A special edition of Big If True: Today we’re talking about big news companies: who they are, what they do, and how they make sure what they’re telling us is fair and accurate. We’ll hear from two experts: Yoni Appelbaum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, and Steve Inskeep, the co-host of several shows at NPR.
Yoni Appelbaum is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Ideas section. Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. Before joining The Atlantic, he was a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University. He previously taught at Babson College and at Brandeis University, where he received his Ph.D. in American history.
Since joining Morning Edition in 2004, Inskeep has hosted the program from New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, Cairo, and Beijing; investigated Iraqi police in Baghdad; and received a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for “The Price of African Oil,” on conflict in Nigeria. He has taken listeners on a 2,428-mile journey along the U.S.-Mexico border, and 2,700 miles across North Africa. He is a repeat visitor to Iran and has covered wars in Syria and Yemen.
Inskeep was hired by NPR in 1996. His first full-time assignment was the 1996 presidential primary in New Hampshire. He went on to cover the Pentagon, the Senate, and the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he covered the war in Afghanistan, turmoil in Pakistan, and the war in Iraq. In 2003, he received a National Headliner Award for investigating a military raid gone wrong in Afghanistan. He has twice been part of NPR News teams awarded the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton for coverage of Iraq.
Inskeep is the author of Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, a 2011 book on one of the world’s great megacities. He is also author of Jacksonland, a history of President Andrew Jackson’s long-running conflict with John Ross, a Cherokee chief who resisted the removal of Indians from the eastern United States in the 1830s.
He has been a guest on numerous TV programs including ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports, CNN’s Inside Politics and the PBS Newshour. He has written for publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic.
A native of Carmel, Indiana, Inskeep is a graduate of Morehead State University in Kentucky.
Maggie: Our podcast is called Big If True. But do you know where the title of the show came from?
Abby: It’s kind of a silly thing, actually.
Maggie: Our show is meant to make a little bit of fun of the phrase “big if true,” which people sometimes use on the internet. They use it to say that an idea is either so truly amazing, or so truly ridiculous, that’s impossible for it to be true.
Abby: Or sometimes they use it when people say extremely obvious things. Like if someone said, “the Earth is round!” like it was a completely new idea, people might respond “big if true,” as a way to mock them.
Maggie: On our show, we’d like to tell you about truly amazing things that are also really big. So that’s why our show is called
Maggie and Abby: Big If True,
Maggie: where I, Maggie,
Abby: and I, Abby,
Maggie: explore the truth about big things. Today, we’re thinking about big ideas, and how we learned those big ideas.
Abby: And we’re also thinking about how we can know those ideas are true. Today, we’re talking about the news. So we’re talking to not just one but two special guests today.
Maggie: Our guests come from two really big news organizations, who tell millions of people every day about what’s happening in the world. We want to know how those news organizations make sure they’re telling us the truth. So here’s our quiz question for today.
Abby: Why is it so important that news sources tell us the most accurate and fair stories they can?
Maggie: A. so that we can make the best informed decisions about our lives; B. so that we don’t spread lies about other people; C. so that we can see multiple perspectives, or D, all of the above.
Abby: By the end of the show, we shouldn’t need to tell you the answer, you should have already figured it out.
Maggie: Our first guest works in the print media, which now exists on both paper and on the internet.
Yoni Appelbaum: My name is Yoni Applebaum, and I’m an editor at the Atlantic.
Maggie: What is the Atlantic?
Appelbaum: We’re a magazine. For 150 years, we were a magazine that came to your house on paper. And now we’re a magazine that you can find on the internet to.
Maggie: How many people read the Atlantic?
Appelbaum: Every month, we have about 30 million individual readers. And we have close to a million subscribers.
Maggie: How many articles does the Atlantic release every day online?
Appelbaum: It depends how much is going on in the world that day. On average, about 10 articles each day.
Maggie: What kinds of things does the Atlantic publish?
All sorts of things. What we publish most often are articles about things that are happening in the world. There’s a lot of articles about science, about health. Like a lot of places, we’ve been writing a lot of things about COVID lately, because people are really interested in that, or about schools, because everybody wants to understand how am I supposed to learn this year with all the COVID stuff going on. But we also publish things like poems, or short stories, beautiful photographs, videos, even. And we try to find different ways to let our authors or our writers express their ideas to our readers.
Maggie: How do you make sure what you publish is accurate and fair?
