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Inaccurate verb choice made the report unclear

Tourists visit the Supreme Court, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Washington, as the court hears arguments in the case

On Tuesday morning, NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg reported that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch refused to wear a mask in court even though it had been “asked,” and as a result, his colleague, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, was connecting remotely. .

On Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts released a statement that was emailed to accredited Supreme Court reporters, denying asking a judge to wear a mask. In response, Twitter flagged Totenberg’s story as potentially false, citing the CJ’s statement. That evening on All things Considered, Totenberg backed up her story.

Totenberg’s story deserves clarification, but not correction. After speaking to Totenberg and reading all of the judges’ statements, I think his reporting was solid, but his choice of words was misleading.

In describing the judges’ mask habits, Totenberg’s story said that before the holidays, only Sotomayor wore a mask. When the court resumed this year, all the judges were masked except for Gorsuch, and Sotomayor was clearly not in his chair.

Here’s the key claim in Tuesday’s story Morning edition: “The situation had changed and, according to court sources, Sotomayor did not feel safe around exposed people. Chief Justice John Roberts, understanding this, in one form or another, asked the other judges to mask themselves .”

Later Tuesday All things Considered, she changed the word ‘requested’ to ‘suggested’, saying: ‘So Chief Justice John Roberts, understanding that, in some form or another, suggested that the other judges mask up. »

Exactly how Roberts, in some form, ask Where to suggest what are his colleagues hiding? Totenberg told me she hesitated: “If I knew exactly how he communicated that, I would say so. Instead, I said ‘in some form.'”

This formulation is at the heart of the dispute. Totenberg said she had multiple solid sources familiar with the inner workings of the court who told her that Roberts had conveyed something to her fellow justices about Sotomayor’s concerns over the omicron wave. Totenberg said his NPR editors know who those sources are and support the reporting.

Totenberg and his editors should have chosen a word other than “requested”. And she could have been clear about how she knew there was a subtle pressure to wear masks (the nature or even the exact number of her anonymous sources) and what she didn’t know (exactly how Roberts communicated ).

Totenberg and other Supreme Court watchers know that executive branch messages are conveyed with subtlety and diplomacy, not by clear executive order. Adding that little detail, along with more information about its sourcing and a more specific verb, would have provided a more complete picture. As she acknowledged the judges’ statements on Wednesday, the veteran reporter elaborated on her choice of wording at the end of her segment on ATC.

Without a clarification, NPR risks losing credibility with members of the public who see Roberts’ clearly worded statement and are forced to go back to the NPR story and reconcile the nuances of the verb “asked” then that in fact, it is not a nuanced word.

Even more puzzling, Sotomayor and Gorsuch issued a joint statement: “Reporting that Judge Sotomayor asked Judge Gorsuch to wear a mask surprised us. It’s wrong. Although we sometimes disagree on the law, we are warm colleagues and friends.

Totenberg’s story never claimed that Sotomayor directly asked Gorsuch to wear a mask. But Robert’s statement directly refuted NPR’s reporting. “I did not ask Judge Gorsuch or any other judge to wear a mask on the bench,” he said.

The disconnect between the story and Chief Justice Roberts’ statement concerns many NPR listeners and readers who wrote to us.

Eric Reed emailed: “When will Nina Totenberg issue a retraction or correction to her article, given that it is false and based [on] nothing at all, or at least more complicated [than] your article says so?”

And Jesus Magallanes wrote: “I saw the ‘in some form’ part as justification for sticking to the report, but there is no explanation why. A request, whatever form it is in arrival, is a request, isn’t it? In order for the story to be true as NPR first reported, Roberts should have asked “in some form or another,” but he said he didn’t, period.”

No one took issue with the broader focus of Totenberg’s original story, which asserts that judges in general don’t get along. Controversy over the anecdotal trail, which was meant to be illustrative, overwhelmed the story’s undisputed premise.

The way NPR’s story was originally written, news consumers have to choose between believing the CJ or believing Totenberg. Clarification improving the choice of verb that describes the inner workings of the court would resolve this dilemma.

This Public Editor column was researched by Amaris Castillo and Kayla Randall and produced by Kayla Randall.


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