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Regional Bias And How NPR Covers America

It is a persistent complaint among listeners: NPR has a regional bias, and it favors the East and West coasts.

"It is past time that NPR relocated its headquarters away from Washington, D.C.," admonished Gregory Elmes, a professor at West Virginia University, where he teaches geology and, fittingly, geography. "Somewhere like St. Louis, Mo. or Denver, Co. might provide your reporters, analysts and hosts with a wider perspective representative of a much broader sweep of the United States."

Our editorial ambition is to look and sound like America.

And so I decided to wade into the data weeds to see just how true the complaint might be. What follows is a six-year breakdown of NPR's coverage by state. I slice and dice by ranking the number of stories on a per capita basis and against the location of NPR's 20 national bureaus and offices. I drill further by taking one month's stories and pulling apart the Washington ones to see if the headquarters staff was overly obsessed with its own surroundings. I also weigh the proportion of foreign stories.

"Our editorial ambition is to look and sound like America," senior vice president for news, Margaret Low Smith, told me, repeating NPR's own goal, a noble one stressed internally.

What the data shows is that there were far more stories from Washington, almost all about national politics and policy, than from anywhere else. California and New York lead after that, but even tiny states such as Delaware figured in a significant way in stories almost at least monthly. The median was an average of 45 stories a year, or Wisconsin.

It is our second largest state by population and geographic size, Texas, that may have the most grounds for complaint. It placed fifth in the absolute number of stories, but was 48 th in rankings weighted by population.

Generally, however, as National Editor Steve Drummond, who oversees the bureaus outside Washington and pushes to get their stories on-air, said upon seeing the study: "If you look at the map, our stories tend to match where the people are."

The data reflects not just whole stories, but parts of them, too, if the state figures as relevant in the report. There will be wide disagreements on what stories NPR should cover. This is a judgment call. After all, member stations provide separate local and state news. But whatever the stories are for national broadcast — be they on health care, politics or the economy, for example — the consensus inside and outside the NPR newsroom is that there's a need for more regional input, more voices that sound like each of us.

You can decide for yourself if your state is getting a fair shake. Just toggle through the interactive maps and charts. They were prepared painstakingly by librarian Lauren Sin, data editor Matt Stiles and ombudsman researcher Lori Grisham. The data is from 2006 to 2011, but there is no reason to think that there have been significant changes since then. The population data is from the 2010 Census.

Budgets, deadlines and on-air time realistically limit how much NPR can blanket the country. Among news media, only three newspapers — The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and USA Today— compete with NPR in original national coverage, each with its own strengths, none of them complete. National television networks, both broadcast and cable, abandoned the country's interior long ago.

One advantage NPR has is that it often draws on the resources of its nearly 300 member stations, though some have better reporting and production abilities than others. This is part of a long-time tug between the members and the network. The financial and audience trends today in news media suggest that NPR will have no choice but to draw more on its members in the future.

Smith and Drummond, meanwhile, lobby for budget and push reporters, editors and producers to add more regional voices and stories. Aiding the effort is NPR's vice president for diversity, Keith Woods, whose office is next to Smith's in the newsroom, not on a corporate floor. His brief includes encouraging geographic diversity, as much as race, gender and the like.

In the rankings, California and New York arguably deserve to come in first and second among states in the average annual number of stories over the six years. They are our first and third most populous states and homes of industries such as entertainment, media, finance and high tech that many of us care about. Louisiana was a surprising fourth, but Hurricane Katrina, which hit in 2005, greatly pushed up the number of stories from there as did the BP Oil Spill in 2010.

There are many ways to weight the rankings — by economy, square miles, happiness, etc. — especially in a nation with a federal system in which just being a state gives you an equal two seats in the Senate and bully rights. I went with population size, which produces some anomalies. New York and California move down, while some smaller states like Maryland and West Virginia move up. (Prof. Elmes?)

I see no patterns. But if the rankings show anything, it's that politics count.

Texas sticks out like a sore thumb. I recently lived for three years in San Antonio, and lovingly found that Austin's motto — "Keep Austin weird" — seems to apply to the whole state. OK, all Texans aren't weird, but they certainly are proudly different, which is always a source for stories. That and oil.

Yet, Texas played a mentionable part in only .59 stories per 100,000 people, which was much less than half the national average of 1.33, not counting Washington, D.C. We took out Washington from the averages because its small population and naturally large story count unfairly throws off the measure. Anyway, D.C. is not a state, as much as Washingtonians may want it to be.

Some readers will surely seek to draw partisan political conclusions from the six-year rankings, but I see no patterns. Liberal Massachusetts had three times the number of stories of conservative Texas on a per capita basis. Texas, however, was still mentioned in many more stories, despite Massachusetts being the home of more highly-ranked universities, with the experts and knowledge industries that go with that. If Texas thinks of itself as a nation-state, Cambridge likes to see itself as housing the government in exile.

Small liberal Vermont ranked high. But largely-empty conservative Wyoming practically matched it.

If the rankings show anything, it is that politics count in another way. The opening primary states, New Hampshire and Iowa, rank higher than the size of their populations and economies might otherwise seem to warrant.

Battleground political states such as Ohio also get significant attention, though Florida, another divided state, does not. Florida, which is really two states — the cosmopolitan southern half and the Deep South northern half — has almost as much reason as Texas to feel dissed by the story count. I was previously the ombudsman for The Miami Herald.

The data is based on state "tags" that NPR's librarians put on stories each day. When a reporter files a story from a particular state or D.C., or when a state is mentioned in an interview or by a reporter in more than a passing way, then the librarian tags that story with the name of the state. More than one state tag can be put on a story.

The measures are only of stories on NPR's masthead news programs: Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition Saturday, Weekend Edition Sunday and Weekends on All Things Considered. The short reports in the hourly newscasts are not counted. (They are not transcribed.)