Appelbaum: That is the best question you could possibly ask. We spend a lot of time trying to do that. But we have a lot of ways to try to make sure that what we’re publishing is accurate and fair. The first is the best part about being a journalist, I think the best part of my job is that if I’m curious about something, I can pick up the phone or write an email, or go knock on somebody’s door. And I can ask them. And because I’m a journalist they’ll usually answer. So that’s the first thing I do is we talk to people, we don’t know everything in the world. But we can ask lots of questions to people who know a lot more. And so anytime that somebody is reporting an article, they start off by calling people who understand about it, they call different kinds of experts. Like if it was an article about COVID, who do you think we could call?
Yeah, maybe a kind of scientist called a virologist, who studies viruses. Or we could call an epidemiologist who studies the way that diseases spread through populations. Or we could call a doctor who’s taking care of COVID patient. And so we call all those people. Everybody sees the world a little bit differently. So we also pay attention to make sure that some of the experts we talk to are men and some are women, that some come from America, and some have come from other places. We want to make sure that we’re talking to people who have different perspectives and different experiences.
Appelbaum: So that’s the second thing we do first, we find the experts, then we make sure we’re talking to a bunch of different experts who have different perspectives. And we’ll also try really hard, if a bunch of experts are all telling us the same thing, to find somebody who disagrees with them. We may or may not quote them in the article, but we want to at least talk to them and understand why they disagree, how the world looks to them. Because until you hear the best objection or the best disagreement, it’s really hard to know whether or not the things that the other experts are telling you are accurate. So that’s that’s one way that we go about making sure that our work is good.
Appelbaum: A second way we go about doing it is talking to ordinary people. Sometimes journalists haven’t done a good job of doing that. They didn’t talk to people who, maybe their opinions they didn’t value so much. So maybe they talked to a bunch of experts about women, but they didn’t actually talk to women. And that wasn’t any good. Because the experts didn’t necessarily know. So we need to make sure that we’re talking to ordinary people to get their perspective.
Appelbaum: And then there are editors who look at the work that the journalist bring in. So you write your draft, and you send it to the editor. And the editor asks a lot of questions. So we ask questions about, well, how do you know this? Or how does the person who talked to you know this? Or did you talk to somebody who had a different perspective, so all the things we just talked about, the editor, makes sure that’s happened. We’ll go back. And we’ll make sure that that the information in the story is accurate. If you want to say that there are 1000 blue whales in the world, we would want to know, is that really true? We might talk to an expert, the journalist didn’t talk to you and say that number doesn’t sound right to us. And then we’d go and we’d see if we could fix the number. Then there are copy editors, who check to make sure that all the languages clear and and that all the names are spelled correctly, because you know, that’s the kind of thing that you can make a mistake on really easily.
Appelbaum: And then whenever we have the time, we have a whole team of fact checkers. And the fact checkers are one of my favorite parts of this process. If we’re quoting somebody in a story, the fact checker will go back and they’ll listen to the tape of the conversation to make sure that the code is accurate. And not just accurate, but that it’s fair, that we haven’t taken it out of context. Or if we have a number in a story, they’ll want to find the source for that number. If we’re quoting a book, they don’t just want to know a book we’re taking a book from, they want to go back and see where the book found the fact. And if they’re quoting another book, they’ll go back until they find the original document to make sure that it got quoted accurately all along the way. It is a very humbling thing to have your work fact checked, I’ve never had a story that I’ve sent to the fact checkers where they haven’t found a mistake. Because everybody makes mistakes, no matter how careful we think we’re being. And it’s really important to us to have that that whole backup team that goes through everything and make sure not just that everything is accurate, but everything in it is as fair as we can make it. And so that’s how we make sure that things are accurate. And you know, the crazy thing, Maggie, is that even with all that work, we still get things wrong.
Maggie: What do you do, if it turns out you publish something that wasn’t accurate or fair?
Appelbaum: That’s the worst feeling because we try so hard to be fair, and to be accurate, that when we make mistakes, it really feels bad. And sometimes when you make a mistake, you don’t want to admit it, right? Because it’s hard to say that you messed up. The important thing when we make mistakes is to fix it. So as soon as somebody contacts us, or the writer reaches out to the editor and says, “we think there’s a mistake in the story,” we start a process, we go and we report it, we see whether or not it really wasn’t mistake. And once we decide what the article should have said, we create a correction. So we’ll change the original text of the article. And we’ll add a note at the bottom. And the note explains why we changed it and what we’ve changed. And that way, what we’re saying to our readers is, we think things that we publish are accurate. And when we mess up, we’re going to tell you, we’re going to be honest with you. Because we’re human, and we’re going to make mistakes. When we make those mistakes, we’re not going to change it sneakily. We’ll tell you where we make a mistake, and then you can look at it. And you can trust that when you’re reading something, if there is a mistake in it, and it’s brought to our attention, we’ll fix it. The worst feeling is if we’ve written something that’s not true about somebody and hurt them. Whenever somebody contacts us and says I don’t think you wrote about me as fair, that’s something we take very, very seriously.
