The unsatisfying journalism of live interviews considered

If you pay close attention to NPR’s “Morning Edition” show, you’ve probably noticed a shift in the journalism. Gone — mostly — are deep dives from reporters. Interviews with “newsmakers” are in.

That change is causing waves with NPR listeners, as NPR’s ombudsman, Elizabeth Jensen, wrote last month when she said listeners are finding it unsatisfying.

She’s not letting go of the format shift, indicating that this is one of the biggest NPR changes — at least in terms of listener feedback — since “Morning Edition” fired the iconic Bob Edwards.

Given its inner Beltway location, most of the interviews are with politicians and, of course, are one sided. That’s what happens when you give a microphone to only one side.

Earlier this week, for example, NPR provided an update on how Trump supporters think he’s doing — a complicated angle best left to reporters than spin doctors — with Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union.

How Schlapp thought the president is doing was never in doubt. And yet it was surprising that just before host Rachel Martin asked about a White House official’s degrading comment on Sen. John McCain, she noted that Schlapp’s wife is the strategic communications director of the White House. So his answer wasn’t going to be surprising there either.

“The interviews… do not add to listeners’ understanding of the issues being discussed,” ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen writes in her column today, again invoking the “unsatisfying” term.

She said the political philosophies represented in the interviews are roughly even. “Who gets on the air is primarily based on the news but also is partly a function of who agrees to be interviewed — and that sometimes varies by story. Sometimes politicians don’t want to come on air to be pinned down on thorny topics,” she writes.

Reporters excel at that sort of thing, though, which is why their work is missed by listeners. They can keep mistakes from getting on the air. They can provide context to a story. They’re more focused on what the big picture of a story is rather than the micro one-sided spin that fills up a news hole.

NPR gave Schlapp six minutes of airtime to say little that added any value to a listeners understanding of a story. Reporters would kill for six minutes of airtime.

A traditional piece reported by an NPR journalist can be fact-checked. The reporter can include important context or competing views.

By contrast, the interview format largely does not allow for either of these, unless added by the journalist doing the interviewing. Show hosts do that far more often than not, but they cannot be expected to know, or catch, everything.

And only very occasionally do the NPR newsmagazines pair interviews with newsmakers from opposing sides, as the weekend edition of All Things Considered did on May 6 with back-to-back interviews on the Republican and Democratic midterm election strategies.

Even paired interviews can be unsatisfying, giving the listener little more than he-said, she-said conflicts over the facts.

Unfortunately, it remains difficult to get a full read on NPR listeners reaction to the format change. The network ditched comments sections on all its stories and Jensen’s columns almost two years ago.