Ombudsman Mailbag: Correcting That 'Right-To-Work' Story

 (iStockPhoto)
(iStockPhoto)

One follow-up and some concerns about language to end this week.

First, the follow-up.

NPR's Morning Edition on Friday aired a conversation between Steve Inskeep and David Wessel, a former economics writer for The Wall Street Journal and now director of the Hutchins Center at the Brookings Institution. It was a much-needed corrective to a March 18 report about efforts in Kentucky to pass local "right-to-work" laws.

As discussed in a previous Ombudsman column, that original report included an un-sourced and one-sided assertion by the reporter, Lisa Autry, that income and job growth have increased more quickly in right-to-work states. The statistics she relied on turned out to have come from, among others, a think tank that proclaims itself opposed to "compulsory unionism."

Wessel, in the follow-up conversation, took a more nuanced look at both government data and the limited amount of impartial scholarship on the issue. His conclusion: "It's really, really hard - maybe even impossible - to single out the effects of this just one law."

Listeners to the original report should also look at the lengthy Editor's Note that has been appended to it, correcting and clarifying other points.


Listeners this week also objected to the language used in two reports, both of which aired on All Things Considered.

Two listeners, both NPR staffers, expressed concerns about a passage in a March 24 report from Cuba by host Robert Siegel about how improving diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba might affect baseball players in both countries.

In one part of the radio piece, Siegel said:

"Before the revolution, Cubans used to play in the U.S. big leagues. Black Cubans used to play in the Negro Leagues. Americans used to play in the Cuban leagues."

NPR reporter Sam Sanders wrote that "using the word 'black' to describe Cubans playing in the Negro leagues and not using an analogous descriptor to define the Cubans that played in the [white] 'U.S. big leagues' either implies that the default for Cubans is white or something similar - or that Black Cubans are in some way not the norm. Not having any descriptor in front of Cubans that played in the major, white American leagues seems to say that they are the real Cubans, and the Black Cubans - they're just something else."

In the online version of the story, the first line of the passage has been amended to read: "Before the revolution, white Cubans used to play in the U.S. big leagues." An "update" posted on March 25 described this change. The radio piece, and the transcript have not been changed.

Siegel wrote to me: "I intended no diminution of Afro-Cubans and regret that some people heard it that way."

Finally, some listeners were disappointed in the language used by Rob Stein on March 25 while discussing Angelina Jolie Pitts' decision to electively have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed in order to reduce her risk of ovarian cancer.

Jennifer Danvers in Pittsburgh, Pa. was one listener who wrote to say, "Mr. Stein twice used language that is considered not only insensitive, but incorrect, to many parents. First, he talked about how a woman who had decided to undergo this procedure would not be able to have children 'naturally'. In fact, what it would prevent is a woman's ability to conceive conventionally. Second, Mr. Stein stated that through IVF [in vitro fertilization], a woman might still have children of 'her own'. What she might do is physically carry a child or have a biological child. Words like 'natural' or 'one's own child' seem to suggest that adoption is unnatural, and that our children are not our own. We are very sensitive to this language, and ask that you educate yourself when presenting stories about reproductive issues."

Language, even the smallest of words, matters.

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