Navigating Newscasts at NPR

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"Live from NPR News..." it's the NPR newscast, the short broadcast of news reports on local NPR member stations, starring some of NPR's most recognized names, including Korva Coleman, Lakshmi Singh and friends.

The attention tends to go to NPR's flagship newsmagazines, but NPR's newscasts are in fact the most-listened-to programming in public broadcasting, reaching more than 28.8 million listeners every week. That's more than the combined weekly cumulative listenership of Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and that is only on the radio. Many more listen through NPR.org or via the NPR One app, where the newscast is the first item to play when the audio feed starts. The newscasts have also recently expanded their audience by broadcasting a few videos every day during the week on Facebook Live.

The newscasts work differently from NPR's newsmagazines. They also generate lots of questions to the Ombudsman office, so we thought an explanation of how they work was in order.

The newscasts team is the only broadcast unit at NPR that works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. At least three of the team's 27 full-time employees (along with a number of temporary workers) are always on duty in the newsroom, preparing newscasts at least every hour.

Janet Eisen, of Santa Rosa, Calif., wrote in to ask, "Do the news readers make up their own script?" Yes, the anchors write their own scripts and read them on the air, and they also engineer the broadcast by themselves (meaning they don't have someone in the recording booth pressing buttons for them or managing their volume levels). Other than the anchor, the roles of the newscast team include a producer, an editor and an associate producer. The producer is the leader of the shift and mostly decides what stories will run during the newscast, the editor fact-checks and edits the scripts and correspondent reports that will be read on air, and the associate producer edits the audio that will be played during the broadcast.

There are 44 newscasts every day during the work week, and 24 on the weekend. The newscasts always run on the hour for five minutes; they also run at 19 and 42 minutes after the hour during Morning Edition for 1 ½ minutes each, and on the half hour during All Things Considered for 3 ½ minutes. The vast majority of NPR's member stations — roughly 780 of them — subscribe to the newscasts, but listeners may only hear the newscasts at the top of the hour depending on their member station. Member stations may also cut into the newscasts after three minutes during the broadcast at the top of the hour in order to make time for local news.

The newscasts primarily cover breaking news and the big news items of the day, and leave the features, trend stories and long interviews to the newsmagazines. Robert Garcia, the executive producer of the newscasts, explained by email the philosophy of choosing stories:

"The decisions our producers make when blocking a newscast are generally based on two main factors: relevancy to the lives of our listeners and immediacy. A story that has just occurred may not have legs as a lead story beyond the first newscast on which it gets mentioned. Other major stories may dominate as leads for hours if not days, such as a terrorist attack or severe weather. Sometimes a consumer/business-related story or a health-oriented story make good leads because they impact people's finances or physical well-being. Newscasts often contain themes, so there is a tendency to group stories together that have commonality — crime stories, business stories, political stories. In general, we want to use stories that will have national appeal and unless they are spectacular or unique, we won't get too local."

Moreover, the newscasts team has to look at what stories are coming up on the newsmagazines so that it doesn't duplicate stories or correspondent voices too close to when they air on the program itself. Sometimes this can't be avoided — especially when a big story is breaking — but the team will try to adjust the schedule so listeners don't hear a story on Morning Edition and then immediately afterward hear the same correspondent reporting on the newscast.

The elements of a newscast are either read by the anchor live, or are recordings from a reporter with a live introduction from the anchor. The former is researched and written by the anchor, while the latter is reported by a journalist from NPR, a member station or a freelancer in the field. Archived audio from an event or a person can be played in either format. Reported stories are usually around 40-45 seconds long, while stories read by the anchor range in length but are usually shorter.

Running just a few minutes, each newscast segment is not long, and the anchor has to be off the air on the exact second so member stations or the newsmagazines can continue with their shows, and automated funding credits and promos can run. Listener Robert Rubovits, of Milwaukee, wrote in a few months back to ask about one anchor's pacing towards the end of a segment, noting that she had slowed down considerably. That broadcast's anchor was likely watching the clock and noticed that she needed to stretch her report by slowing down a bit. In addition to changing the pace of reading a report, anchors will often give stock index updates at the end of a broadcast, and include more or less information depending on how much time is left in the segment. So if the anchor has a lot of extra time, listeners might hear about the Dow and the Nasdaq and the S&P; if the anchor doesn't have any extra time, the listener might not hear about any stocks. (We should add that the practice irritates some listeners, who wish for all-or-none consistency.)

Once a story airs during one broadcast, the news cycle will determine whether it will air again during another broadcast. Since all listeners don't hear all newscasts, the team might broadcast a particular report a few different times to make sure the most listeners hear it, depending on its importance. If there has been a new development or if there is a different angle to the story, the team will report the update in a later broadcast.

Given that the average listener will not tune in for every newscast, the team tries to make each newscast fair in and of itself. A handful of listeners wrote in during the election season concerned about a bias against one candidate after hearing a report that focused on the other candidate during the newscast. But most often, members of the newscast team said they would try to speak about both candidates during the same broadcast. And because some listeners hear more than one newscast in a row, during those campaign reports the newscast team also usually alternated which candidate got first billing, according to tracking done by NPR's standards editor Mark Memmott, and this office.

"We ask our producers and anchors to assume that the newscast listeners are hearing the next hour is the only one they will hear that day," Garcia explained. "We cannot claim to be fair across the span of the day or several hours. The fairness standard must be evident in each and every newscast. In terms of repetition, we have at least two, and more often, three hours of separation using the same correspondent report. And they generally do not run more than twice."

The newscasts team says it aggressively fact-checks everything that will be shared during each broadcast, and will sacrifice a story in the lineup if it does not have confirmation from two sources, and, in the case of major news, a sign-off from a top editor. (This is, in part, a result of protocols put in place after 2011, when NPR erroneously reported the death of then-Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Though the newscasts had confirmation from two sources, the information was soon found to be false and corrections and apologies were issued on the newscast and online the next day. Former Ombudsman Alicia Shepard wrote about the incident here and here.) The newscasts' fact-checking can be seen right now in the presidential transition, during which NPR tries to independently confirm every Cabinet nomination. "Most of the time, we get confirmation from sources fairly quickly," Garcia said, but the team will wait several hours after others have reported it, if need be, in order to get the confirmations.

As a result of the protocols, the newscasts say they make relatively few errors that require a correction, but they will issue an on-air correction when they do. Last month, for example, Garcia said NPR and other media organizations "were taken in by a hoax involving the report of attacks on a Muslim student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The report aired in a 2 p.m. newscast and only in that broadcast. When it became clear the following day that we and the wire services and everyone else had fallen victim to the hoax, we decided to correct and clarify, also in the 2 p.m. newscast. The philosophy there is that people tend to have repetitive listening patterns, so there's a pretty good shot that at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, we were reaching many of the same folks who heard the story at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday."

Smaller mistakes like a mispronunciation or a partial misidentification are more of a challenge. There are no archived transcripts of newscasts on NPR.org, so there is no way to append a correction. Moreover, given the short length and ephemeral nature of the newscasts, correcting inconsequential errors on air would take away time from sharing other news stories. Garcia said such errors "are corrected and noted internally so they are not repeated, but will not merit an on-air correction or explanation."

Finally, why do the newscasts begin with a note that the show is "live"? Many listeners wrote in asking that around the time the change was made earlier this year. There's an explanation here (spoiler: to make the point that the newscasts are live!)

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