The Ombudsman's office gets deluged with emails, comments, phone calls, and the perception here — among a staffer, an intern and me — is that the majority of them are critical of NPR for being too "mainstream" or for being too conservative.
But that doesn't gibe with recent NPR-commissioned scientific polling on how its audience views the coverage. A June 30 report says that 50 percent of the total audience sees NPR's news coverage as balanced; while more than 40 percent see NPR as liberal and only 4 percent thought it had a conservative slant.
When NPR is lined up against PBS, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, NPR is more likely than the commercial outlets to be perceived as "mostly fair" in its coverage, according to independent data from Roper. See Slide #3 below.
"Given the increasingly polarized nature of our political discourse, perceptions of media bias are inevitable these days," said Vince Lampone, NPR's research manager. "It's comforting that along with PBS, NPR is seen as at least somewhat more balanced than commercial news outlets in its news coverage."
Many of the people we hear from might disagree about how balanced or fair NPR is. In general, most listeners who contact us appear to fit into the liberal category, and many complain that NPR's reporting does not mirror their views. So I was expecting NPR's research to reflect that. But it didn't. Among those who self-identify as "very liberal," only 2 percent thought NPR was conservative.
It's important to point out that we are talking about two different audiences, though both are revealing. People who contact the Ombudsman are generally focused on a particular story or issue. People surveyed for this study in April and January were asked how they perceived NPR's overall news coverage.
Some aspects of NPR's listener survey research are predictable; some are surprising. It doesn't require polling to learn that there's a general public perception that NPR leans left — whether it does or doesn't. Nor is it surprising that conservatives are more likely than moderates to believe that NPR has a political agenda.
But what is unexpected are findings among those who self-identify as "somewhat conservative" and "very conservative." In this group, the research shows a belief that NPR is slanted to the left and right. Among "very conservative" listeners, 57 percent thought NPR's news coverage was liberal but another 15 percent thought it was conservative. Take a look at slide #2.
Previous audience research has shown that NPR's listeners put themselves into three fairly neat categories: liberal, middle of the road, and conservative. That information describes the political outlook of the audience.
But NPR decided to do a year-long tracking study to determine how well the network is fulfilling its stated mission to "create a more informed public — one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and culture."
"The research is hardly a defensive move on NPR's part — on the contrary, we want to be aware of shifts in listener's perceptions over time," said Lampone. "Not just of perceived political bias, but of our overall success in achieving our public service mission."
The charts below provide more information on how the audience perceives NPR's news coverage: (At the bottom of each slide is who conducted the research, when and how many people were surveyed.)
While these findings may be reassuring to NPR, it shouldn't be a license to sit back. Perceptions of bias plague all news rooms and it's critical to credibility to work on improving the perception that NPR's coverage is balanced. The company will never get a "balanced" rating from 100 percent of its audience, but 50 percent is only half-way there.