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Between idea and execution

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

News stories sometimes take a winding path from the point they are conceived to the point they are delivered to an audience. It's one of the most magical parts of journalism. This journey is the place where reporters ask wonderful questions that lead to incredible discoveries. It's also the place where mistakes are sometimes made.

The journey between story idea and story execution emerged today as a theme in our responses to audience critiques of completely unrelated NPR stories. In both cases, the journalists started with one story in mind and ended up with a different story.

On Memorial Day, Morning Edition ran a story from the Business Desk about the baby formula shortage. The story was attempting to explore why there needs to be more support for breastfeeding in the U.S. Asking that question left some readers and listeners feeling like NPR was judging parents or missing the bigger picture.

Chief Economics Correspondent Scott Horsley was gracious and candid with us as he discussed where the story started, how it changed course, and what he would do differently if he had another shot at it. We have some suggestions of our own, as well.

We also address another question posed on Twitter.

A reader felt two NPR stories that were categorized under the topic of "race" weren't really about race, and wondered why they were labeled as such. We looked into how and why NPR sorts stories into categories and whether these stories were in the right category.

Ultimately, NPR changed the category for one of those stories. An editor told us the story he originally envisioned never materialized.

Read on to see a fuller explanation of how stories start out as one thing but become something else, and what the consequences are when they retain language that no longer fits the new narrative. Also, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, we talk to NPR's chief international editor about how NPR marshals the resources to get reporters into and out of the country.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

The economics of breastfeeding

Many people criticized a Morning Edition storythat set out to examine the relationship between the baby formula market and the barriers to breastfeeding. Critics took issue with the story's framing, and a quote from a source: "The breast is the shortest supply chain."

@Barb_sl tweeted on May 30: This wouldn't have been the quote I'd've gone w/when you could've focused on poor support including lack of paid leave, but the article overlooks health-related difficulties that prevent nursing or make it untenable for many families. Ask a few ppl who have tried it.

@notsoencrypted tweeted on May 30: "Often overlooked, though, in the race to fill the gap left when a big formula factory closed due to suspected contamination is the most natural alternative: mother's milk." NO. It's not overlooked. Not all parents can produce enough milk, and some can't at all. (Think adoption)

@ArlRK tweeted on May 30: Approx 18 paragraphs in before there's even a passing mention of the lack of paid maternity leave. This piece is ridiculous.

@MarshaRobie tweeted on May 30: @npr the lede should be the lack of paid maternity leave and job protection. As written, your story makes it sound [like] women are just being duped by industry marketing. That's incredibly insulting. And - some babies can't nurse! So frustrated by this article.

In his Morning Edition story, NPR Chief Economics Correspondent Scott Horsley said he tried to explore institutional barriers to breastfeeding and larger issues at play around the $55 billion formula industry.

Horsley became interested in the underappreciated economics of breastfeeding after reading a column by economist Kadee Russ, who ultimately became a source in his story.

"What I was really trying to write about was the social failures, and I think what came across to some listeners or readers was that I was adding to the stigma that some moms feel about breastfeeding," Horsley said. "That wasn't my goal. But I get that and, when there's this much feedback along those lines, you have to think, 'OK, what did I leave out? What could I have done differently that might have made that stronger?'"

Horsley said he was aware of a lot of emotions and judgment around breastfeeding.

Several critics argued that the story did not spend much time on the many obstacles nursing mothers face. As a reader pointed out, it took many paragraphs in the digital story before "too little paid family leave" is noted. It's not until almost 2 minutes into the 4-minute audio version of Horsley's story that listeners hear a short list of the reasons families turn to supplemental formula or stop nursing altogether. More than another minute goes by before paid family leave is mentioned. Audience members felt these points, along with the fact that not all parents can breastfeed, nor do all parents want to, should have been the main focus, rather than brief references.

"I think some people heard those acknowledgments of barriers as just so much hand-waving like, 'Yeah, you nodded to the fact that this is hard. But that's all you did, was nod at it.' And for me, that was the central part of the story," he said. "For me, that's what the story is about: these are the barriers, these are the big obstacles, and these are things that as a society we could address, if we chose to do so."

If he could go back, Horsley told us he might flip the structure, starting with the economist, Russ, talking about how much work it is to nurse a baby and how little support moms get.

Other audience members took exception to the phrase, "Often overlooked though ... is the most natural solution, mother's milk."

We asked Horsley who is overlooking breastfeeding.

"Certainly not parents," he said. Instead, he said, he meant policymakers. In addition to discussing the regulations around the production of baby formula, "maybe this is a good time for us to have a conversation about family leave or providing more support to moms in the workplace or offering more instruction to the medical industry," he said.

We think Horsley could have mitigated some of the story's shortcomings if we heard directly from parents who are currently nursing or who have recently decided to use formula, and if we heard from them early.

Horsley said he tried to connect with moms by reaching out to a couple of lactation consultants in D.C., both at Howard University Hospital and in Anacostia. On Thursday, May 26, Morning Edition said they wanted his story for the coming Monday morning. "And so we just realized there really wasn't going to be time to get those voices in there," he said. He didn't hear back from one place and heard back from the other, but said he didn't pursue either because of time constraints.

