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Covering Controversial People, Stories Can Create Audience Backlash

Aug 17, 2018

NPR recently received a firestorm of criticism for the way it handled an interview with the leader of a recent Unite the Right rally in Washington D.C. And it’s raising questions about how and why newsrooms make decisions about covering controversial sources.

In this case, Morning Edition spent almost seven minutes interviewing Jason Kessler, who says he isn't a white supremacist - but instead speaks for what he calls an under-represented "Caucasian demographic."

“There's such a stigma around it, where white people can do the exact same thing that another group of people do and it's called supremacy, and then if another group does it, it's called civil rights,” Kessler told NPR.

While NPR host Noel King was tough on Kessler and fact-checked him throughout the interview, some listeners blasted the network for giving any time to Kessler and his ideas. Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said timing is just one reason the reaction was so strong.

“It seems like we’re in a really polarized climate right now. Everybody is looking for something on one side or the other to jump on and attack, sometimes without facts. But often, fueled by emotion,” she said. “Especially leading up to the anniversary of what happened last year in Charlottesville. I think people had really heightened emotions.”

This backlash is similar to what The New York Times heard when it published a profile story on a white nationalist. Readers said the story ‘normalized’ someone who espoused extreme, discriminatory ideas about race and religion.

Truong said despite that, journalists still have an obligation to report on all sides of stories.

“There is a need among media to cover all the kinds of people around us,” she said. “And different people are going to have different viewpoints.”

In a polarized time like this, journalists should be diligent in the need to fact check sources during interviews, as well as paying attention to the issues that require a lot of context or nuance, Truong said. Also, they should know that the audience may not see or hear other stories designed to balance out a controversial topic.

For example, on the day NPR interviewed Kessler, it also included a discussion with a leader of Black Lives Matter. Truong said a lot of people may have missed hearing that segment at all – distorting the perception of what NPR intended.

It’s also important that newsrooms look at who is involved in making decisions about controversial stories, such as ones about race. NPR did do that, Truong said, as several of the people involved in that show are people of color.

“It’s really important to have different perspectives within the decision making lines of a newsroom,” she said. “Because if you just have a certain viewpoint and everybody else around you is the same, then either they all are going to agree with you or all disagree with you based on what you think is important.”