Racist hypothetical earns listeners’ ire

There was a forehead-slapping moment last week when Morning Edition interviewed one of its reporters about Facebook’s ad-targeting program which allowed advertisers to target anti-Semitics in the audience. Or as ProPublica, which broke the story, prefered to say: “Jew haters.”

Reporter Aarti Shahani explained how it works:

“Facebook’s business is based on letting advertisers do exactly what ProPublica did, which is targeting the most personal, even insidious parts of ourselves. OK? There’s an industry term for this. It’s called psychographic marketing. In the old days, if you were placing ads, you relied on demographics. But with psychographics, you go deeper. You don’t just advertise to, say, men in Baltimore, age 19 to 35, who are black. You can add interests, like cop killer. And if Facebook finds and zaps that term, you pick a proxy — you know, say, a band or a movie that’s all about mowing down cops.”

NPR later added a note to its online story saying it didn’t mean to offend anyone. An anonymous online marketer gave the reporter the racist example.

A Minneapolis listener called it out to NPR ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, who writes today in response that it should have been made clear the example was from somewhere else and perhaps another example should have been used.

There are so many editorial and ethical challenges here, including the question about when a news organization should grant anonymity in the first place. NPR’s standards and ethics boss said the source wouldn’t have talked if he/she was to be identified “because of the sensitive nature” of the example and topic, which seems like an obvious invitation to keep looking for someone who would, or find another example that doesn’t link black people with being cop killers.

Mistakes happen, especially in live interviews, as this one was. This was a serious one, but an even bigger question is why no one on the Morning Edition staff or in the newsroom raised an immediate red flag on hearing the interview. Instead, it was distributed in the morning podcast Up First, and aired several times, until it was finally pulled from the lineup for the newsmagazine’s final airing of the morning at 11 a.m. ET. This despite the listener emails that started coming in just before 6 a.m.

“NPR’s response indeed skirts the issue: NPR gave voice to an offensive stereotype without an explanation for why it was doing so, and many layers of newsroom staffers who should have immediately realized there was a problem — or reacted quickly when apprised of it — did not,” Jensen said.

Another ethics dilemma: Is a story with a racist hypothetical any less offensive if a note is attached to it apologizing for it?

The example is still in the story posted online. [Update: I asked Elizabeth about this and she provided NPR’s ethical guidelines on removing content from stories.]