Maggie: Why is it so important that news sources like the Atlantic only say true things?
Appelbaum: Well, when you think about how you know things that are out there in the world, none of us has enough knowledge or enough time to figure everything out for ourselves. And so if we’re going to have conversations with each other, we need to agree on a set of facts. We all need to be able to have a certain set of things that we believe to be true. And you need to be able to turn to the news media in order to understand what those things are. There are two kinds of things you’ll find in stories that you read in the media or things that you watch on television or programs that you listen to on the radio or even a podcast. One is a set of facts. Facts are things where we can look at them and say they’re true, or they’re false. Your name is Maggie. If I called you something else, that would be false. And then there are things that are more opinions or interpretation. And those are not facts, but they do shape the way you understand things. And so if I told you I’m a really good journalist, that’s just an opinion. You might have a very different opinion about my work. And that is not the kind of thing that we will correct, it wouldn’t be the kind of thing that we said is wrong. But it also means that in addition to knowing that the facts and the things you’re reading are accurate, we want to be sure we’re accurate. But that’s not enough. We also want to be sure that we’re fair.
Maggie: Our second guest is from the audio side of news media. You might hear him say some things that are the same as Yoni. But some things are different when we’re thinking about a different way of getting the news. Also, you’ll probably hear some construction noises in the background. We’re all recording from unusual places these days.
Steve Inskeep: My name is Steve Inskeep, and I work for various places, but mainly for NPR, National Public Radio.
Maggie: What is NPR?
Inskeep: NPR is a news organization. It’s an organization of hundreds of reporters, and editors and producers, as we call them, all around the world. And we provide news of the world and across the country, to NPR radio stations. And there are hundreds of them in cities across the country, like WAMU in Washington, or KQED in San Francisco, all these local stations that do their own local news, and also carry our national and international news. NPR has now been around for 50 years. In fact, our 50th anniversary celebration begins in May. NPR is still here to be independent, to provide reliable news and information. And we do that on the radio. But we also do it through podcasts, NPR sometimes says it’s the world’s leading podcaster. I think that might still be true. It is certainly among the very top ones. And also just at npr.org, and various other digital platforms, as they call them. We even do video,.
Maggie: What shows are you involved in?
Inskeep: I am co-host of a show called Morning Edition, which is our morning news program. I am also co-host of a podcast called Up First, which is our morning news podcast. And I occasionally do things for just about every other show at one time or another.
Maggie: How many listeners do your shows have?
Inskeep: Morning Edition brags that they’re the most popular radio program in the country, with maybe 14 million people who listen at least one time in the course of a week. And some people tune in several times. And some people maybe only once. So any given day, maybe six or 7 million people tune in?
Maggie: Why do you think people listen to NPR?
Inskeep: I think what we try to do for people—and you know, people listening can decide if we managed to do it—we try to give reliable information that is told in a story so that you can easily understand it. And we give what’s called a lot of context, which is we don’t just say the very latest thing that has happened. We try to understand what it means, and what is the history what things happened before this, that caused the president to say that thing or cause senator to do something or caused people to be marching in protest in Minneapolis or any number of things that could happen. I think one reason that people like audio in particular, is because when you’re just listening, and not watching a video, you can hear the words and follow the words and follow the story. Sometimes the images can even make it harder to follow the story. Because maybe the images aren’t saying quite exactly the same thing as the words. And it can actually be harder to tell a complicated story and video than it sometimes can. Audio. Another thing by the way, that I think makes people like to listen to audio is they can do it while they are multitasking. Do you know what I mean, when I say multitasking?
Maggie: Doing multiple things at one time?
Inskeep: Yes, exactly. So like when somebody is cooking, they can listen, or when they’re driving, they can listen, or whatever.
Maggie: For your shows, how do you make sure that your reports are accurate and fair?
