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The power of local reporting

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

One of NPR's strengths is the broad network of member stations that are reporting stories from across the country. Local reporters know their communities and often tell stories with more nuance and accuracy than national reporters who phone or drop in from outside.

NPR makes a concerted effort to highlight stories from member stations on its website and social media channels, as a way of directing more people to local stations.

Today we respond to a letter that demonstrates why local reporting is beneficial to NPR's national audience, as well as to the journalistic values of context and accuracy. This is about a source from a member station's story that should have been shared with a national audience, but instead was overlooked and ultimately overshadowed by NPR's version of the story.

The letter comes from an NPR member station reporter, who reported a story from Oregon about a mountain being renamed. A week later an NPR reporter did the same story. But the sourcing wasn't as strong. Read on to see what happened and why.

We also spotlight an NPR story about why some states are opting out of a national system that helps preserve election integrity.

FROM THE INBOX

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.

A missing voice

Brian Bull wrote on May 9: I'm a reporter with NPR affiliate KLCC in Eugene, Oregon. I'm also a Native American journalist enrolled with the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, and a member of the Native American Journalists Association. I'm writing to share my disappointment with the NPR story, "Swastika Mountain is Renamed Mount Halo in Honor of a Historical Tribal Leader." ... I feel NPR's coverage lacks a vital perspective, and it's disappointing to see a central figure such as David G. Lewis left out given his commitment to the place name changes. Native people are still here, and still very much active on the public stage to address issues as they pertain to our heritage, culture, and identity.

This story, on the renaming of a remote peak in Oregon from Swastika Mountain to Mount Halo, deserved better sourcing, specifically, the voice of David G. Lewis, who played a crucial role in the renaming and is a key stakeholder.

Lewis, an Oregon State University assistant professor in anthropology and ethnic studies and a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, should have been easy for a reporter to find. Lewis suggested the name Mount Halo in reference to Chief Halito, often shortened to Chief Halo, leader of the Yoncalla Kalapuya tribe. In 2022, Lewis submitted documents with the Oregon Geographic Names Board outlining his new name proposal.

The Oregon Geographic Names Board approved the new name in December, and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved it in April, as stated in the NPR story. The NPR story even provided a link to an entry about Chief Halito in the Oregon Historical Society's encyclopedia that was written by Lewis.

And, Lewis was a source in Brian Bull's one-minute story for KLCC about the renaming that was published May 1, a week before the NPR story was published online. KLCC is the NPR member station based in Eugene, Oregon. So why wasn't Lewis a source for the NPR story? Or, why didn't NPR elevate KLCC's story rather than doing an additional piece?

NPR supervising editor Fernando Alfonso III told me that the reporter, Dustin Jones, had written about the same topic in August 2022, when the Oregon Geographic Names Board first considered a request to change the name.

"At that time, there was a mandate for our team," Alfonso said of the digital news hub, "to be producing a steady stream of content."

To do that, journalists on that team would scour the internet for trending stories that might interest the NPR audience. Rather than simply aggregating the story — writing a summary and publishing a link — NPR instructs its digital reporters to interview sources and strive for original reporting.

Back in August, Jones' story featured two interviewed sources. The first source was a woman who proposed the name be changed to Umpqua Mountain but, as that story reported, had withdrawn her proposal in favor of Mount Halo. The second source was an official with the Oregon Historical Society. Alfonso said that Jones contacted the offices of several Native tribes in the area but he never heard back.

If Jones "ever did hear back from any of those tribes, we clearly would have added in their perspective," he said.

Alfonso said that NPR's web team recently adjusted its strategy, encouraging the promotion of locally produced content over a story created by NPR staff. And Jones has since moved on to another team. But when the name change was finally approved, one of his sources emailed him and he wrote the follow-up story.

"In retrospect, it would have been appropriate to highlight" the KLCC story, Alfonso said.

As a national media outlet, NPR's audience is much larger than KLCC's. As a result, the NPR version of the story, without Lewis' voice, overshadowed the KLCC story and denied Lewis the credit.

If NPR had known about Bull's story, someone from the Digital Desk could have reached out to KLCC and asked Bull to write a full story. Bull said he happily would have done so. Short of that, the NPR reporter had a responsibility to interview the best source for this story, and that was Lewis.

Ultimately, this is an object lesson in the strength of NPR's network of member stations, which cover news across most of the country, including in communities where there are few journalists. As local reporting resources continue to shrink, the value of local public radio journalism increases.

NPR aspires to more fully integrate stories reported by local stations into the menu of news it distributes. Doing so enhances the value of NPR to the national audience and drives traffic and potential members to the local stations.

Local reporters often tell stories from their own communities with more nuance and accuracy. Getting those stories to a wider audience is worth the effort, especially when it overlaps with other NPR values, like representing diverse voices and recognizing the appropriate sources in NPR storytelling. — Kelly McBride

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

The anti-ERIC campaign

The election tool known as the Electronic Registration Information Center — ERIC — allows states to share information about their voters and flag if someone votes in more than one state for the same election. NPR produced a story, reported by voting correspondent Miles Parks, that uncovered how some far-right Republicans have led their states to abandon this tool, and detailed their anti-ERIC campaign. NPR's investigations team analyzed hundreds of thousands of social media posts by election deniers and found that the obsession with the program began on a far-right website called the Gateway Pundit. With this investigation, NPR has produced an important story that helps its audience become more vigilant about the threat to election integrity. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman 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
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.