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Mailbag: Complaints About Foul Words And A Sexual Assault Report


The Ombudsman's mailbox last week included complaints about NPR's decision to use some foul language, and the choice of a particular interview subject. Here are some newsroom responses.

Why Some Foul Words, But Not Others?

Short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci used some decidedly strong language in a phone call to The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza last week. Morning Edition and All Things Considered, mindful of Federal Communications Commission limits on what words NPR member stations can and cannot broadcast, chose to describe Scaramucci's comments without quoting them.

But npr.org has no such constraints, and printed some of the vulgar phrases, with a few asterisks for some of the words, but not all. That didn't sit well with one reader, who wrote: "There is simply no need to print the F-word."

Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, offered this explanation:

"We considered it carefully. It was important to convey the nature of his comments and not completely 'cover' them with asterisks. He is, after all, in charge of White House communications and was speaking about other top advisers to the president. As for which words we did and didn't 'asterisk,' it's hard to explain any better than to simply say that some felt more offensive than others. We did, as you see, advise readers about the language before they would see it."

That advisory was at the top of the story, in boldface type: "Warning: This post contains some very graphic language."

Unintentionally Reopening A Controversial Campus Sexual Assault Case

The July 25 All Things Considered took a lengthy look at how campuses are tiptoeing into using what's known as the restorative justice process to handle allegations of campus sexual assault, bypassing more traditional adjudication and disciplinary processes.

Not everyone agrees with a restorative justice approach, which, as Boston-based National Desk correspondent Tovia Smith's story noted, "looks more like a therapeutic intervention aimed at healing than a trial focused on guilt and punishment." The NPR story reflected the views of critics. But one of those counterpoint voices, a woman named Emma Sulkowicz prompted numerous complaints.

Sulkowicz for a year engaged in what she called a performance art piece, carrying a 50-pound mattress around Columbia University's campus to protest how she said her charge of rape against a fellow student, made in 2013, was resolved.

It was a messy case that still resonates, landing on the front page of The New York Times just weeks ago, after the university settled a gender discrimination case against it brought by the man she unsuccessfully accused, Paul Nungesser.

None of that was in the NPR piece, including Nungesser's name and that of their university, because the piece wasn't about her case. But the piece did describe her as a sexual assault "survivor" and she referred in the piece to an unnamed "sadist" that some have taken to be Nungesser.

Two days later, NPR added a clarification to the online version of the story (and it is also posted on the online transcript):

"This story refers to Emma Sulkowicz as a survivor of sexual assault, as she considers herself to be. The accused in her case was found not responsible by a campus adjudication process."

Critics were right to be upset. Even though Nungesser was not named in the piece, Sulkowicz and her comment were included, and no mention was made of the outcome of the accusations, even though she was described as a "survivor."

Newsroom executives told me that they turned to Sulkowicz as an advocate and activist who could speak on how campuses resolve charges of sexual assault. The story did not include details because NPR specifically did not want to reopen the case.

But by calling her a "survivor" and including her comment, NPR did partially reopen the case, however inadvertently. NPR should have anticipated that her story would distract from the main thrust of the piece. It would have been better to find a different interviewee to express qualms about restorative justice in sexual assault cases.

Vickie Walton-James, NPR's supervising senior editor for national news, agreed, telling me: "In retrospect, maybe she's not the one we should have used, because she's become a lightning rod. Her inclusion in the story has distracted from the broader issue of restorative justice." She added, "It goes without saying there was no intent to be unfair here," pointing to Smith's "balanced and outstanding body of work on the issue of campus sexual assault." Smith, she said (and I agree), "has been out front on the issue of due process rights of the accused and the fairness of campus proceedings."

One final point: Many critics are still rightly upset that the audio version of the piece does not carry the clarification printed at the bottom of the online story and transcript. By way of explanation, that is standard at NPR: The audio is the version that was broadcast, and in this case the clarification was not read on the air. This raises an old issue about whether and when corrections and clarifications of on-air stories should be read on air, as well as printed online. I believe NPR should read more corrections and clarifications on air.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.