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In. Con. Ceivable!

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." — Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Anytime we can quote from The Princess Bride in the name of journalism ethics, we're going to do it. So here we go.

NPR covers a lot of politics. Among the NPR audience are many aficionados of political news. And NPR has a practice of letting politicians pick their own political labels, which bothers political news devotees.

Why is that? Read on to hear a specific complaint from one such audience member about the political label "conservative." We've heard similar complaints about other labels, including "liberal" and especially "moderate," as applied to Sen. Joe Manchin.

At the root of this problem, those words mean different things to different people. That's a sign that the definitions of those words are evolving with the current political environment. Or it's possible that the words are losing their meaning altogether.

We checked in with NPR's chief Washington editor about the reasoning behind NPR's approach. And then we make a recommendation ourselves. TL;DR: See Princess Bride quote above.

After that, we spotlight two recent NPR stories: In the first one, Ayesha Rascoe tells the story of the battle for civil rights in her family's North Carolina hometown. The second story introduces us to a fascinating concept, via William Shatner's trip into space.


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.

Define 'conservative'

Brian White tweeted on Sept. 22: NPR staff routinely use the word "conservative" when describing Republicans and right-wing activists, who don't adhere to tenets of traditional political conservatism. Since we're talking clarity and specificity, how does NPR define a political conservative?

We asked NPR's chief Washington editor Krishnadev Calamur about how he and the Washington Desk define a political conservative. He told us essentially, it's anyone in the Republican Party. "They call themselves conservative, and so they're politically conservative," he said.

If someone says they're conservative, Calamur said his team will describe the person as such: "We use labels that people give themselves."Calamur said he recognizes that many people have different perceptions of political figures and how to label them, whether they are considered conservative, liberal, progressive or moderate. It's different for NPR journalists.

"We're not going to get into a subjective game about monitoring what conservatism is or what liberalism is," he said. "The best guide for us is to go by the label that they're giving themselves, and they all describe themselves in this case as conservative, and so you label them conservative."

We wanted to know how these labels aid audience understanding, which is our focus in the Public Editor's Office. Calamur said: "In the case of political coverage, what I would say is, they are useful. We are using them as a short form for the party they belong to."

NPR's approach in the face of the shifting definition of political labels is a practical one. But the labels of conservative and liberal aren't truly interchangeable with party affiliation, because some Republicans and Democrats still identify as moderate. NPR could avoid frustrating audience members, for whom the labels might convey a different meaning, by just saying Republican and Democrat. — 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.

A North Carolina town's civil rights battle

Weekend Edition Sunday host Ayesha Rascoe brought listeners an important story about the fight for civil rights in Oxford, North Carolina, featuring interviews with her mother and uncle, who lived through the town's desegregation. The 11-minute audio piece, and its accompanying written story, is a profile of everyday people growing up in the civil rights generation. Rascoe leads listeners through her mother and uncle's painful recollections as Black children in the 1960s and 70s, and speaks with Oxford native Ben Chavis, who organized a march and boycott that led to change in the town. — Amaris Castillo

The overview effect

In an All Things Considered interview and a digital story, NPR explored the "overview effect" through the experience of actor William Shatner. The story says the effect, defined by a space philosopher in 1987, is "an emotional or mental reaction strong enough to disrupt that person's previous assumptions about humanity, Earth, and/or the cosmos." Shatner describes the overwhelming emotion he felt after going to space aboard a capsule piloted by Jeff Bezos' company Blue Origin last year. The audio and written stories reflect one of NPR's biggest strengths: using meaningful human experiences to inform its audience about topics they may not otherwise have known or thought about. It's worth the listen and read. — Emily Barske

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
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

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