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Reporters and vulnerable sources

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Powerful stories often feature the voices of people with very little power. Listeners sometimes wonder whether the journalists who interview these sources are exploiting them.

In fact, reporters who routinely tell the stories of vulnerable people have skills and techniques they've developed specifically to avoid exploiting their sources. Knowing that this advice was out there, we decided to put it all in one place.

Earlier this week, we published a column about the need for journalists to embrace the additional responsibility that comes with the privilege of interviewing people who take great risks to share their compelling stories.

At the end of the column is a list of best practices that we hope will be useful to journalists, as well as to people who want to know more about the journalistic process.

Read the column here.

We also address a letter from a listener who wants NPR to stop using the word "tape" to describe a digital recording, because there's no such physical object anymore. We talked to a journalism trainer at NPR and a language expert outside of NPR to help us form our response.

Finally, we spotlight a recent NPR investigative story on reports of inhumane conditions in some correctional facilities where Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are held. This story came to light after NPR prevailed over the federal government in a legal battle to release the records.


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.

Should we cut "tape"?

Glenn Hargett wrote on July 14: The Inaccuracy of the Term "tape" today ... The use of the word "tape" is so frustrating to me. Particularly when NPR journalists use it, when they know that they don't have that recording on any form of tape. It has become journalistically incorrect and inaccurate to refer to modern recording, storage, and playback technologies as "tape" whether for audio or video. The demise of audio and video tapes has been well-documented, with their decline starting in the late 1990s. However, despite their obsolescence, the term "tape" continues to be used as a catch-all phrase for various recording media.

For journalists, accuracy in reporting is paramount. Using the word "tape" to describe digital recordings can misrepresent the technology at hand. Employing this outdated terminology risks confusing readers, as it perpetuates an inaccurate perception of the recording and storage processes utilized now.

The replacement should simply be "recording." Digital files, digital recordings, or such would be more descriptive. ...

We found some recent examples of journalists using the word "tape" on NPR:

  • An April headline reads: "Oklahoma county commissioner accused of making violent, racist remarks on tape resigns." The story's first line says that the county commissioner was "caught on a recording," which is linked later in the piece.
  • During a March episode of The NPR Politics Podcast, NPR journalists refer to security footage from the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as "tape" or "tapes."
  • An NPR reporter said during a July newscast that Morgan Wallen's "career faltered in 2021 after he was caught on tape making racist remarks." 
  • It's true that journalists at NPR sometimes use the word "tape" interchangeably with "digital recording." When we hear the word "tape" in these contexts, we generally understand that it refers to a recording that can be heard, seen or both, and played back.

    Does using the term "tape" to refer to a recording that isn't a physical tape confuse or misinform the NPR audience?

    Jerome Socolovsky, NPR's audio journalism trainer on the Training team, doesn't think so.

    "While we don't record on magnetized plastic ribbon anymore, we still use 'tape' to refer to audio we gather and broadcast," he said in an email. "Most of the time we use it internally to talk about some of the things we do as audio journalists, such as 'gathering tape,' 'cutting tape,' 'rolling tape,' 'writing to tape' and so on. And sometimes we use these phrases on air, like when a reporter or host says 'let's listen to this tape.'"

    Socolovsky said that "using metaphors to create images is part of the power of language. We do it all the time — conjuring imaginary objects or techniques and technologies that may be obsolete but still mean something to us. We 'type' words without having to line up little metal blocks in rows. We 'scroll' without touching parchment. We 'cut and paste' without using scissors or glue. If we were to limit ourselves to literal descriptions of these actions, would accuracy require that we talk only about rearranging pixels on a screen?"

    Language evolves, and "maybe someday the word 'tape' won't even work as a metaphor," he said. "But as long as it does, I would argue that it's a good way to reference the sounds and voices we record, even if we're doing it now by manipulating 1s and 0s."

    Jessica Rett, a professor of linguistics at UCLA, said people tend to use words that have been around a long time "because they have the highest likelihood of being understood by the people that we're communicating with."

    Speakers typically want to be efficient. "Tape" is pretty simple to say, and replacing that term with "digital recording" might not be appealing to speakers, Rett said.

    Given a choice of two words, we often go with the shorter of the two, she added.

    Accuracy and precision are important principles for journalists to employ in their language. And we also respect the fluidity of language and its many nuances and contexts.

    In the newscast example we presented earlier, it's relevant that the country music star was apparently caught on video. Specifying the nature of the recording informs the audience more than just saying he was "caught on tape." But a host saying "let's listen to this tape" to introduce listeners to a recording they're about to hear, when it's been clearly established what the recording is and where it came from, seems fair.

    We don't think it's necessary to eliminate the shorthand use of the term "tape," and we don't find it terribly distracting. Like all words, "tape" should be evaluated within the context of its use. — Amaris Castillo


    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.

    Unveiling reports on ICE detention practices

    Newly public inspection reports from more than two dozen correctional facilities across the United States document the conditions endured by some Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees. The reports, produced by experts hired by the U.S. government, describe the treatment at some facilities as "negligent" and "barbaric." NPR investigations correspondent Tom Dreisbach recently covered the story on All Things Considered and in a digital piece. The reports, created from 2017 to 2019, were made public after a hard-fought battle following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by NPR. After two years, a federal judge found that the government had violated the nation's public records law and ordered the release of the documents. On All Things Considered , Dreisbach opens with a narrative about an immigrant from Iran who died in ICE detention after the staff cut off his methadone for opioid use disorder, relied on the wrong withdrawal protocol, and waited hours before calling 911 as he was dying. Dreisbach's reporting told this and several other examples of inhumane treatment, and held the government accountable. — Emily Barske Wood

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

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