Cosmic Journalism | Nevada Public Radio


When NASA scientists saw the first images from the Webb Space Telescope, they were so amazed they realized they should let the president show them to the world. When reporters saw the first images, they were so blown away they dipped into their store of superlatives. Consumers were treated to words like “splendor” and “stunning” in story after story. Personally, I never tire of stories that use the word “here”. Because for me, words create the context I need to marvel. NPR did not disappoint.

But not everyone appreciated poetic hair removal. A few skeptical news consumers questioned the images. It takes a lot of science to translate the information gathered by the Webb telescope into something the human eye can see and understand.

How much information should journalists include about the process that transforms the data collected by the telescope and the process NASA uses to translate that data into visual images? If this information is not included in the news reports, is it misleading?

An audience member took issue with NPR’s decision to skip those details, so we asked a science reporter who covered Webb to explain why.

We also spoke to the National Editor about the strategy behind NPR’s coverage of abortion access in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down constitutional protections for the medical procedure. As a national news provider with connections to member stations in all 50 states and DC, NPR has the ability to cover the story in a way that sets it apart from other media companies. We were curious about the plan.

We’re also shining a spotlight on two stories — a big investigation that revealed how some states were taking Social Security benefits from foster children, and a story about Amazon’s plans to disrupt the healthcare industry.


Here are some quotes from the public editor’s inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can send us your questions and concerns via the NPR Contact Page.

Misleading spatial images?

John Ritz wrote on July 18: When NPR posts about images from the Webb or Hubble telescopes, it should remind us that these images have been doctored (colorized) for effect. Deep space telescopes only record in black and white. It is misleading and misleading. The black and white originals are much less impressive and look like nothing more than salt sprinkled on black velvet.

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, who helped cover NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, said his team determined there was no need to explain the scientific process that produces the images every time. they make a story.

In July, an NPR article about Webb’s first images described how the telescope was “designed to collect and analyze infrared light, which is at longer wavelengths than the human eye can see. will capture light from the earliest galaxies, which appear in the infrared.”

Palca said: “We can sometimes tell people more about how the images are created, but we don’t do it every time because we think it’s clear that people understand that if you have an image in infrared, you have to do something to be able to see it in visible light.” He added that rendering the images as they were taken would not work “because no one would be able to see them”.

The images released last month were processed through various color lenses that ultimately still contain accurate color information, Palca said.

To depict something invisible to the human eye, the image must be manipulated in some way, he said. This does not mean that the image is distorted.

“It’s a visual thing that I’m describing, but it’s not some kind of sleight of hand,” Palca said. “It’s just taking black and white images that have been made through a color filter and layering them on top of each other to render the color you actually see. It’s a proven photography technique. It’s not a big surprise.

Other editors have also addressed this issue. This Quartz the story calls images of the universe not photographs, but visualizations of data. “And that data is the impact of photons – light energy – on highly sensitive circuitry millions of miles away from us,” the paper read. “The Webb Telescope’s various sensors measure that energy and send that data back to Earth, where it can be transformed into something that human eyes can see.” The story also explains how the rendering process can make people suspicious.

Palca noted that there are often discussions at NPR and the Science Office about how much complicated and technical detail to provide in stories. They chose to forgo the constant reminders of the explanation behind the images.

Thinking that’s “an important thing to tell the public, whenever we do a story about the James Webb Space Telescope, that’s good too,” Palca said. “Editorially, we decided that was not the case.”

We agree, it would be more entertaining than informative for NPR to include technical caveats in every story on Webb footage. —Amaris Castillo


We ask NPR a question about how the job is going.

How does NPR approach reproductive rights coverage?

Since the Supreme Court’s proposed decision to overturn Roe v. Wade leaked in early May, NPR focused on stories that document access to abortion and reproductive rights. We wanted to learn more about how the newsroom approaches its reporting, which has included stories about individual experiences, activism, and state politics, among others.

National Editor Ammad Omar said there had been a comprehensive approach to coverage. National correspondent Sarah McCammon is the lead reporter covering the issue for years, he said, but many NPR bureaus and member stations worked together to produce comprehensive coverage. “Wherever you throw a dart across the map of the United States, there’s an interesting abortion story worth telling right now,” he said. That’s because the Supreme Court ruling affected access to abortion in nearly every state across the country.

The immediacy of some state-level trigger laws, which went into effect immediately after the Supreme Court formally overturned Roe v. Wade in June created a high priority. Equally important were the stories of states where abortions remained available and even had legal protection, often creating even more demand as people crossed state lines.

Omar said documenting these stories comes with challenges. On the one hand, it is a deeply personal and private subject. NPR seeks to report on those directly affected by issues and to include their voices to share lived experiences, but that’s not always easy with abortion. Reporters must earn the trust of their sources to tell their stories.

Getting meaningful data to add context was also challenging because the impact of the decision happens so quickly. It can be difficult to tell anecdotal stories that are accurate and reflect a wide variety of experiences. There has been a lot of confusion since the Supreme Court ruling and NPR is trying to provide answers to common questions, he said.

“It remains to be seen exactly how things will play out in different places and we are trying to clarify,” Omar said. “It’s confusing because it’s a patchwork of 50 states right now that are all pursuing their own strategies. … We’re doing our best to untangle this and clarify the situation, while continually trying to bring the stories of people who are affected by these decisions, and it’s not just patients, it’s medical groups…and interest groups on either side of the debate. -Emily Barske


The Public Editor spends a lot of time looking at when NPR failed. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by reviewing work that we find compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the parts where NPR shines.

State foster care agencies take millions from children

Last year, NPR and The Marshall Project produced a sobering investigation into a little-known practice of state federal agencies: taking Social Security benefit checks from children and youth in foster care. NPR’s Investigations Correspondent Joseph Shapiro walks listeners through a system in which some states routinely take money earmarked for the child and instead use it to reimburse themselves for foster care costs . Shapiro described a particular case: “In effect, she, a child, was being charged with her own foster care, for something that states are required to pay under federal and state law. ” NPR and The Marshall Project have drawn attention to this practice, and other stories have developed from this hard work. —Amaris Castillo

Amazon and healthcare

Good journalism provides historical context, examines what is happening now, and shares information about what it might mean later. A digital article by NPR Digital News Intern Shauneen Miranda delves into Amazon’s past, present and future in the healthcare industry. The tech giant’s plan to buy primary care organization One Medical for nearly $4 billion sparked the story. While Amazon is known for its vast digital presence, interviewed sources cite examples like Whole Foods, where Amazon prioritizes physical spaces combined with online experiences. Read the article to find out what might come out of this Amazon venture and what health and privacy experts think of their plans. -Emily Barske

The Public Publisher’s Office is a team. Managing Editor Kayla Randall, Journalists Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and Managing Editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. The illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We always read all your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, bring them in.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute


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