Mar 29 1993

Study Finds National Public Radio Fails To Reflect Public

A study of National Public Radio commissioned by FAIR indicates that public radio’s leading news programs fail– in reporting, analysis and commentary– to reflect the diversity of the public.

The study, conducted by Charlotte Ryan of the Boston College Media Research and Action Project, examined transcripts of all weekday broadcasts of All Things Considered and Morning Edition from September through December 1991. It focused on who gets heard on NPR as “newsmakers,” analysts and commentators– and who doesn’t.

The four-month study found that in selecting news sources, NPR titled toward government officials and representatives of establishment and conservative think tanks. Only 21 percent of NPR‘s sources were women– just 3 percentage points more than FAIR found in a 1990 study of Nightline.


Even in selecting commentators, where NPR has more discretion than in choosing news sources, the program failed to “look like America.”

  • Only four of 27 “regular” commentators (those featured two or more times) were women– 15 percent. Women did no commentaries on U.S. politics or economics, and only one commentary on international politics.
  • Fully 26 out of 27 regular commentators were white. The sole exception, Lynda Barry, is half Filipina.
  • Eighty-five percent of regular commentators were white males.


The study described NPR‘s dominant slant as “Beltway Bias”– defined as “the tendency to allow Washington officials and establishment pundits to set the new agenda.” The study criticized NPR for “equating the working of public officials with news” and “equating balance with interviews with the top-ranking member of each major party.”

  • Roughly a quarter of all sources (26 percent) were government officials.
  • Twenty-eight percent of domestic stories were reported from Washington, with 59 percent originating in the Northeastern states (D.C to Maine).
  • Of the Washington-based stories, more than half (53 percent) led with a quote from a major administration official or a member of congress- often allowing the official to frame the story.


For analysis, NPR often turned to D.C-based think tanks. Think tanks of the establishment center like the Brookings Institution (11 appearances) and conservatives think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute (eight appearances) were well-represented . Only one group that might be considered left of center (the National Security Archive, with two appearance) was among the 10 think tanks used two or more times. The leading multi-issue think tanks of the left, the Institute for Policy Studies, was never used as a source.


Representatives of organized citizen groups and public interest experts made up only 7 percent of NPR sources– about the same found in earlier FAIR studies of Nightline and MacNeil/Lehrer. The number of advocates from any single movement was very small- racial and ethic groups (1.5% of total sources); labor unions (0.6%); women’s movement (0.4%); environmentalism (0.3%); lesbian and gay organizations (0.2%).


NPR does regularly air comments on news events from random members of the public. About 5 percent of all sources were “on-the-street” interviews, which tended to be evenly balanced between men and women, and appeared to seek out ethnically diverse voices as well. However, these were generally short soundbites– an average of about 12 seconds- while journalists, writers and academics spoke for an average of about 52 seconds.

“While NPR‘s special series and cultural reporting reflected considerable diversity,” the study concludes, “its day-to-day coverage of politics, economics and social issues, as well as its regular commentaries, did not come close to reflecting the ethnic, gender or class composition of the American public.”

Jeff Cohen, FAIR’s executive director, commented: “In-depth newscasts can puncture the double-talk that often comes out of Washington– but only by airing the views of diverse, independent analysts and commentators. NPR has largely failed on that count. Regularly including such voices would put the public back into public radio.”