Alicia C. Shepard
His sister is a jerk, I thought when I heard on NPR about a Memphis man who wanted to go to the Inauguration but couldn't stay at his sister's house in Washington because she's no fan of Barack Obama.
"Everybody in my family is a Republican. I mean, absolutely everybody," Chuck Latimer told NPR. "When I travel there, I'm always able to stay with her. But this time she said no. She's really, really opposed to Obama being elected, and I'm not. Now, I've never been — felt outcast from my family for my political beliefs. It really was political oppression."
The problem with "The Outcast" story was that we never heard from Latimer's sister, who while not named, was negatively portrayed in the piece. Latimer told NPR he might have to sleep in his car, or "if I fly, I'll just have to drink a lot of coffee, the most I can, or try to find a nook and cranny to sleep in."
As anyone in a family knows, there can be conflicting versions of the same event. Latimer's sister may have a different story, but listeners wouldn't know since NPR didn't call her.
This story highlights a shift in how NPR finds people for stories and raises some concerns about the consequences. It used to be that reporters hunted down and verified sources before they went on the air. But through email, blog postings and NPR's social media community, more and more people are now coming to NPR to share their tales.
That's how Weekend All Things Considered (WATC) found Latimer's story, which became part of a series — "Inaugural Journeys" — that appeared Jan. 17-18. The idea was to share poignant travel plans and thoughts about the historic event.
"We came up with it about six weeks before the Inauguration and talked with NPR's Social Media team about building the weekend around listeners' stories," said Rick Holter, WATC's supervising senior editor. "We did a 'call out' to listeners on air to share their stories and created a webpage for them to comment."
An editorial assistant was assigned to weed through the 100 or so submissions and find the most compelling stories.
"We didn't just want to have a host read the stories," said Holter. "We wanted them to be in the voices of the listeners. [The editorial assistant] probably talked to about 15 people to find out who had the best stories and were the best talkers."
They settled on six first-person stories.
The one story that worried Holter came from a San Francisco guitar teacher who had fallen in love with a Cuban woman. The guitarist said he intended bring her to the Inauguration on a K-1 fiancee visa and marry her.
"That's the one that raised my hackles because it sounded too good to be true," said Holter. "So we called his lawyer, immigration officials and his family to check it out."
Not only was it true, but guitarist Christopher Kilday took NPR by surprise when he and Yaremys Rodriquez Gonzales came into Studio 2A to tell guest host Rebecca Roberts their story.
Roberts: So, you're planning on getting married.
Kilday: Oh, you know what? That's one thing I need to take care of.
Yaremys, will you marry me?"
She agreed on the spot. According to NPR's archives, it was the network's first on-air marriage proposal.
But the story that wasn't checked was Chuck Latimer's.
"If we had been less focused on verifying 'The Wedding' story that appeared to be the most troubled," said Holter, "then we would have gone after that one a little more."
I was bothered by Latimer's story for two reasons: It seemed so unfair to his sister, and I wondered, understanding family dynamics, if it were true. So I called Latimer, who told me he delivers pizza in Memphis.
He said he ended up spending the night at his sister's. "She did finally relent and let me stay," he said. "I think there was family pressure."
I asked if he would give me his sister's name and phone number. Absolutely not, he said.
"I can't tell her that NPR put that on the radio," said Latimer over the phone. (Millions listen to WATC.) "She would be quite upset and it would seriously damage relations in my family if she found out that story was put on the radio. I was never really worried about her hearing that. I haven't told anyone in my family. She would flip out."
Maybe Latimer's story is true. But NPR should have tried to verify it by getting the sister's side. If he had refused to put NPR in contact with her that would have answered the question of whether the story should have been aired.
"In every story we do, we should check to the best of our ability," said Richard L. Harris, director of afternoon programming. "If we had asked Chuck to let us talk to his sister and he said, 'I'm sorry, no go,' then we shouldn't put that on the air. It's a bit of a sucker punch to go on air without talking to the sister. And that should not be permitted."
WATC's Holter has since agreed his team should have tried to reach Latimer's sister. "Essentially this should reflect badly on me because I edited the piece," said Holter. The editor of a show does bear ultimate responsibility for the content, but journalism is a collaborative process and others read the piece as well.
In fairness, I contacted Rebecca Roberts who was a guest host that weekend. She did narrate "The Outcast" story but wasn't involved in the production.
"That said, I didn't think to contact the sister, and perhaps I should have," she said in an email. "I don't feel particularly strongly about it either way. It was Chuck's personal story, not a news piece. And I do know that [the editorial assistant] went the extra mile to triple check the more dubious story in that series, 'The Wedding.'"
Overall, WATC's "Inaugural Journeys" produced great stories, all of which came to NPR directly from listeners. This kind of interactivity can be a good thing because it extends NPR's reach and draws it closer to the listeners.
But depending on listeners for stories — whether they are small anecdotes such as Latimer's tale or a major news event — also means that NPR needs to scrupulously check all information for accuracy and fairness before it is put on air or on the Web site. That's what NPR listeners expect.
Other stories in the series: