NPR Ombudsman

Friday Follow-up: Parsing Potential Conflicts Of Interest



I'm still catching up on issues that were raised by listeners in recent weeks while I was traveling. Here's one: a question of whether NPR needs to put a disclosure on each and every story about climate change.

After my recent columns looking at NPR's environmental coverage, I heard from Andrew Kerber, of Kansas City, Mo., who wrote that he "was surprised to see a reference to a familiar name," that of Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news and editorial director at NPR. Kerber went on to point out that Oreskes' sister, Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University, is well known in the world of climate science.

(As The New York Times described her in a June profile with the headline "Naomi Oreskes, a Lightning Rod in a Changing Climate," "Dr. Oreskes is fast becoming one of the biggest names in climate science — not as a climatologist, but as a defender who uses the tools of historical scholarship to counter what she sees as ideologically motivated attacks on the field.")

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Kerber wrote:

"The fact that this clear conflict of interest has never been mentioned in a single NPR story on climate change brings NPR's journalistic integrity into question. Michael Oreskes is clearly in a position to set editorial policy for NPR, and any basic standard of conduct would require the disclosure his relationship to Naomi Oreskes in all stories and articles on climate change."

I asked Oreskes to respond. He said he had recused himself from any coverage involving his sister the day he arrived at NPR, in late April. As to NPR's broader coverage of climate change, he said, "Her views don't have any bearing on decisions I make about coverage of these issues." But he added that he would defer to Mark Memmott, NPR's supervising senior editor for standards and practices, for a ruling on whether every NPR report on climate change should note the family relationship.

Memmott told me by email, "We do not believe it's necessary to say with each report we do about climate change that Mike's sister is Naomi Oreskes." He wrote:

"Her place in the debate and her brother's role at NPR, frankly, have zero influence on our reporting about climate change.

Mike has recused himself from decisions regarding our coverage of the issue if his sister is in any way involved in the stories, as our journalists are expected to do when there are potential conflicts of interest between their personal and professional lives.

What's more, if Mike ever did try to influence our climate change coverage in a way that seemed to be inappropriate – and I do not believe for a minute that he would do that – there would be an uproar in the NPR newsroom and I'm sure word would get out to other news outlets. The journalists here are not shy about raising a ruckus when they think our standards have slipped.

Should we ever consider including Naomi Oreskes in a report, that decision would come from the correspondents and editors working the story. Then, we would note that Mike is her brother while also assuring the audience that he played no part in the reporting or editing of the story."

Finally, to close out this week, a follow-up to an earlier column in which I argued NPR should be much more judicious in how and when correspondents and hosts who write books are featured on NPR air, if at all. At the same time as I was writing my column, Oreskes put in place a new NPR policy, noting:

"NPR has not had a written policy on this issue or even a consistent practice. We will now. NPR's producers and editors will use the same standard they apply to outside books to decide whether works by our own staff merit coverage and on which of our programs and platforms. That decision must be approved by the Senior Vice President for News — that is, me."

I bring this up because this past week, NPR newsmagazines have broadcast a series of profiles of American immigrants, by religion correspondent Tom Gjelten, pegged to his new book, A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story. The book explores the changes in the country ushered in by the 1965 Immigration Act. Its publication comes at a time when, Gjelten notes, immigrants constitute about 14 percent of the U.S. population, "a level not seen since the major immigrant inflows of the early 20th century."

The reports have not felt promotional; far from it, they have added multiple voices to the current debate about immigration and valuable historical perspective to the conversation. Oreskes told me he believes this is the way coverage of staffers' books should be, and I agree.

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