The baby formula shortage has exposed many of the barely hidden flaws at the intersection of government policies, business practices and family survival. Horsley reported an update on baby formula distribution this week for All Things Considered. Hopefully more NPR stories will elevate the experiences of families making tough choices for their children. — Amaris Castillo and Kelly McBride

Labeling stories with the 'race' category

Sway Steward tweeted on May 3: Yet again, NPR uses the "Race" category for a story that doesn't at all focus on race. This category was also used for a story about Jada Pinkett Smith. Can you help me understand how these decisions are made? The tweet features screenshots of two NPR stories, one about Jada Pinkett Smith's Instagram message after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars and another about New York City Mayor Eric Adams sparking criticism with his Met Gala outfit calling for an end to gun violence.

The story about actress Jada Pinkett Smith focused on her calling for healing after her husband, Will Smith, smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars over a joke Rock had made about Pinkett Smith's hair. The text specifically references Black hair and Black women.

"It's tagged under race because the issue deals specifically with Black hair," said National Desk Reporter Alana Wise, who wrote the story, in an email. "With the understanding of the history of Black women and Black hair in America, there is a certain relevance to the fact that this was someone poking fun of JPS's hair in such a public, historically white forum."

The other story was about criticism of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who wore a jacket at the Met Gala that called for an end to gun violence. Fernando Alfonso III, a supervising editor, said he assigned this story, and envisioned it to be a substantive piece on policing people of color in New York City and the problems the NYPD has had in the past. He was not the direct editor on this story and said it's unclear who chose the race category during the editing process.

"In the end, it was more of a quick hit on this fashion choice," Alfonso said. "We included a brief mention of some data on policing in New York City, but in the end the category that was certainly more appropriate was just a 'national' category and not a 'race' category."

The morning after the story was published, Alfonso was made aware of Twitter criticism about its "race" category designation. The category was changed and a correction was issued.

"I'm a person of color. I understand how a 'race' category on that story that was produced could be perceived by other people of color, so I'm very sensitive to that and I respect that someone pointed it out," Alfonso said. "But in the end, there wasn't anything nefarious by any means. It was just a simple, in all honesty, mistake."

NPR Director of Digital News Saeed Ahmed told me that reporters and editors are encouraged to pick the right categories because it communicates key information about the story to the rest of the newsroom and the audience. After the Buffalo mass shooting, Ahmed said that some people used the "race" category, while others used the "national" category in NPR stories about it, and that both labels were appropriate because it was a racist attack.

"We want to be able to assess internally, 'Are we covering a broad range of topics?'" he said. "If we don't have the right categories in place for record-keeping purposes, ... then we won't know the answer because it's coming from all over the network." — Amaris Castillo


We ask NPR one question about how the work comes together.

How does NPR devote resources to covering an international crisis?

NPR's coverageof Russia's invasion of Ukraine from on-the-ground reporters and U.S.-based reporters has included live updates, human interest stories and other presentations.

We wondered, what goes into covering international conflicts, and how are decisions made about the resources devoted to them? We asked NPR's Chief International Editor Didi Schanche to find out more.

NPR had reporters on the ground in Ukraine before Feb. 24, when Russia invaded. They were there to cover how the hundreds of thousands of Russian troops assembled along the border were affecting the country.

NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent Tim Mak was in Kyiv, Paris Correspondent Eleanor Beardsley was in Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, and London Correspondent Frank Langfitt was in the port city Odesa, Schanche noted.

"Since shortly after the invasion, we have maintained four correspondents on the ground to cover the conflict in Ukraine," she said in an email. "Shows also have sent a series of host teams to report on the situation in Ukraine, Poland and Georgia." (Many refugees have fled to Poland and Russian troops are also stationed in the country of Georgia.)

She added that many of the news teams have been a part of the reporting and editing for coverage of Ukraine and Russia.

"It's been a total team effort. NPR has provided extraordinary support for coverage of the conflict and its far-reaching impacts," Schanche wrote.

Determining how to cover international conflict or crisis comes down to a number of factors: staff availability, the logistics of getting to the place where the news is happening for firsthand reporting of the events, travel documents, local support on the ground and security concerns or needs.

Schanche said certain circumstances require a significant level of commitment. She gave a few examples:

  • Cataclysmic events (such as natural disasters) that cause tremendous destruction and death
  • Health catastrophes like COVID-19 or Ebola
  • Events, such as war, affecting the lives of millions of people through displacement, death or injury
  • Events that influence the global financial order as well as the world order
  • Events that have a far-reaching impact on food and fuel supplies
  • "What the audience probably isn't aware of is the challenges for the teams on the ground," Schanche said. "There are fuel shortages; train lines have been attacked; air raid sirens warning of incoming missiles can mean repeatedly having to move into a bomb shelter."

    "When the conflict began, flights into and out of Ukraine were halted," she continued. "So getting into the country involves flying to a neighboring country and either driving in or driving to the border, walking across, and getting picked up on the other side. The length of the trip has varied with the number of people either fleeing the conflict or perhaps deciding to return to their country. Early in the coverage, waits at the border could be days long. At this point, it's down to a couple of hours."

    The International Desk works with NPR's Director of Field Security Caroline Drees to mitigate risk, Schanche said. This includes personal protective equipment and security advisers.

    "Everyone on the team, including drivers, local Ukrainian journalists and the security advisers, gets the same level of protection," she said. — Emily Barske

    The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall and reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

    Kelly McBride
    NPR Public Editor
    Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

    Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.