, punchy statements within the limitations of a tweet.  Are these newsworthy?  What do you think makes a tweet worth reporting or not?

JENSEN:  We get that question a lot from listeners, there are a lot of listeners who don’t want us to report on the president’s tweets.  My own view on this is, this is how the president has chosen to communicate, in and of itself it’s newsworthy.  So of course like any other newsworthy statement, you have to put it into context, you have to consider if the information in it is accurate…so what NPR shouldn’t be doing for most part is –and I don’t feel it has been doing for the most part is…these tweets shouldn’t be reported on uncritically. 

So they shouldn’t just be passed along, as news in of themselves…they have to be put into context.   Just like any other communications from any other president.  So it…is it a policy change that’s being communicated in this tweet?  Is it just an insult?  You have to bring all your news judgment to bear, these tweets can’t be sorta passed along, uncritically, and unfact-checked. 

BULL:   One suggestion that’s going around – and you may have touched on this in one of your columns too, Elizabeth… regarding fact checking the president and his staff…is to stop doing live coverage (Jensen: Yes), and instead hold onto the footage until claims are vetted.  This could create a more accurate picture of national policy, though newsrooms may be reluctant,  because it would not be as timely, robs them of that immediacy, and could slow down their coverage in the tight-paced race to get these stories on air.  Especially in the competitive world of news.  Is NPR having these discussions?

JENSEN:  Absolutely.  You touched on my column, so I write a column roughly once a week.  And the issue I dealt with this last week, last Friday, is exactly this issue. There is a tradeoff.  NPR wants to have live interviews, you want to be timely, you want to be on top of that news.  At same time there is lots of misinformation, and no news organization should be spreading this.  So NPR has handled it in interesting ways. 

Last week, can’t remember what day it was…Rachel Martin had an interview with an administration official, live and it was a live interview on the East Coast.  Here on the West Coast, I think you’ve the benefit, of (BULL:  The three hour delay) (laughs) the three hour delay, so she did a live interview, and there were a couple statistics put into this interview that were incorrect, and needed more context, let’s put it that way.  The numbers were pretty close, but they didn’t really represent what the guest was trying to say.

And they realized this after segment over.  And so NPR does interviews and then they repeat it on 2-hour loop for the West Coast, for various different  time zones.  And they actually edited the interview for the later broadcast, and they added in a little bit of context – stop the interview, here’s the actual statistic.  Thought that was terrific. Problem was, there were probably a couple million people who heard originally live interview.  They don’t have the benefit…all they heard were the statistics that were inaccurate.  What do you do for them?  This is conversation in our newsroom, how do you handle that? 

You can put an on-air correction later, but those people aren’t going to be listening at the same time.  A lot of people will be listening in their cars, during their commute.  So how do you correct that misinformation?  If it’s gone out live...there’s no simple answer for that.  And so then it becomes a question as to whether you want to do live interviews or not. 

So if this is a pattern that’s going to be getting worse, you need to rethink the whole model…so….I think they’re struggling with this.  And “struggling” may not be the right word.  I feel they’re thinking very thoughtfully on how to deal with these issues.

BULL:   Are there sometimes questions or concerns from NPR staff on how the ombudsman looks into their coverage?  Have you been challenged or criticized?

JENSEN:  Sure, absolutely, absolutely.  Ethics…really are not black or white.  These are gray areas, these judgment calls. My predecessor had a language issue that involved whether NPR should be using name of the Washington football team on air.  And he argued NPR shouldn’t and of course, NPR policy…the ombudsman is not in the newsroom, and can’t set policy or order changes. So the newsroom did not make the change for several months but they did.  They disagreed for several months, and that’s fine.

So they don’t’ always agree, sometimes I have to say, "Maybe I came to a different conclusion than you would," but that’s part of the role.  There’s no right or wrong necessarily.  A lot of it is being thoughtful with your coverage.  And really this whole concept of transparency, which is explaining what you’re doing…listeners can agree, listeners can disagree, but at least I think people have an understating as to why decisions being made, and I hope they come away with the idea that decisions are being made thoughtfully.

BULL:  Just out of curiosity, is NPR using the name of the NFL team in Washington?

JENSEN:  NPR does not use it for the most part.  So yep…NPR tries to avoid it.  The policy is “not never”, it can be used if it’s absolutely needed for identification purposes.  But for the most part, NPR tries to avoid saying it.

BULL:   In regards to your own columns or calls, has there been any pushback from NPR on anything you’ve written or said?

JENSEN:   MMmhm.   I’m trying to think, uh…I had a column that I wrote a couple weeks ago, NPR is not a radio organization anymore, only.  It is also a digital online news organization. And the amount of content that’s being put out on NPR.org has soared in recent years.  Sometimes listeners are getting to that content via Facebook, Twitter, etc.  The number of copy editors to oversee that content has not kept pace.  So there are two copy editors, there’s a third position that has not been filled for a while.

But in essence, there are three copy editors that are looking at 40-50 pieces of content that are going out on the website every day, that’s a lot.  Copy editors are wonderful people, they save you all the time if you’re a reporter or editor, they catch mistakes.  They see context, they write headlines that are really on point, and I have argued that NPR needs more copy editors, they need at least 1-2 more.   In this era of facts really matter, and listeners and readers are really looking at us, to get every fact and nuance buttoned down. I would not call it pushback so much as…they’ve haven’t done it yet.

BULL:   Are there other media organizations that you know that have an ombudsman?

JENSEN:  So public media is really good in this area.  PBS has an ombudsman, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has its own ombudsmen.  So the Corporation for Public Broadcasting administers the federal funding that comes from Congress to public radio stations, my role is to really look at NPR-produced content.  Public radio stations of course, like yours, produce their own content.  So the CPB Ombudsman is the point of contact if a listener has a question or a concern on content that comes from the stations. 