The measures shouldn't be taken as Bible. Deciding whether a state is mentioned only in passing, or whether the location of an expert is pertinent, is subjective. But the overall process is consistent and thorough enough to give us a strongly valid picture of the geographic diversity in NPR's on-air coverage.

The location of NPR offices and bureaus influences that diversity. The headquarters are in Washington, D.C., and its largest bureau, called NPR West, is in Culver City, Calif.

This less-than-fashionable suburb close to the Los Angeles airport is home to many of the area's start-up film, television and high-tech companies. Different NPR shows have originated from Culver City over the past decade, and today Renee Montagne co-hosts Morning Editionfrom there. She arrives to work near midnight to talk across the time zone differences of the huge nation that we have. In September, Weekends on All Things Considered will move its staff to NPR West, too. While the Washington headquarters is located in a new, state-of-the art, industrial tech building, NPR West works out of a converted, funky, non-descript, small furniture factory.

As a reporter, I ran two overseas bureaus for The New York Times, and while they were meant to be jumping off points to cover a region, practical pressures naturally result in disproportionate coverage originating from where your office is. The NPR map above, which locates the bureaus today for you, shows the same phenomenon. We expect California, Washington and New York to figure big in story count, but Arizona and Alabama, which also had bureaus, are mid-sized states whose rankings are arguably higher than their relative journalistic importance, as much as we have valued their stories. However, Arizona is the home of Phoenix, one of our largest cities. Today's bureau locations are little changed from September 2011.

"Bureau," by the way, is a romantic way to refer to what in many states is really just the reporter's home. NPR seeks to save on infrastructure and staff costs by opening full offices only where the story traffic is judged to require them.

The staffing is efficient, but also makes NPR partly a prisoner of Washington.

Measuring Washington and much-derided inside-the-Beltway coverage presents its own challenge. When I showed my early results to Smith, she objected about the number of Washington tags. It wasn't that there were too many, and that she wanted to make the coverage look less biased towards D.C. There were too few Washington tags, she said. She was right. It turned out that the librarians were giving no tags at all to many Washington stories because they were not geographically specific, or the stories were about national politics that transcend a D.C. label. These ranged from White House stories to entertainment interviews done by the large Washington staff.

So that is how we came to pick one month and to further tag and re-tag all its stories. We picked September 2011, which seemed to be about as typical a month as we could find. There is no perfect month and no perfect strategy, but the exercise was illustrative. See here for the methodology.

The top states in the rankings that month more or less stayed the same as under the library's normal tagging system. The month was the 10 th anniversary of 9/11, pushing up the New York story count a bit, while Republican primary campaigns in swing states such as Virginia, Ohio and Florida boosted these.

But that month, of the 1,128 stories and host interviews, 565 had received no geographic tag at all. Re-reading the transcripts of the 565, we added tags of "National – D.C," "International," "Not Specified," and "Puerto Rico" to them. Integrating these with the standard breakdown produced dramatically different results, as the separate chart below shows. The full breakdown is also available.

A quarter of the stories — 26 percent — had to do with the rest of the world, including if they originated in Washington. Debates over how much foreign news to give are interminable. A quarter seems defensible to me, but each of us will have our own judgment. That particular month, Libya was in revolt, the UN was in turmoil over Palestinian membership, the Israeli embassy in Cairo was attacked and the Syrian uprising was brewing.

But what interests us most here is regional bias at home, and sure enough the critics and Smith are right. "National-DC" means Washington stories about national politics and policy debates, often from Congress or the White House. This category came in first, by far. These are your classic inside-the-Beltway stories, though, arguably, many of them directly or indirectly affect all of us. Think of the current events on immigration bills and health reform, for example.

Coming in fourth were the 33 "Washington, D.C." stories. These were reports about the Washington, D.C., community or involved man-on-the-street interviews with people in the District. Washington looms even larger in the national rankings when its two related categories are added together.

The "Not Specified" tag were for stories that were often produced by the Washington staff but had no state central to the report. This included many science stories and entertainment reports and reviews.

There is no way economically for NPR to avoid concentrating most of its staff in one place, and that one place happens to be Washington. The science, economics, entertainment and cultural teams are more efficient working under an editor in one place. National security and national political teams are naturally in Washington. But the danger of management practices designed for efficiency is that they become prisons, too, locking you into doing things a certain way. NPR seems partly to be a prisoner of Washington, as the numbers show.

There is no defined level of ideal geographic diversity. You know it when you hear it, and we all hear it differently. Still, most of us seem to agree that we want to hear more regional voices — to hear voices like us — but we also know that there are practical limits in achieving that. What this means, then, is that editors and reporters have to keep making that extra effort to find stories and Americans in the great heartland, and to beware of becoming self-satisfied, particularly from a cubicle inside Washington.

Updated July 22, 2013 at 6 p.m.:

I love the intelligence of NPR's audience. Texas is not the only continental state to have once been its own country, as I originally wrote and deleted after many of you gave me history lessons. Vermont, California, and West Florida were also once republics. However, only Texas is listed on the State Department's list of countries historically recognized by the United States since 1776. Hawaii also makes that list, but is not continental. I also changed the text to call Arizona and Alabama mid-sized states, instead of small ones. None of you complained, but Phoenix is one of our largest cities, and I was partly raised across the river from Phoenix City, Ala., where folks think their state is pretty big.

Megan Bennett,Lori Grisham, Andrew Maddocks,Wendy Johnson, Lyndsey McKenna,Laura Schwartz, Lauren Sin, Matt Stiles, and Stephannie Stokescontributed to this report.

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Edward Schumacher-Matos is the ombudsman for NPR. His column can be found on here.