Q&A: NPR Morning Edition host Rachel Martin on connecting with listeners

Photos by Stephen Voss/NPR

On Monday, listeners to NPR’s flagship morning news show Morning Edition will hear a new voice anchoring the broadcaster’s coverage. Rachel Martin, an award-winning reporter who has been hosting Weekend Edition Sunday for the past four years, will join Steve Inskeep and David Greene in leading the daily program.

Martin has reported on US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, and the challenges of immigration and shifting demographics in Europe. At Morning Edition, she will fill the chair vacated by Renee Montagne, who is stepping down after 12 years with the show. 

CJR spoke to Martin about the challenges of a daily news program, approaches to covering Donald Trump, and the role of journalism in democracy. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

As you prepare for your new role, how do you think about framing the news on a daily basis, as compared to what you had been doing at Weekend Edition Sunday?

It is more challenging because you have to do a couple things at the same time. On the weekend show we have the freedom to just say “We’re going to stake our claim on this idea. It may be in the headlines; it may not be in the headlines.” On the weekday, obviously, you have to do two things. You have to set the news agenda for the day, and you have to be thinking ahead to where the story in going to move in the 24-hour cycle. 

You also still have to be thinking about how to package that story in a way that’s distinctive. It’s not enough to just ask who’s the big voice on this story that everybody else is covering. That’s the baseline, but what we’re trying to do is to take that and think about what’s the next level? What’s the next level of audience engagement? How do we get people into this story? What kind of social media elements are there in this opportunity? Is it a panel? Is it a bigger produced piece? Obviously the pace is just more intense.

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You mention having to follow what the news agenda is for that given day. Based on the past month, it seems that the transition and presidency of Donald Trump will be driving the news. One thing that Morning Edition has traditionally done a good job of is providing a wider lens. Given how much airtime Trump draws, how do you avoid being too myopic and covering all Trump, all the time?

That’s a really important question. A big part of the answer is to focus on policy. Because that’s a way to stay connected in covering the day-to-day minutiae of the political story, but you’re focused on the issues. So, yeah, there might be a moment where you reference a tweet that Donald Trump sends out, but that’s a thirty-second experience, whereas we’re going to devote the bulk of our segments to issues, to policies.

That means talking with people out in the country about what their expectations are. What are the roots of some of your anxieties? How do you feel as you’re watching this transition team take shape? As you’re looking toward the next administration, how is your confidence about Trump’s ability to assuage those anxieties? 

Given that Trump has a pretty antagonistic relationship with the media and that Paul Ryan has spoken about his desire to cut federal funding for public broadcasting, do you worry at all about the future of NPR along with other public broadcasting outlets?

Not at all. Public radio has proven time and again that it is a fundamental part of American democracy. Our audience numbers are at record levels after this campaign, proving–now more than ever–how valuable our listeners find NPR to be. I expect that we’re going to be more important than ever to people in terms of trying to discern how the administration’s moves are going to affect their lives. So I’m not concerned at all.

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You mention public radio being “a fundamental part of democracy.” NPR occupies a unique place in the media landscape. Can you speak to that idea of the role of journalism in a democracy?

A free press is enshrined in our constitution. It is the basis of so many of our other freedoms. People have to understand what their government is doing, and government has to be held accountable. That’s how it’s always been; that’s how it will continue to be. And the people and the institutions that are best positioned to do that are journalists, professional journalists.

Now, the industry is incredibly diversified and, frankly, you don’t have to be a professional journalist to have a huge following on Twitter. It’s a really competitive landscape, and some of what’s out there is fake news, as we’ve been seeing. Some of what captures people’s attention and helps them make choices isn’t up to the standards of NPR or myriad other professional news organizations.

I think it’s incumbent upon us, in particular public media that has this mission to go out and hear from the American people and to tell the stories of not just the people in urban centers on the coasts but of Americans across the country, to do that work. People are expecting it of us. Is it going to be more difficult in an administration that has publicly maligned media over the last year? Yeah. That makes it all the more important. 

