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How a listener’s complaint improved NPR’s reporting

Dan Charles, NPR Agriculture Reporter

Dan Charles, NPR Agriculture Reporter

National Public Radio’s Dan Charles taught journalists two lessons Monday morning. One lesson is that simple solutions to complex problems usually don’t work. The other lesson is when your public takes the time to contact you about your reporting, and you take the comments seriously, you may just find an even better story.

Charles is NPR’s agriculture reporter and on Jan. 12, he reported a story about the problem of nitrates that run off of farm fields into Iowa’s waterways.

Charles is a careful reporter, he has studied science, technology and international affairs. He has written about fertilizer use in China and has a degree in business in international affairs.

In his story he reported;

“Farmers spread nitrogen fertilizer on their corn fields, it turns into nitrate and then it commonly runs into streams through networks of underground tile pipes that drain the soil.”

Sarah Carlson,  Practical Farmers of Iowa

Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers of Iowa

But a listener, Sarah Carlson, heard Charles’ story on the radio as she was driving to work and, she said, she hoped her beloved NPR would not fall into the same old storyline that is so often accepted not just as fact, but truth.

While it is a fact, as Charles reported, that farmers spread fertilizer on their fields and some of that nitrogen-based fertilizer produces nitrates that leak into waterways, that is only part of the issue. Carlson and her group Practical Farmers of Iowa, say the biggest issue may be that just using less fertilizer won’t solve the nitrogen runoff problems. A bigger issue, she says, is that farmers don’t farm their fields year-round. Decades ago, she says farmers planted corn which grew from May to October. Then they planted a winter crop including wheat or rye or oats. But now because of market pressures, specialized elevators and other complexities, farmers often don’t plant a winter crop, they plant corn or soybeans and the field is bare in the winter. And that’s an invitation for nitrogen runoff.

See, when farmers fertilize fields and plant crops, the crops suck up that nitrogen. There is not much runoff when the nitrogen is being sucked up by the plants. The real problem comes when the fields are bare, between crops. The nitrogen that once was consumed by winter crops can run off in late winter thaws. Carlson and her group urge farmers to do what they used to do a couple of decades ago, plant winter “cover” crops that would consume the soil nitrogen and prevent runoff.

Carlson fired off a detailed email to Charles.  Filled with frustration, she loaded several paragraphs of her email with links and citations. Before I tell you what Charles did in response, take a moment to think about what you would do if you opened such an email. Would your response be “great, a loving listener wants to discuss my story. I am pleased the public cares enough to write.” Or would it be more like “Great, a know-it-all listener wants to challenge my story. I hope I didn’t screw something up.”

“I know her group and respect their work, so I took it seriously,” Charles told me by email. (He responded to my questions while logged in from an airplane.) Charles said the sentence that Sarah objected to was the shorthanded way he explained where nitrates come from, “(I) felt like it was a detail that just couldn’t fit into that first story.”

But he said, the more he thought about it, the more he saw the email as an opportunity to go deeper on how “crop systems” work, something beyond conventional one-liner wisdom that doesn’t fully explain why waterways are so polluted with nitrates. NPR’s response to that e-mail complaint was more than their listener expected.

“What I wanted was some kind of follow-up,” Carlson said in a phone interview. “If not a follow-up, at least I hoped maybe he would change his words in the future.”

Charles did more than that. Carlson said Charles called and said “I want to do the story on you and how you nudged me.” His second story did just that. Charles reported on Morning Edition that he knew his listener was right, that the nitrogen runoff story was not as simple as most journalists report and that Carlson has a point worth considering.

“It is good that he did that,” Carlson said. “I was really happy with the follow-up story. I thought he nailed it. He explained it correctly and brought to light what the potential solution is to this problem.”

Why this is a good response

How many times do viewer/listener/reader complaints like Carlson’s go nowhere? There are a lot of reasons it happens. It takes a lot of effort to explore the complaints, contact the writer, sometimes even debate their points a bit. Some readers are flat out unreasonable and wrong. It would be tempting to tell the listener to comment on the website where NPR posted the story or comment on a Facebook page.

But Charles saw this as a way to get an agriculture story back in front of the public. The USDA says agriculture and ag-related industries contribute $775 billion to the American economy, about 5% of GDP. It is a worthy beat for which there could be a lot of interest if the public believes we are listening. When mainstream journalists report about agriculture, they are reporting about a topic that is related to about one in ten American jobs.

I wonder how often viewer/reader/listener complaints go unanswered because journalists are not secure enough to admit they may not know everything and that the public can be pretty darn smart. Charles’ follow-up story was not a correction or clarification. His first story was accurate. His follow-up story added complexity and detail, pointing out there is a difference between accuracy and truth. The difference is context.

Carlson told me that when journalists acknowledge the public’s concerns, it builds confidence. And then she said something that all journalists could learn from: “This is why I donate to and respect NPR so much. He listened.”

 

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from Poynter. http://ift.tt/1Akrqox

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