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NPR Public Editor Is One Of A Kind

NPR reaches more than 100 million people each month. As the public's representative to NPR, Elizabeth Jensen receives tens of thousands of letters from listeners and responds to significant questions, comments and criticisms. Her role is more important than ever as public confidence in the news media continues to be challenged. Jensen is in San Diego this week and spoke to KPBS Evening Edition anchor Ebone Monet about her work.

The conversation below has been edited for clarity.

Q. What is the role of NPR's public editor?

A. Well, it's a unique role in journalism. I am the last remaining full-time public editor among mainstream media organizations in the country. My job is to represent the views and the concerns of the listeners and readers who come to listen to NPR and come to NPR.org. So that means essentially hearing what they have to say, communicating their concerns with the newsroom. It's basically about accountability and transparency to the newsroom.

Q. Why does NPR need a public editor?

A. A lot of organizations have decided that they don't. There is Twitter, right. So if you make a mistake you hear about it on Twitter immediately. A public editor has a little bit of a different role. We do handle corrections but it's also about, sort of it's going to the newsroom leaders and saying 'OK, why did this mistake happen? And were there processes that need to change?' Newsrooms can become very defensive. We're all very defensive but we make a mistake, right. So part of it is saying, 'OK, let's own up our own owner error and then figure out ways that we can keep it from happening again. Let's be accountable to our audience.'

Q. As the public editor, you receive tens of thousands of comments.

A. Yes.

Q. How does NPR handle the perception of bias?

A: So we do get a lot of complaints about bias. We have an e-mail, 'contact the public editor.' We go through all of the e-mails. We label all those e-mails. By far bias is the biggest concern of those who decide to contact us. It breaks down. So it's both people are complaining that NPR is too liberal. People are complaining that NPR is too conservative. So it really breaks down and a lot of it is just perception. NPR has two hours in the morning, two hours at night. Very few of those listeners are actually hearing all two hours.

So if you're in your car and you hear an interview and you know it's with a Republican and you don't hear the interview with the Democrat then you think. 'Huh. NPR's only talking to Republicans' or vice versa. So part of my role is to say, 'hey, did you hear this interview?' or I do look into the concerns. Sometimes I feel like the, you know, perspectives maybe have been sort of weighted towards one side or the other. So part part of my role is to write a column that's part of that transparency. So I did a column once explaining well you haven't heard a lot of Republican voices on this particular issue because NPR has been trying to get Republicans to come on and they've declined to do the interviews. You can only talk to people who will talk to you. You know sometimes it's just that people haven't heard actually all of the varied coverage. So I try to take a broad look. I try to sort of say let's look at the coverage in its totality, not just sort of a tiny window here and there, not just a question here or there but to really sort of examine over time, is NPR making a concerted effort at hearing multiple voices.

Q. How has the tone of the comments changed over time particularly in the Trump administration era?

A. I would say that there was a big change a couple of years ago. I think that's because people are very passionate about their politics these days and I think we've become more polarized. That has certainly changed the tenor of the communications to our office. You know we try to sort of look and listen to all the complaints that come in even if they're not particularly civil. We don't tend to answer emails that use abusive language but if it's just a rant you know sometimes even those rants sort of contain valid points of view and people are just being very passionate about explaining it that way. So we try to look into it. But yeah I would prefer going back to the more civilized tone of conversation.

Q. What obstacles or challenges do journalists face in covering President Trump? He has said repeatedly that he feels that he's been covered unfairly by the press.

A. I think it's a challenge because it feels as though there's a goal to discredit the journalism. So, in this era I think when you have someone so high profile who is saying that there's a lot of untrustworthy news out there, I think you have to really double down on your standards and say, 'OK we're going to have everything buttoned down where we're really going to work at corrections we're going to work at being very transparent again. We're going to label opinions.'

So one thing that NPR has done a lot in the past couple of years is being much clearer about what is opinion content. NPR doesn't do a lot of opinion content but it does some so labeling, 'OK. Is this an opinion or is this fact-based journalism?' It's done more about sort of explaining how we know what we know. I saw a story yesterday that said, 'OK here's a story. There's a lot we don't know about this story.' And really saying that. Owning it. So sometimes I think journalists don't want to say, 'Well we don't really know.' But I think you can be transparent and say you know, 'We're trying to get the rest of the story here.'

But I do think it's a challenge. When your journalism is called into question every day I think you just need to make sure it's as solid as possible. And I also think you know audiences are smart they can see the facts out there for themselves. Right. So sometimes journalists will report and you won't know, maybe you know for a few months or something if a story is true or not. If the story turns out to be true that sort of is going to hopefully be reflected in your trust perceptions with the audience.

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