Where it gets sticky is in trying to understand the line people want you to walk when it comes to covering an administration that is going to push some boundaries, potentially. We’ve already seen this in our coverage as we’ve grappled with covering the so-called “alt-right,” or white supremacist movements that have been, to some degree, emboldened by Donald Trump’s campaign. That’s put us all in new territory in deciding how much airtime to give these kinds of voices. Is that furthering their agenda and does that fit with the public radio mission? The answer is that it does, because our job is to report the world as it is, not as we wish it were. So that’s what we do, and that’s what we have to continue to do so that Americans can hold their lawmakers accountable and push them when they think the administration is out of line. They can’t do that unless they know the truth, and that is still the work of journalists.

In your signoff from Weekend Edition, you mentioned a desire to be curious and speak to people who have experiences far different from yours. This election has shown us that, as a country, we are extremely divided in the ways we view the world. At Morning Edition, what are your goal in terms of providing perspectives and reporting on stories that we may have missed?

The whole reason I got into journalism is because I firmly believe, with every ounce of my soul, that the way forward for our country, our common humanity, is to try to understand the experience of others. Empathy, trying to relate to people who aren’t like you, to stop other-izing people who come from a different religion, ethnic identity, geographic location. It’s why I got into journalism—to try to draw those connections between people. But, in the wake of this election, it feels even more urgent to try to tell stories that reveal how we are connected instead of the ways in which we perceive that we are all so different from one another.

Do you think there has been something of a failure in what you’re describing?

I think that there has been a failure to reach people who have felt that they are being left out of the progress that America has been making. Progress is subjective; it depends on how you see the changes. Globalization or even social issues—when you talk about the legalization of gay marriage, for a lot of evangelical Christians living in rural America, that is an issue that is still difficult and, based on conversations I’ve had with many people, they have felt that there has not been a place in the mainstream press or in any public arena to talk about why it’s difficult because immediately they’re shut down.

I do think that there are more opportunities for us to listen to different voices and to not go in with a specific agenda. We do that at our peril. We always try not to, but I think it’s inevitable sometimes in journalism that you think you know what the story is, or you think you’ve made up your mind about where the country is on something, and then you sprinkle in a bit of dissent here and there. Sometimes it’s worth sitting with that dissent, sitting with that person for a while and being in their experience, not just making them an afterthought in your story, but telling their story. 

This election happened and it’s like, whoa, the story is here! This is the big story.

You mention opportunities to tell new stories. You’ve had experiences all over the world as a foreign correspondent. What new stories, whether inside our borders or abroad, do you hope to focus on?

Before this election, I was craving to get out into the world a little more. I’m just coming out of early-childhood parenting, so I was thinking, OK, now I can get back out and do some more traveling. I lived in Berlin for a bit and I’ve been fascinated by the refugee crisis and immigration patterns and how that’s changing Europe. But then this election happened and it’s like, whoa, the story is here! This is the big story.

What happens in America, as we have seen, affects the rest of the world, for better or for worse. So what I am excited about is getting out into our country. What’s great about having a three-host situation is that it affords one of us [the opportunity] to be out at all times doing that. We’re in the process of identifying some places where we can really spend some time over the next year, places we can return to, where we can develop relationships with people to try to bring some of that deep reporting that NPR is known for. Those kind of personal, emotional conversations only come from trust. That means you have to be there to develop that relationship. We are anxious to do that, and I personally, am very excited to do that.

We’ve talked about the heavy stuff and the substance and all the ways what we do matters, but I’m also just excited to have some fun. The people that are on the Morning Edition team are amazing. Steve Inskeep and David Greene are two of the best, and they’re also just great human beings. I think you’re going to hear on the air a looser kind of vibe, a little more transparency, less kind of formal radio theater more just three people who are curious about the world hopefully asking the questions that Americans want us to ask on their behalf.

In terms of the stories we’re telling and whether or not they’re connecting, are there worries that this election has raised?

I am worried that people’s faith in all media is crumbling. I think most of that is undeserved, but some of that is deserved. People have felt left out, and I think that there have been mistakes made.

We need to do a better job of telling our own story, about how we make news. It’s not random. It’s not arbitrary. It’s a painstaking business, how we choose what voices to put in a piece, why we choose those voices.

In this day and age, people want more transparency because everyone is hyper-tuned to any whiff of bias, and I think that we would do ourselves a favor to be a little more transparent about the rigorous process that we go through in our newsgathering and our storytelling. It is different; the standards that professional journalists have, especially NPR, are just different that a random blog or website. We take such great pains to make sure that we are telling the truth about a scenario, and that’s really hard. I think we need to do a better job about telling people how we do that work.

 

 

 

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.