Inskeep: That is a great question. And we constantly worry about that and constantly work on it. One thing is by asking the people that we’re covering what they’re doing and what they think. That seems obvious, but you will find a lot of news programming where they don’t really do that, they just give their opinions. But we’ll actually call up the president or call up a congressman, or call up that person marching in Minneapolis or call up your mom or whoever, and say, “I heard this thing about you. Is it true?” Or “I heard that you’re involved in this issue. Why do you think it is important to change the length of the school day?” or whatever you’re trying to get done in the world. We talk to the people. And we try when possible to go see things for ourselves. I’ve traveled over the years overseas a lot. And when you go to a different country, like Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Syria, or Libya, or China, or some of the other places that I’ve been over the years, when you get there and just look around, a lot of things become possible to understand that maybe were hard to understand before.
Inskeep: Our stories are not always right. And sometimes they’re right, but not complete. So if you had some kind of a fight—I’m not saying this would ever happen—if you had some kind of a fight with your brother, and your mom had to intervene, maybe you would each have a different story about what happened or what went wrong. And so it could be, if we were going to do a story about your fight in the family on the radio, maybe I would interview your brother today. And he’d have a particular story. And maybe we were unable to reach you today. So he told his story. But we don’t have the whole story yet, because we haven’t gotten your perspective. So the good part is we have another show tomorrow. So when we’re done with that interview with your brother we’ll probably say, “I’m not sure we’ve got the whole story yet, we should reach out to Maggie and see what she has to say.” And so maybe we try to interview you the next day. It’s really like that with new stories; it’s always new information coming in or a different perspective you can get on the same events. And so we just try to come back tomorrow and do a little better than we did today.
Maggie: Since your show is every day, it must be hard to check the accuracy of everything. What happens if you accidentally say something incorrect?
Inskeep: If we say something that is wrong, and that does happen, we correct it, we change it. And if it’s a very minor thing, we might just say it differently and better the next time. But if it’s a big deal, we’ll do what’s called a correction. We will say, on the air, “we did this wrong yesterday, this is the fact that we have today.” So that does happen. What happens more than, more often than just being wrong, is just, as I mentioned before, not quite having the whole story yet. And we’re constantly aware of that. And, and as I said, I think having the show on every day is actually a benefit. Because it’s an admission that we don’t have the whole world–the world is so big and complicated and always changing. We won’t ever have the whole story today. But we’ll come back tomorrow.
Maggie: Why is it so important that news sources like NPR only say true things?
Inskeep: Because so many people say things that aren’t true. We live in a democracy, we have what’s called self-government, which means we don’t have a king, or a dictator to make all the decisions for us. We have to make decisions for ourselves. And we make them by voting collectively with our friends and our family and our neighbors, and even people across the country that we’ve never met. And if we don’t know what’s going on, we can’t make good decisions for ourselves or for anybody else. But if we do know what’s going on, we can have faith that we’re making the best decision we can. There’s a quote—and I’m fearful that I will misremember who said it, it’s either Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln—said, “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be saved.” That’s what we’re trying to do is just to share information with our fellow citizens so that we all can make smart decisions.
Abby: Speaking of fact checking, we fact checked that quotation! It turns out that Abraham Lincoln never said those exact words. He said something pretty similar, though. We’ve linked to an article about the transmogrification of the line in our show notes. One of the people who tracked down the quotation’s real history is Yoni Appelbaum.
Maggie: Thank you, Steve and Yoni, for telling us all about the news and how important it is for news media, especially big news companies, to tell us the most accurate and fair stories that they can. By the way, did you hear the answer to our quiz question? It’s all of the choices! We need fair and accurate news so that we can make the best informed decisions about our lives, so that we don’t spread lies about other people, and so that we can see multiple perspectives.
Abby: So now listeners, it’s your turn. When you listen to the news or read it over the next few days, think about whether you hear the kind of carefulness Yoni and Steve described. Are you hearing multiple perspectives? Can you find out where the news story got its facts from?
Maggie: And if you aren’t hearing those things, maybe look for another story as well so that you can give yourself a different perspective. And that’s our show. Join us next time for another episode of
Maggie and Abby: Big If True!
Abby: Big If True is produced by me, Abby, and Maggie. Special thanks this week to our two guests, Yoni Appelbaum and Steve Inskeep. You can learn more about them in our show notes and of course in the news. Our music is by Andrew Cote. Special shout out to Mrs. Grace Choir who requested that we cover this topic. We hope you like what we put together. And most of all listeners, thank you for listening!
More fun stuff
- It’s good for you to be a critical evaluator of the news sources you read. We really like John Green’s Crash Courses on Internet source evaluation.