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Poorly Framed StoryCorps 'Experiment' Misfires

New StoryCorps logo

It's rare that my office gets a complaint about the Friday StoryCorps segments on Morning Edition. The excerpts of interviews conducted between friends and loved ones (no NPR host or reporter involved) are most often poignant windows into other people's realities, as they discuss their life struggles, loves and journeys.

The reaction to the Dec. 9 StoryCorps piece was an exception. Both NPR and StoryCorps received numerous complaints. Social media comments ranged from supportive to profoundly angry, even hateful.

The personal memory that day came from 94-year-old Dr. Joseph Linsk, who revealed a long-kept secret from his childhood as part of StoryCorps' annual Great Thanksgiving Listen, which encourages people to record their families' oral histories on the StoryCorps smartphone app (and upload them to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress).

Linsk, recorded by his son, told a story from when he was eight. In his telling, Linsk, who is white, stole the $2 his mother had left for the woman who cleaned their house, so he could pay for breaking a classmate's glasses. The domestic worker, named Pearl, who was black, was fired after claiming she hadn't been paid, and was later unable to get other work when branded "a thief." The doctor said he was "smitten with grief," but never told anyone. The piece ended with the NPR host asking for listeners with information about Pearl and her descendants to contact StoryCorps, but did not say why she was being sought.

The story made for painful listening (to me), and some of the social media comments directed at Linsk are unfortunate, since he did not seek out this limelight. But my particular concern here is the way the story ended up being framed by StoryCorps and NPR, which I believe exacerbated the tension.

A quick explanation of the weekly process: StoryCorps and NPR collaborate on the pieces. StoryCorps, a nonprofit, selects the story and sends NPR the audio and suggested script, said Michael Garofalo, executive producer at StoryCorps. Sometimes there is some back and forth, and the NPR host makes his or her own choices in introducing the piece. NPR subsequently uses the audio report to write a version, including headline, for NPR.org. Both organizations post the pieces on social media.

The audio of this story contained a line crafted by StoryCorps: "His secret raises the question, 'Is it ever too late to make amends?'" The NPR.org posting carried a headline that played off that: "Can You Help This Ailing 94-Year-Old Man Make Amends?" StoryCorps also created a Twitter hashtag #FindPearl.

In my opinion, the "amends" framing — and in particular the "Can You Help" variation — was inappropriate. (And to be clear: Nowhere did Linsk himself suggest that was what he was seeking.) So was the hashtag chosen by StoryCorps, which spawned a social media genealogical search.

A listener who identified himself as Aaron, from Oshkosh, Wis., summed up some of the strong reactions well:

"Your reporting of this story is highly disturbing: 'A Lifelong Secret: Can You Help This Ailing 94-Year-Old Man Make Amends?' I am a big believer in StoryCorps, and I think this man has every right to tell his story, and I'm glad he did. But, NPR reporting on it as a 'feel good' ... 'let's help make a happy ending' is ridiculous and offensive. There is no happy ending to this story. There is no way listeners can 'help ... make amends.' Sometimes shame and shaming are appropriate feelings and responses to terrible evil, in this case keeping a secret for 86 years that likely harmed generations of lives. The act of an 8-year-old may be forgivable. Waiting nearly a century to try to seek amends is horrific. My complaint here, though, is NPR's irresponsible reporting on this story. Only a white organization, with white reporters, white producers/editors, and white leadership would think this was a good way to report on the story. 'Let's help this poor old rich white man feel better.'"

Garofalo said StoryCorps knew this piece was different from the standard Friday story: "We saw it as half a story." He said the approach was "let's do an experiment. Let's put something out and acknowledge that it's not finished. This interview was crowdsourced through the app; maybe we could crowdsource the other half"— that is, Pearl's story. "We need to find the other side of the story; we need to hear from Pearl's descendants," he said. The on-air story left open the question of why she was being sought, however.

Garofalo said the story was also a departure from the kind of piece that listeners expect to hear, and the emotions they expect to feel. He called Linsk's story "challenging and unsettling and it doesn't give you any comfort whatsoever."

That, he said, was the impetus for the opening rhetorical question, "Is it ever too late to make amends?" He acknowledged that line "wasn't received the way it was intended."

As for the #FindPearl hashtag, "I think it did read as flippant, but it wasn't intended that way," he said. (One tweeter suggested, "How about #FindJUSTICEforPearl?") He said StoryCorps has received a number of leads as a result of the public call-out and is following them up, but, if the family is indeed found, "We're not going to force anybody to do anything." Telling the other half of the story will be up to them.

Monday, StoryCorps posted this on its Facebook page:

We want to acknowledge the tone of comments on this thread. This story is painful to hear. It is unsettling, not only in its specificity, but also in the fact that anyone with a sense of U.S. history knows that there are countless stories like this one that have never been told, countless people of color who have been taken advantage of, countless who have been suspect based on the color of their skin, and countless wrongs that have never been made right.

This story doesn't include Pearl's point of view or version of events. It's one half of the story, since neither Pearl nor her children have a voice in it. We knew Pearl is no longer living, so we tried to locate descendants to see if they had heard this story and would be willing to tell what happened to Pearl after these events. When our search ran dry, we decided to ask for help from the general public locating her descendants. We are following up on your leads.

This is a story that was based on the memory of an 8-year-old child's experience from more than 80 years ago; it is a slice taken from a man's life and in no way a complete accounting of who Dr. Linsk has been personally or professionally throughout his life. But this story isn't his alone — it's part of our story as a country.

We value that Dr. Linsk shared his story and we are grateful for his openness. We hope this story, like the others that we share at StoryCorps, helps us make sense of our world and ourselves. As James Baldwin wrote, "Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

In my opinion, the headline crafted for the web was a particular problem, exacerbating the troubling framing that readers could help Linsk make amends. Scott Montgomery, NPR's managing editor for digital news, said he takes the point, but disagrees. "I think our headline does just what we would want a headline to do," he told me. "It reflects the story accurately and seeks to engage the audience, in this case to try to crowdsource finding the woman who was harmed by this man's secret. It wasn't a call for sympathy, it was a call for information. I understand that some in our audience don't find the man at the center of this story deserving of our help, and that's fine. In the end, we thought his story was worth sharing, and it's not lost on me that the decision that has haunted him and that harmed his family housekeeper is one he made when he was a very young child."

I don't read it that way. And added up, the segment comes across, even if this was not the attempt, as trying to manufacture a "feel good" feature. Contrast it with the spontaneously generated outpouring in January, when Challenger space shuttle engineer Bob Ebeling came forth publicly for the first time to talk to NPR's Howard Berkes about the guilt he still felt over the deadly explosion 30 years ago. Hundreds of listeners wrote Ebeling "to express distress and sympathy," and before he died in March, he told Berkes that some of his heavy burden had been relieved.

The key difference: NPR did not solicit those initial reactions, as the headline on this piece does.

Finally, as the StoryCorps statement says, talking about the country's racial legacy is hard work. Those conversations are important to have, and I applaud StoryCorps, with NPR's participation, for venturing into difficult territory, but not the way it was done. I hope there will be some kind of follow-up, preferably with the participation of Pearl's descendants, if possible.

Garofalo said that is the intent. He told me: "We're trying to tell a complex story here," and the responses are complicated. StoryCorps, he said, "is all about creating conversations," and this one has led to talk about "white privilege and the legacy of racism. That's a good conversation to have."

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