NPR audience pans end-of-year-news game

Poor Domenico Montanaro, NPR’s lead political editor, found out the hard way that a large segment of the public radio audience likes things just the way they’ve always been. A touch of humor? That’s risky business and it’s not public radio’s forte.

Montanaro, who also hosts the excellent NPR Politics podcast, created an NCAA-style bracket to evaluate the top stories of the year. Sure, he could’ve just droned on recapping the top stories like everyone else. Instead, he put the work into this, then invited people to vote on the stories via Twitter, eventually declaring a champion.

“I was taken aback by the vitriol, to be honest, when my intent wasn’t to offend anyone,” he told NPR’s ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, whose job it is to field the complaints from the audience.

Those who criticized the game — and, to be fair, there were many who enjoyed it, as well — called it “wildly inappropriate,” “tasteless,” “cruel” and more.

Ruthanne Bell of Sarasota, Fla., tweeted: “By making a ‘fun game’ of this, you are trivializing and profiting from the pain and suffering of many.” A woman from Lansing, Mich., wrote my office: “News is supposed to be news, not entertainment. If I lost my house in a natural disaster and then someone voted for sport on how much they liked reading stories about it? No. Just no.”

She and others who expressed similar sentiments were referring to matchups that used such shorthand as “Year of Gun Violence” v. “Alternative Facts.” Another emailer, Catherine R., of Cambridge, Mass., wrote: “To see consequential and tragic events reduced to a few words in a GAME (‘Niger ambush,’ ‘NYC truck attack,’ and ‘gun violence,’ for example) is stunning and disappointing.”

Jensen’s decision? She sided with those who thought it trivialized the news.

This effort fell far short, in my opinion. The initial stories did more or less lay out what the exercise was meant to accomplish, and the importance of various stories. But by the time the battles were whittled down to a top 16 stories, all that was lost — the tone was pure game. The outcome did show that players were taking the choices seriously — it’s hard to argue that the fallout from sexual harassment charges and the Mueller probe weren’t at least among the year’s top stories in the United States — but getting there meant such absurd and offensive “matchups” as the 10-day reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director versus the violence (and a death) that accompanied a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Some critics already believe journalists focus too much on the horse race aspect of politics and not enough on the actual details of public policies that affect people’s everyday lives. This exercise only played into that often-justified criticism. At a time when media organizations are under daily attack — and more important, when the country faces major decisions in an exceedingly polarized environment — there’s little justification for giving critics any more fodder. We need more trust in serious newsrooms such as NPR’s, not less.

As someone who’s created games and blogs that “offended” people (Select A Candidate, Fantasy Legislature, Polinaut, Citizen Spin, Sningo and NewsCut come to mind), I’m with Montanaro, and firmly so. The “game” breathed new life into a hackneyed end-of-the-year exercise during a slow news period. Beyond that, however, it engaged the audience to think about the stories of the year and how they processed them, what value they placed on the significance of each, and encouraged a more introspective relationship with the news stories.

It’s awful that someone’s house was lost in a hurricane, of course. But if the news audience determined that it wasn’t as significant as the undermining of democratic institutions, that doesn’t mean the audience didn’t care about the victims of hurricanes. It also illuminates the values of the audience.

Like NewsCut, Montanaro’s game forced people to think about why they believe the things they believe where news is concerned. If it poked a hole or two in public radio’s tendency to be insufferably earnest, well, that’s a feature, not a bug.

Nobody gets in trouble in journalism by doing things the way they’ve always been done. I’m guessing Montanaro won’t bring the game back next year and he’s probably going to be gun shy about taking a risk again. Too bad. It’s public radio’s biggest flaw.