Is he really both revered and vilified?
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor
When Dr. Anthony Fauci announced his pending retirement last week, the first news stories invariably noted both his long tenure as the nation’s chief infectious disease authority and how he became a political target.
As a public figure like Fauci walks away from his official role, journalism has a lot of work to do, often in a short time. Stories must report the span of Fauci’s career, the major health crises he’s confronted, and mention the critiques he’s endured.
Fauci supporters take umbrage at the inclusion of the criticism. One audience member wrote to tell us that mentioning those who find fault with Fauci in the same breath as his accomplishments does the doctor a disservice.
Fauci detractors bristle at the accolades, which are often mentioned in opening sentences and carry more weight in most stories.
Journalism’s job is to chronicle the significance of the departure. The profession’s role as a draft of history looms large and will continue to do so as the stories about the public health doctor’s career stack up between now and the end of the year when he packs up his office. These stories are designed to give audiences a broad and accurate look at his tenure. In the years to come, the news reports will serve as signposts for those who want to look back and understand how one man’s 50-year government career intersected with public policy and popular culture.
We talked to the executive producer of newscasts about the language of Fauci’s departure, including one newscaster’s chosen words, “revered” and “vilified.”
We also delve into the creation of a new reporting team designed to tackle disinformation, on behalf of a letter writer who had a question about how the team was created. It’s definitely a newsroom beat for the modern era.
Finally, we loved a recent conversation with a new author, so we spotlight that interview and his new book.
FROM THE INBOX
Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor’s inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.
Revered and vilified?
Malcolm Tronic wrote on Aug. 22: The NPR news “headline” on Dr. Anthony Fauci’s upcoming retirement implies that there is equal reason for him to be admired and to be vilified. While his detractors are plentiful, it is only because of their politicized, anti-science views, encouraged by unscrupulous politicians, while public health and medical people, along with most informed citizens, are grateful for his leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic. NPR did Dr. Fauci a disservice!
During an NPR newscast on Aug. 22, newscaster Lakshmi Singh reported that Dr. Anthony Fauci is “leaving his job of more than 35 years as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases” in December, which he announced earlier in the day.
After noting that Fauci is known to many Americans for his expertise through the pandemic, Singh said: “As the nation’s top infectious disease expert during the AIDS and coronavirus outbreaks, he was revered by some, vilified by others. Though he is stepping down, Fauci notes he is not retiring altogether from government service.”
We reached out to NPR newscasts executive producer Robert Garcia to ask why both “revered” and “vilified” were used.
“It is a fact that Dr. Fauci is both admired and vilified,” Garcia wrote in an email. “Admired by colleagues, most of the American public, remembered for his work on the AIDS crisis, a leader on health issues for over 35 years, including his guidance on COVID. He was also vilified continually by the likes of Senator Rand Paul, just yesterday [Aug. 25] by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and by a host of politicians and right-wing media figures.”
“I can’t imagine not giving that context in any story that dealt with his retirement,” he continued. “It is not a mark of disrespect toward Dr. Fauci to state, accurately, that he was treasured by many and vilified by others.”
NPR was doing its job to accurately portray the politicization of public health matters that Fauci has faced during his tenure. Refusing to acknowledge Fauci’s detractors while looking back over his career would paint an incomplete picture. The newscast provided a short summary to break the news the day of his announcement, but NPR also produced more in-depth reporting on Fauci’s impact in the days after, including an Aug. 25 Consider This podcast that added more context by characterizing the level of vitriol directed at Fauci, as well as the political views his critics hold. While it’s important to include the political context of the criticism directed at Fauci, it’s not an option to ignore it in stories about his expansive career. — Emily Barske
Exploring NPR’s disinformation reporting team
Ronald Polk wrote on July 18: Hear NPR was forming a misinformation committee. Will you provide the public with the selection criteria for members of this committee?
NPR announced in July that it was launching a disinformation reporting team. Disinformation is the deliberate creation of distortions and falsehoods for malicious purposes.
NPR’s announcement said: “The viral spread of mis- and disinformation has emerged as one of the great civic challenges of our time.”
SVP of News Nancy Barnes said covering disinformation first became a serious interest for her in 2019 when she was at a conference and saw a presentation about how it’s used to destabilize democracies. “That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” she remembered saying as she watched.
In the 2020 election coverage, she said reporters continually saw disinformation across the political spectrum.
The recent launch of the disinformation reporting team makes the subject a more permanent staple in NPR’s news coverage. The reporting team’s intent is to explore the role disinformation plays around the world.
The team includes three reporters, Shannon Bond, Lisa Hagen and Huo Jingnan, and is led by supervising editor Brett Neely. The reporting team members were chosen because of their respective experience covering technology, doing investigative work and conducting data analysis.
Because disinformation has become so prominent from local to international levels, Neely said almost every reporting desk and many member stations do some coverage of the matter. Member station WITF in central Pennsylvania has its own democracy beat.
Barnes and Neely told us more about the formation of the team and their goals.
The team specifically focuses on disinformation because, while misinformation and disinformation are both harmful, disinformation involves deliberate misleading.
Neely said, “People in the panic of the moment can spread false information, and that’s misinformation. Disinformation is about intentionality — it is about intentionally deceiving.”
This team is most interested in examining trends in disinformation and its ramifications. For example, earlier this year NPR reported stories about how Russia is using disinformation as a tool in its war against Ukraine and was doing so even before the invasion. NPR has reported on how authoritarian governments like the one in Nicaragua have claimed to be successfully combating COVID-19 while health care workers and citizens said the toll was much higher, how disinformation fuels violence at all levels of government, and how Black Lives Matter supporters have faced disinformation in their fight for racial equity.
In their work, the disinformation team plans to show how influencers often lead the spread of disinformation. They recently did a story headlined “How Alex Jones helped mainstream conspiracy theories become part of American life.”
This reporting requires a lot of time and care. “You’re dealing with people who casually lie in many instances, and you’re dealing with people who are litigious,” Neely said. “So there’s a lot of lawyering that goes into the story. You are trying to be extremely fair to people who are not interested in being fair back to you.”
This new beat is core to NPR’s mission to help the audience understand the threat disinformation poses to democracy.
“If we can’t have a trusted, shared set of facts … I say we are doomed as a democracy,” Barnes said. “On the broadest level, it feels like if there’s anything that public media can do, it’s standing up for the truth and trying to hold up a mirror to all of these disinformation, misinformation systems, ramifications and outcomes. I think that that is in fact a huge public service. So that’s why we want to do this.” — Emily Barske with reporting from Kelly McBride
The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.
A great author interview
Last month on Weekend Edition Saturday, NPR’s Daniel Estrin interviewed author Sidik Fofana about his debut short story collection, Stories from the Tenants Downstairs. The collection follows residents of a fictional high-rise building in Harlem as gentrification looms. Fofana’s characters include a single mom who is a waitress and does hair on the side, a grandma who works overnight at airport security and a 12-year-old boy who’s quitting his dance troupe. The author is also a public school teacher, and he and Estrin discuss where he finds his material and who his intended audience is. One of the best things about NPR is discovering something new, and this interview grants listeners an appreciation of this new author and his work. — Amaris Castillo
The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.
NPR Public Editor
Chair, Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute