NYT’s ‘Caliphate’ under new scrutiny. Editors share investigative audio journalism tips: ‘The same rules apply’

The New York Times is acknowledging this afternoon that it made mistakes in handling the demise of “Caliphate,” its investigative podcast that was partially retracted

When executive editor Dean Baquet went on “The Daily” to discuss the decision, he seemed to suggest that the news organization was still learning how to apply the same standards and practices to audio as it did to other storytelling. This week, 20 of the largest public radio stations sent a letter to the Times, objecting to the lack of transparency in that episode of “The Daily,” which the stations had aired, and to the ongoing prominence of audio producer Andy Mills. The Times has apologized, and in a response today to the Public Radio Program Directors Association, assistant managing editor Sam Dolnick, a member of the family that owns the news organization, said, “Please also be assured that our standards are the same in audio as they are across all of The New York Times.”

There’s a long journalism tradition of investigative storytelling told through audio, so we asked veteran editors Madhulika Sikka and Alison MacAdam to describe the editorial process for producing airtight programs. Sikka is now executive editor at Crown Publishing and previously worked at the Washington Post as an executive producer for audio and at NPR as the executive editor of the newsroom; MacAdam is a freelance editor working on longform audio journalism, formerly senior editor of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NPR’s audio storytelling trainer. MacAdam co-edited the investigative podcast, “Believed.”

Can you walk us through the basic steps of fact-gathering and verification for a podcast series? In what ways is this process similar to and different from reporting for print and other platforms?

(Photo by Kainaz Amaria)

Sikka: I actually don’t think it’s different. We’re all trying to do the same thing, which is to tell stories that stand up to the rigor of journalism that we would apply to any medium. I think that’s what sparked my concern about that [Dean Baquet] quote that I highlighted in the tweet, this idea that it has to be something different. It doesn’t, I mean the core is still the same. I just don’t think there are different rules for different media. …

When you’re a text-first organization, going into new platforms, don’t be beguiled or dismissive of these other platforms. Just do the same kind of journalistic work that you would be doing and make sure that you have professionals at every level who understand what it is you’re doing and how best to present the story in this medium.

(Photo by NPR/Bria Granville)

MacAdam: It depends on what you are making. More podcasts call themselves “investigative” these days than actually are. But if you are genuinely investigating something in a journalistic way, the same rules apply as they would in any medium. Can you articulate the big idea of the story/series (i.e. What are you revealing/exposing? What is wrong or bad? Why does it matter?)? Are your conclusions supported by your evidence? And then, can you stress-test them against alternative explanations and evidence? Also, good fact-checkers rule!

What can be vastly different from print is the audiocraft all this reporting entails. But that’s a whole other Q&A!

What are your top tips for editing investigative work rigorously when presented in podcast form?

Sikka: Did you ever listen to “Believed?” It was a podcast about the U.S. gymnastics team and the doctor [Larry Nassar]. It used the voices of the young women who were treated by him and what he did to them. It looked at documents, court records, police records — just exactly what you’d do for any kind of story. I think we go off on an unnecessary side road if we somehow justify something going wrong in one medium as being a result of the fact that it’s on that medium. A newsroom project is a newsroom project is a newsroom project.  I just don’t buy the idea that there’s something different and distinctive that you have to do in terms of your core investigative challenge, and how you tell a story is different, but the core of it — ultimately it has to be right. And it has to be right whether you put it in a tweet or whether you put it in a podcast or whether you put it in a 5,000 word story in a Sunday paper or a one-hour documentary on TV. It has to be right.

MacAdam: One of the editor’s jobs is to maintain enough distance to be able to respectfully challenge reporters and producers if they haven’t yet presented an airtight story. And to support them and insulate them from other pressures, so they can achieve the strongest, truest version of their story.

Another tip is to think hard about the complicated relationship between journalism and storytelling. Sometimes they work hand-in-hand and sometimes they conflict. Editors have to be clear-eyed about those conflicts and work to reconcile them. 

For example, narrative storytelling (in all mediums) is usually character-driven, and individual characters stand in for larger truths. That’s essential for telling a compelling story, but it’s also problematic because no one person can perfectly represent the truth of a collective. So editors need to make sure they understand each character’s role and what the characters are intended to represent, to seek evidence that might undermine that representation, and to decide how to express those facts in the story. Or to remove the character from the story.

Here’s one last tip about transparency: Sometimes we avoid facts because they don’t fit neatly into our narrative; every podcast must leave things out. At the same time, we can’t let the rules of narrative stop us from telling complex truths. When you need to explain something complicated, you can often resolve that by simply telling your listeners. It’s OK to pause the narrative and be transparent with your audience about the reporting you’ve done, what you don’t know, and what you want them to understand. As long as you can still stand by your reporting, this transparency builds trust with the listener.

What did you learn about investigative podcasts since “Believed” was released?

MacAdam: Mostly, I’ve learned that very few podcasts like “Believed” exist. They take years to make, multiple talented staffers, and incredibly careful work. They cost a lot of money, and they are not sure financial hits. Few organizations — beyond NPR and its member stations, APM Reports (which produces the excellent “In The Dark”), Serial Productions, “99% Invisible and “Reveal” — have a track record of making that kind of investment, though more are emerging. And that’s exciting!

I’ve also come to feel frustration with the conflation of investigative podcasts with the “true crime” genre. True crime is a popular entertainment category, but it is an uncomfortable fit for public service investigative journalism. I hope as the industry surrounding on-demand audio develops, companies will see the value of investing in investigative journalism that teaches us about the world and holds the powerful accountable.

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