NPR has named a distinguished media ethicist as its sixth public editor, appointing Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute to fill the newsroom watchdog role at a time when many other major news outlets have abandoned it.
"The public editor represents the public interest in our journalism and helps hold us accountable to maintaining our high standards of journalism," NPR CEO John Lansing said in an interview. "And so [it's] really a critical position for us, particularly during this current [public health] crisis.
"Our journalism has always been great. But it's never been more important than ever that we get the truth out to the people that need the facts, that we fact-check government officials," he added. "Literally, lives are in the balance, based on people having the right information. And having a public editor of the quality of Kelly McBride will help support that effort in a very meaningful way."
McBride, 53, will retain her job as the senior vice president of the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute and the head of its media ethics center. Rather than hiring McBride directly, NPR has contracted with Poynter for her services. The institute will supplement McBride's work with research support. The public editor job will consume most of her efforts, however.
In an interview, McBride said she looked forward to understanding NPR's editorial choices; how the network balances coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic with other issues; why some listeners say they feel alienated from the network's news coverage on the basis of their demographic, geographic or ideological backgrounds; how the relationship between NPR and its member stations influences what listeners hear; and how the growing share of people who consume NPR's shows, news coverage, music, podcasts and other digital content may have different expectations than NPR's traditional broadcast audience.
Giving a small example, McBride said she was curious about the challenge the coronavirus crisis could pose to NPR's tradition of seeking rich, high-quality audio in storytelling.
"Because we're all locked up and having to do interviews in a variety of circumstances, you hear that NPR sound changing," McBride said. "And I wonder if that will have a permanent impact on how NPR engineers and those who really take responsibility for that NPR sound think about their jobs going forward."
McBride replaces Elizabeth Jensen, who ended her tenure Friday after 5 1/2 years. Jensen's columns explored how NPR covered politics and society in the age of Trump; the #MeToo moment and movement inside NPR's own newsroom and the ouster of its news chief after related accusations; the language NPR journalists use in their reports; and a contentious interview between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and NPR's All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly.
A former newspaper reporter and authority on the challenges of covering sexual assault, McBride is the co-editor of a book on media ethics used as a text in many college courses. She has also taught media ethics and best practices for years at the Poynter Institute, which trains journalists.
Hers is a familiar voice to longtime NPR listeners. McBride has been interviewed on such subjects as the ethics of publishing a photograph of a man moments before he's killed by a subway train; how to cover white supremacist movements, which she did at the outset of her newspaper career in Idaho; and, in 2013, a clash between NPR's news leadership and its then-public editor over an investigative report.
Major American news outlets that had public editor or ombudsman jobs included The Washington Post, The New York Times and ESPN, where McBride previously served as ombudsman under a similar arrangement with Poynter. None has that role today, citing the cost and the enhanced ability of the public to amplify their critiques through social media.
"I think it just causes newsroom editors and journalists to pay attention to the details that allow for the journalism to be of the highest caliber, while being careful not to cause unnecessary harm to people that are involved in the stories we are covering," Lansing said. "It's hard to understand from my perspective why some of the bigger national newsrooms have ... not gone with a public editor or ombudsman."
PBS has an ombudsman for its programming, the veteran journalist Ricardo Sandoval-Palos.
Last week, McBride advocated for greater federal investment in the greater news business in a discussion with a colleague published by Poynter about the economic threats to the industry. The issue is sometimes a hot button among libertarians and cultural conservatives when it comes to public broadcasters such as NPR and PBS.
"All money is dirty. There is nothing purer about donated money, foundation money, advertising money, sponsorship money or government money," she wrote. "That's why we need ethics. And NPR and PBS have demonstrated that as long as federal grants aren't the only source of income, newsrooms can still serve as vigilant watchdogs." (NPR receives a sliver of its revenues from federal agencies. Its member stations receive an average of 8% of their revenues from the federally chartered Corporation for Public Broadcasting and pay NPR for the right to air its shows. Some stations, especially in rural areas, rely more heavily on those federal subsidies.)
McBride says the new perch for NPR represents the culmination of all that she does. "I help journalists get better. And I help citizens understand journalism," McBride said. "What's better than getting paid to listen to NPR and then tell them how to do their work better?"
Disclosures: This article was written by David Folkenflik and edited by NPR's editor for media and technology, Emily Kopp. Under NPR's protocol for covering itself, no NPR executive or senior news executive reviewed this article before it was posted. Additionally, incoming NPR public editor Kelly McBride contributed a chapter to a 2011 book edited by Folkenflik, Page One: Inside The New York Times and the Future of Journalism.