Other than that…it’s sort of a shrinking business these days.  The Washington Post had an ombudsman, they no longer do.  But The New York Times has a public editor.  ESPN has a public editor.  They still see value in the role.

So the question of course of whether you need an ombudsman, is an interesting one.  Some news organizations have argued that with the rise of social media, if you have mistake it’s going to be pointed out to you within seconds by someone on Twitter, you’re going to catch it, you’re going to make the change. The internet explosion has made it easier for plenty of critics to pop up and challenge a news organization's reporting.  So some news organizations have argued why spend the money on an ombudsman? 

But you know, from my vantage point, having an ombudsman, have someone in house, who can go directly to the newsroom, and I hope that I provide thoughtful conversations. With the newsroom.

You know, it hasn’t always been…well, occasionally it gets contentious, but you try to have respectful conversation with your colleagues at NPR, and sort of…continue…I think we all… (laughs) we all have same goal,  which is to make sure the journalism at NPR stays as strong as possible. So sometimes having someone in house who’s looking at these issues provides value that maybe an outside social media critic does not.

BULL:  Maybe provides an extra layer of accountability and credibility to a news organization?

JENSEN:  Exactly, absolutely.  And an outside critic is not going to necessarily have access to the meetings and executives.  NPR is very good where if I ask a question, for the most part, it may be uncomfortable but they’ll answer it.  They take the role very seriously, and for that I’m grateful.  But  more importantly, it serves the listeners.

BULL:   NPR reporters and shows get direct messages from listeners.  (Jensen: They do!)  I used to work the editorial desk at Morning Edition, during the Bob Edwards era. People can be passionate (Jensen: Yes, they are!)  Have you ever been directly contacted by a listener?  What were some of the more memorable exchanges?

JENSEN:  (laughs) no.  These emails that come in, they are very direct. You always appreciate ones that are…(laughs)…take a tone of civil conversation and civil discourse.  It’s possible to disagree with someone or make a point civilly.  These days I think more of the emails aren’t civil or they’re impassioned if you will. 

Occasionally, I think people are surprised that we actually read these emails.  So sometimes I’ll get a real impassioned email, I’ll write a nice email back and then Ill get an apology, saying “I didn’t think anyone was really going to read this and respond”. 

So our listeners are wonderful, they have very strong opinions, it’s great to hear from them no matter what tone they take. Sometimes you need a thick skin, but we try to deal with them as openly as possible.

BULL:   You’ve written a number of columns through the years, two years in.  Is there one particular column that you’re particularly happy with, proud of, or one where you feel you created a bridge of understanding?

JENSEN:  I’ll be honest, so many issues that come in, they’re sometimes a blur. In any given week, I can have 30 issues listeners are asking about.   I actually really liked my column this past week just because I think it has provoked a conversation in the newsroom.  I think it really gets to the model of NPR and how NPR presents news on the radio.  And sorta of really fundamental issues that newsrooms grappling with right now, about how to keep misinformation out,  how to best to provide information, so what is the role of journalism?  It’s to provide information that listeners and readers and consumers need to make educated decisions.  So when you’re grappling with those issues, it’s really a really great time for journalism. 

So I was actually very happy with that column.  It had no answers but it had a lot of questions that were raised, and seems to me people are talking about these questions.

BULL:  For anyone who’s not read your column recently, this is the column about how NPR may have to adapt its coverage with all the information that’s coming out there right now from the administration and elsewhere.

JENSEN:  That’s right, so one great issue that the people are talking about is,  NPR does a lot of – what are called in the radio business “vox pops”, which is vox populi, which  are "people in the street" interviews.  NPR’s policy which I largely agree with, is to take these interviews at face value. Right?  So an average person on the street, they may have correct information, they may have incorrect information, they are making decisions about the political process based on their own understanding of the world. It’s of great value to hear that.

And so we want to be respectful of course, of their opinion.  People make decisions on political matters for all sorts of complicated reasons.   And it’s important  to hear that in their own words, but then the question becomes, if there’s a statistic thrown out in that interview or an opinion that is not actually based in fact, how do you deal with that kind of misinformation, right?  Again, NPR’s role is to provide accurate information for people to make decisions in their lives. So whether that, if…misinformation is coming out of an administration official, through an opposition politician, or through a person on street, that information needs to be corrected, but how do you do that in respectful way? 

Someone agrees to give an interview who’s an average person, to NPR, they’re not necessarily signing up for someone saying, “Oh, but you’re wrong!”  And that’s not really the role. You want to listen to people respectfully.  And I think that’s something NPR has to deal with, because they’ve been doing lots of people on the street interviews, and so I think NPR just needs to figure out a way to handle that kind of information if there’s misinformation out there.

So these are really thorny issues, they don’t have a lot of easy answers, and those are the kinds of issues I like to write about, get people thinking about how to do something differently or better.

BULL: Anything else you’d like our listeners to know, Elizabeth?

JENSEN:  Well, I’d just like to say that listeners can find the column on they NPR website.  They can search “NPR.org ombudsman”, and you’ll find a link to our page.  We love dialogue, we love to hear from listeners, so there’s a contact link there, so if there’s something a listener really feels strongly about, we hope that they’ll write in and let us know.  And again, we have our Facebook page and we’re hoping to get an interesting dialogue going on there, so check it out!

BULL:  Elizabeth Jensen, thank you very much for your time and enjoy Eugene.

JENSEN:  Thank you, it’s my pleasure!

BULL: Thank you.