THE BLOG
10/29/2012 08:56 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2012

Hey Radiolab, Don't Let People's Experiences Get in the Way of Your Reporting

NPR's much beloved Radiolab finds itself at the heart of a controversy about the treatment of its Hmong guests, who charge the show with racism.

Race may play a role, but the controversy also highlights the changing nature of media. While traditional media preferences the "expert," New Media has seen the emergence of the "everyman" and put his firsthand accounts on equal footing with those experts.

But let's back up, Hmong writer Kao Kalia Yang and her uncle Eng Yang were guests on Radiolab's show called The Fact of the Matter. The show took on the subject of Yellow Rain.

Radiolab had "experts" on the show -- two scientists and an ex CIA guy -- who said that what the Laotian Hmong believed was a yellow chemical being dropped by planes from the sky, was actually bee poop. That's right, bee dung.

Wikipedia explains more:

An episode of mass pollen release from bees in 2002 in Sangrampur, India, prompted unfounded fears of a chemical weapons attack, although this was in fact due to a mass migration of giant Asian honeybees.


In addition to the scientists and CIA guy, they also gave airtime to Eng Yang, who had a first person account of the Yellow Rain in Laos. But instead of treating him as they did the other guests, Radiolab all but dismissed his account.

Yang says the disrespect she felt was evident by the way the show's producers referred to her and her uncle on the show.

From Yang's recent article on the subject: "I was shocked to hear my uncle reduced to 'Hmong guy'" and to me as "'his niece' while everyone else on the show was introduced with their titles and official affiliations."

Yang also points out that they left out her uncle's role "as documenter of the Hmong experience for the Thai government."

Radiolab built the segment on the premise that what seems like truth at the time - people witnessing sickness due to yellow chemicals pouring from the sky - can actually be faulty. The sickness and yellow substance, the show posits, are in fact unrelated.

Leaves afflicted with the so-called Yellow Rain originally tested positive for chemicals. But scientists in the Radiolab story thought that the original chemical lab inadvertently tainted the plant material in the testing process. Subsequent testing, from experts across the world including the US Government, revealed there were no chemicals on the leaves.

Interesting. And if Radiolab had done their job right, the testimony of Eng Yang could have added yet another layer. Namely, that in questions of expert-versus-firsthand-witness, the issues become even more complex and nuanced.

Radiolab could had have left things cleverly open-ended. After all, the idea that the yellow stuff raining from the sky was bee crap seems about as likely as it being chemicals used by the Soviets in warfare. Especially when you consider the use, by the US, of Agent Orange in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

But instead, interviewer and co-host Robert Krulwich decided to play hardball with Eng Yang, putting Yang's testimony to the test in a way he hasn't done with the "experts" on the show.

Krulwich asks, "Was there always a plane and then rain, a plane and then rain, or did sometimes the rain happen without a plane?"

Yang responds that when the bombs were dropping it's not like folks were gazing up into the sky to examine the substance coming down, but he is sure that chemicals were used against his people.

Krulwich says to Kao Kalia Yang's of her uncle: "But he himself is not clear whether it's the bee stuff or whether it's other stuff because there was so much stuff coming down from the sky."

At this point, Kao Kalia Yang's voice starts to crack, and she begins to cry as she continues to translates for her uncle.

One would think Krulwich would soften here, after all it's not some wily politician he's going after, but a guy recounting the decimation of his people.

But Krulwich keeps charging forward: "As far as I can tell, your uncle didn't see the bee pollen fall, he didn't see a plane. All this is hearsay."

Later the show producers "dish" about what happened in the interview. One sums up Kao Kalia Yang's point as being this: Our show focused on this narrow Yellow Rain story at the expense of the bigger story which is that her people were being killed."

"That's right," Krulwich said, "that's exactly what she's saying and that is wrong."

Krulwich goes on to say that this wrong-headed thinking has consequences.

The fact that the most powerful man in the world, Ronald Reagan, used this story to order the manufacture of chemical weapons for the first time in 20 years...[that's] not unimportant, it's hugely important, but it's not important to her.

So what is important to the Yangs? Kao Kalia Yang says her uncle agreed to the interview so that the "story would be heard and the Hmong deaths would be documented and recognized."

The temptation as a reporter is to prove your premise. But it would have been more informative to hear the story Eng Yang wanted to tell, instead of the tense back-and-forth about whether it was in fact yellow poo flying through the air or yellow chemicals.

Note to Radiolab: Experts are great, but set a place at the table for ordinary folk too.

Yes, we expect our media outlets to vet guests to make sure they're reliable and did witness the events in question. But once that service has been completed, just report the facts with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, include all the voices, and let us decide for ourselves.