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Mailbag: Strong Opinions On Two Hot Button Issues

This week's email brought a large number of complaints about Emily Harris's Oct. 13 All Things Considered report in which she interviewed the families of two Palestinian teenagers who were accused of attacking Israelis. Many of the emails appeared to have been sparked by this article from the organization HonestReporting, whose mission is "Defending Israel From Media Bias."

Many emailers referenced in particular the interview with Qassam Badran, whose son was accused of stabbing "two Israeli civilians as they walked near Jerusalem's Old City," according to the story. Israeli police later killed the son.

In the interview, Badran (speaking through an interpreter) made a misstatement. As a clarification added to NPR's report notes:

In this report, a Palestinian father is quoted saying his son was angry about a video showing a Palestinian woman who was accused of attacking an Israeli and was killed by Israeli police. In fact, as we reported later in the story, the woman was not killed. She was injured and is in Israeli custody.

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New York listener Yael Schlenger, expressing a sentiment of many, wrote to my office: "I am appalled at the poor journalism and lack of journalistic integrity that Emily Harris shows in this piece. She accepted a completely false narrative that she then actually proves false herself when she does not challenge the fact that the female who was wounded after she stabbed someone did not in fact die."

Editors in the newsroom told me the mistake was not Harris's. Larry Kaplow, NPR's international editor for the Middle East, said the father's misstatement was noticed in advance, during editing. Kaplow said he intended to have a producer remove the misstatement from the report's audio, so there would not be any confusion for listeners, but he forgot to have the voice-over (the English translation from Arabic) corrected. As the clarification notes, Harris was well aware—and reported—that the woman was alive.

A number of emailers also asserted that Badran's son is still alive, accusing Harris of making that mistake as well. In fact, it was another boy who Israeli authorities report is still alive, not Badran's son. There was no mistake on Harris's part.

Many letter writers were also unhappy that NPR interviewed the Palestinian families.

David Shayne, of Seattle, Wash., wrote that the report, and a second unspecified piece by Harris, "only discuss the issue from the Palestinian viewpoint, distorting and obscuring the real nature of what is happening: numerous attacks against Jews because they are Jews and for no other reason. This is skewed, biased, and inaccurate reporting."

Harris's piece was not entirely one-sided; it quoted Israeli officials as blaming Palestinian leaders for encouraging the attacks. Even so, the thrust of this piece was to present the views of Palestinians related to those who had committed violence against Israelis.

Kaplow told me he believes there is value in hearing from all sides in a conflict. "We talk to people throughout the region to try to understand what's driving the events there. We talked to the families in this piece to try to find out where these attackers are coming from and what might be motivating them or other attackers. I don't think the piece glorified them or their actions. We're covering other sides of the conflict as well and will keep working in different voices," he said.

Didrik Schanche, NPR's acting international editor, added that NPR has committed to "accurate, fair and balanced coverage of the Middle East," and tries "to get the perspective of all sides to better understand the motivations of those involved and reflect the challenges of the moment."

To those points, I would add that Wednesday's All Things Considered and this morning's Morning Edition broadcast interviews with, respectively, a rabbi who lives in southern Jerusalem and Israelis who spoke of the fear sparked by the recent attacks.

Also in the email queue this week was a letter from Michael Gorman of Bloomington, Ill., regarding a Tuesday Morning Edition report about water quality and fracking. The report cited a new scientific study, which host Renee Montagne said "eases some" worries about water contamination in wells near fracking sites.

Gorman said the report ignored several important questions. He wrote:

  • I would have liked to hear about the funding of the study, the history of the lead researchers, and/or their initial goals in performing the study. Simply because a study is published in a scientific journal does not make it credible or unbiased, and perhaps the best way to help your listeners interpret the results would be to discuss who is behind the research.
  • I would have liked to hear more about the concerns of environmentalists, who have raised other questions about the safety of fracking in the past - unrelated to the quality of local well water.
  • A friend of mine pointed out that Renee Montagne explained fracking as sending water deep underground, when in fact it's not pure water - it's a mixture of water and potentially dangerous chemicals.

And, he added, "I would have liked to hear a disclosure at the beginning or end of the story that the natural gas industry is a major underwriter of NPR. Perhaps it was decided that such a disclosure was not warranted because no specific companies were mentioned in the reporting, but I would argue that support from industry groups is still relevant to the listener's interpretation of the report."

He concluded: "I understand that there are time constraints, both in airtime and that of the journalist, producers, and the rest of the crew. That said, in large part because of NPR's financial ties to the industry being reported upon, I would have expected more depth beyond the mere fact that a study has been released. I value the rigor that NPR puts into its reporting and I hope my concerns about this story help shape the discussion that goes into future stories on this topic."

Dan Charles, NPR's food and agriculture correspondent, was on duty for the Science Desk over the Monday holiday and reported the piece, which was allotted a very short one minute and 50 seconds.

Charles told me by email: "I mentioned in the story that the lead author teaches chemical and environmental engineering at Yale. Their funding, which is mentioned in the paper, came from Duke University and from the National Science Foundation. They declared no conflicts of interest. I didn't feel it was necessary to include any of that, mainly just because I wanted to use the time for the substance of the research."

On the matter of including critics of fracking, he wrote that he considered it. However, he said, "I decided not to, but tried to be careful not to present this as a refutation of all concerns about fracking. It was simply an observation from 64 wells in one area of Pennsylvania. And I also stated, right at the top of the piece, there have been cases in which contamination has turned up in drinking water, and that this has raised fears that it might be widespread. (A previous NPR story reported on the EPA's conclusion that these problems are uncommon.) This observation suggests that it may not be widespread, and also provides evidence that in these cases, at least, what contamination was found came from the surface, rather than from underground."

Regarding host Montagne's reference to "water" Charles wrote, "Fair enough. I wrote that sentence, and should have written "water and other chemicals." As for the underwriting disclosure, he said, "That's above my pay grade. I don't know the current status of the natural gas industry's funding of NPR. I have to admit, it didn't occur to me when deciding whether to propose the story."

My take? Charles did his due diligence in checking for issues such as potential conflicts of interest for the researchers. While more information would have rounded out the report, not every story can run at the length that would have been needed to include all of the information Gorman would have liked. I've written before about natural gas underwriting of NPR, and in my opinion a disclosure wasn't needed here; as Charles notes, NPR's newsroom staff is not kept advised of the current list of sponsors.

As always, this column is meant to give a public airing to some listener concerns and help shed light on how NPR's newsroom works. My opinions are my own, not NPR's, and I keep track of all listener concerns for the newsroom, whether I agree with them or not.

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