The media, civil liberties and security in post-9/11 America

This is an experiment. I am asking listeners, the NPR news staff and media experts to engage in a discussion. The purpose is to evaluate an NPR investigative story critical of a private counter-terrorism force at Minnesota’s famous Mall of America.

More than any story in NPR’s prodigious coverage related to the 9/11 anniversary, the mall series divided listeners, who responded by the score. The two-part series, titled “Under Suspicion,” was either hailed for exposing violations of civil liberties or condemned for undermining the nation’s counter-terrorism efforts. The mall is said to be the country’s largest and a presumed terrorist target.

The opposing reactions in part reflect how we as a nation remain divided over how to respond to threatened attack. But what interests me more here is a related divide over the news media’s role. How much responsibility should the press take for the consequences of its coverage, in this case potential terrorism?

I suspect that many editors and reporters reading this are now squirming, as I am, and for good reason. We have no clear answer. And so instead of doing the normal ombudsman thing of getting an internal response and pronouncing judgment, I am throwing open the discussion to everyone. I will moderate the discussion, weigh in periodically and republish some of the insightful comments.

This is what was reported, though I encourage you to listen yourself:

The first part, a nearly 20-minute story on All Things Considered, uncovered that many innocent citizens were being detained and traumatized—and their reputations tarred as a “suspicious person” in police files held for the next 20 years. A seemingly ham-handed private mall counter-terrorism force is the primary actor in the story, though local police and the FBI don’t come off much better. The tales of two ordinary citizens and a mall employee filled out the report . The second installment—a nearly 8-minute piece on Morning Edition—found that non-whites appear to be detained much more often than whites. This may be illegal racial profiling.

Companion documents, a video and additional reportage were posted online.

The reporting itself, done by NPR’s Daniel Zwerdling with the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, was solid. The production value was superb. The stories and the many candid, intelligent interviews made for riveting radio.

But let’s set aside a question of what constitutes undue profiling (though mall executives objected strongly to part two) and focus on a question about the story: How far should NPR go in giving its own context and conclusions on what the consequences of its investigation might mean for our civil liberties versus our protection against terrorist attacks?

The closest the journalists came was in the introduction by host Robert Siegel. He noted that the government has been encouraging private citizens and businesses to be vigilant about terrorists. He then transitioned into the story by saying that it “suggests in at least one community these programs are entangling ordinary people with the police and the FBI.”

In the piece itself, different people who were interviewed made comments that touched on the policy implications. After 20 minutes, I was left with the strong impression that the mall force was poorly trained, over-zealous and probably not needed. But you may have come away with other impressions. At no point, did the journalists provide a bottom-line assessment of what their investigation meant.

One reason may have been a weakness in the investigation. Minnesota law officials were the only ones from 29 agencies across the country to respond to the journalists’ requests for reports on suspicious activities at nationally well-known attractions in their areas. These places ranged from Epcot Center to Dodger Stadium. The Minnesota officials passed along 100 reports of people questioned at the Mall of America. The reporters thus had a sample of only one attraction and from it, only 100 reports out of what mall representatives said were about 1,000 people questioned each year.

This limitation was not hidden by the reporters; it came out in the course of the storytelling. Their findings were still worth reporting, but the restricted sample certainly means that no sweeping conclusions can be made about private or local police anti-terrorism efforts around the country. OK, the NPR audience is smart, and we all probably understood the sample limitations of the NPR story. Or did we? Twenty minutes is a lifetime on radio and communicates so much importance that it overwhelms the story’s limitations if they are not underlined. At least for me.

One reason we love NPR so much is that, as in “Under Suspicion,” it uses a technique called “storytelling” to explain or evoke complicated subjects through the stories and voices of real people. An alternative is to put us all to sleep with the droning analysis of a reporter. But does that mean that at no point should the story try to make bottom-line sense of it all for listeners? Is this taking “we report, you decide” to false limits? I am not suggesting that the reporters give opinion, but should they turn the corner on their own investigation and themselves analyze what it means? We trust them more than any one source.

In this case, it might have been just to say, at the beginning or end of the report, that the country is struggling with the tradeoff between security and civil liberties, and while this report is limited—repeat: limited—it suggests that we might all need to take a closer look at just how private security forces and local police fit into the mix. That would take only a few seconds to say. As it was, the impression left by the “just-the-facts-ma’am” approach might be misleading (it was to me).

This also provides fodder, as seen in the comments, for complaints about liberal bias, though, admittedly, some people would complain no matter how you frame the story. They, wrongly, don’t want policing questioned at all. Still, there was no audible bias to me in any of the actual presenting of the facts in the NPR story.

Journalists are divided about these matters more than the public realizes. I belong to the school that calls for adding the “to be sure” element to stories, telling the audience the significance of what we know and, just as important, don’t know from the presented story. In “Under Suspicion,” the stakes are high. Stories that unfairly chip away at security efforts’ legitimacy may undermine those efforts and leave us vulnerable. But ignoring the cost to civil liberties may undermine our democracy itself.

This column was originally published on on Sept. 22, 2011.


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