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NPR Public Editor

NPR's powerful student loan investigation

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Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

One way of analyzing a news organization is to look at its impact. How many times a year does the newsroom produce a story that changes the course of events? These tend to be the stories that require the most reporting and the most expertise.

NPR's recent investigation into a federal student loan forgiveness program that was not forgiving many loans fits the bill. NPR Education Correspondent Cory Turner has built up a wealth of expertise on the bureaucracy behind federally guaranteed college loans. Today we take a look at his latest series of stories, which exposed a rash of bureaucratic failures that left low-income borrowers stuck with debt that should have been forgiven. As a result of his work, the U.S. Department of Education has vowed to fix things, including retroactively reviewing thousands of loans.

This is journalism at its best, advocating for the powerless and holding the powerful accountable. Today's One Question is a look at how Turner pulled off this incredible feat. Journalism ethics is really about constantly serving the public's interest. These stories demonstrate what happens when a skilled reporter digs up hard-to-get information and then makes us care by showing us the humans hurt along the way.

Today we also answer two audience inquiries. The first is a follow-up on some research we did a few weeks back about NPR's policies and philosophy around using metric measurements (only when absolutely necessary). In the second item, a Twitter user wanted to know why NPR's main account was following a profile that advocates for arming Ukraine. After all, that little circular badge that says "followed by NPR" confers legitimacy to other users.

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As we pursued these answers, we were struck by the gap between the logical assumptions smart consumers make and the nuance of the answers we find. NPR is a large organization where individuals have a lot of autonomy. When we dig into questions about how the social accounts work or how the style guide is changed, the answer is always: It's complicated.

FROM THE INBOX

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.

The metric system continued

Henry Knoepfle wrote on April 4: Thank you very much for responding to my query (perhaps written with a twinkle in the eye and a touch of hyperbole in the hope that it would catch someone's attention) about the NPR Style guide's directions on metric units. I believe I had two additional questions which I am actually more interested in learning about:

Are NPR Style Guides from years past available online? ...

Second question: What is the process NPR uses to determine if a style guide update is warranted?

Brin Winterbottom, an archivist on NPR's Research, Archives & Data Strategy team, told me that previous style guides are not readily available. However, through a broad search, she found that metric measurements were apparently used in stories from the '70s, '80s and '90s where scientists or speakers at news conferences used metric figures, in sports reporting and in coverage of the potential U.S. adoption of the metric system.

Julie Rogers, a historian on the team, told me about a couple of examples of reporting on the potential change to the metric system. In 1971, NPR broadcast commentary about the National Bureau of Standards report "A Metric America: A decision whose time has come." And in 1976, NPR distributed a 14-part series to member stations called "Make It Metric" with instructional episodes.

It seems NPR stuck to using units most listeners would understand while also covering the potential U.S. conversion to the metric system.

As for determining style guide revisions, NPR's style guides are updated as events warrant and as usage and language evolve. — Emily Barske

Who are you following (and why)?

@MTaterSalad tweeted on April 15: Think NPR should be following accounts like this [@ArmUkraineNow]?

I spoke with Emily Barocas, NPR's deputy director of digital platforms and curation, about why NPR has been following @ArmUkraineNow on Twitter. She told me her guess is that someone on her team accidentally followed the account from NPR's official Twitter profile instead of their own personal account.

"I don't think this was a purposeful, or deliberate, or meaningful follow from the NPR account," Barocas said. "At this point, we don't do a lot of following of other accounts from the NPR account."

Barocas said this follow may have slipped through the cracks.

"We're very conscious of the idea that following an account could give our audience the impression of either trusting or supporting, or favoring another account — and that's not our intention," she said. "That's not what we think our role should be as a news outlet."

Barocas said that she imagined the value of the main NPR profile following any account on Twitter is simply to keep tabs on what that account is posting, but reiterated that NPR generally avoids following other accounts now. She said NPR no longer follows @ArmUkraineNow.

She noted that there isn't much meaning to derive from NPR following the account. "It doesn't reflect any sort of policy or regular practice that NPR's social media team engages in," she said. — Amaris Castillo

ONE QUESTION

We ask NPR one question about how the work comes together.

What did it take to report NPR's student loan investigation?

An NPR investigation found that a federal program meant to be the safety net for low-income student loan borrowers, ensuring eventual debt cancellation, was not fulfilling its purpose.

Since NPR Education Correspondent Cory Turner's work was published online and aired on Morning Edition at the beginning of April, the government has called for its own probe, and U.S. Department of Education officials have said they would retroactively help millions of federal student loan borrowers affected by the mismanagement.

Turner's investigation focused on the failures of income-driven repayment plans. He said looking deeper into these plans had long been on his radar because sources he spoke with continued to bring it up.

"I decided to spend a few months cultivating more sources, knowing that I needed to get a little deeper into the weeds to understand what was happening," Turner said. "That meant finding people with all sorts of experiences with the program and people who understand the program."

This entailed extensive reporting to confirm his understanding of the information so it could be reported accurately. Building rapport with sources is often key to investigative journalism. Even though public records can be requested, officials can still deny requests or make obtaining them difficult.

While advocates have long raised issues with income-driven repayment plans, Turner's reporting showed multiple challenges with the federal program. "I think that's what's been so demoralizing for so many borrowers is it's not one thing," he said.

One internal Department of Education document from 2016 provided to him was critical in corroborating his reporting because it reviewed loan providers' compliance with income-driven repayment.

"That compliance review highlighted a whole bunch of problems. And the great thing about a document like that for a journalist — it is the agency I cover, internally written by the people who understand these programs best, looking at all of the data at their disposal and arriving at a handful of alarming conclusions," Turner said. For a journalist, "this is the gold standard document."

His reporting took the better part of five months and hit several roadblocks. Turner said he was driven because the "premise of the program itself was meant, in large part, to help low-income borrowers access college," and if the system wasn't keeping its promises to the most vulnerable borrowers, "then it's a bear trap."

The Department of Education disclosed initial plans to address some of the issues pointed out by Turner's reporting, and said it would do internal reviews. Retroactive help will be very complex, though, and Turner intends to continue reporting on the issue.

"As a reporter, you always hope that if you're doing a bad-news story, that the people in power are going to pay attention and do something about it," he said. — Emily Barske

SPOTLIGHT ON

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 Wuhanese American artist

NPR's Goats and Soda gave readers a fascinating Q&A that offered a glimpse into the work of illustrator and writer Laura Gao, who has a new graphic memoir about coming of age as a queer Wuhanese American. A few months into the pandemic, Gao's comic, called "The Wuhan I Know," went viral, which led to the opportunity to expand it into this book. Gao spoke with Malaka Gharib, Goats and Soda 's deputy editor and digital strategist, about immigrating from Wuhan to the United States and growing up while struggling with identity. This interview — with pages from the book — leaves you with a greater understanding and appreciation of someone else's life experiences, and the art that can come from them. — Amaris Castillo

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

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