Five dos and don’ts for responding to accusations of bias

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What are the thorniest strategic questions you face? The ones that keep you up at night, but you have no idea where to start? Current is here to help!

In a new monthly column, public media veteran Scott Finn taps into the wisdom of the system to find answers and help you learn how to use them. 

Like the brood of cicadas hatching this spring, every few years an “NPR is biased” story erupts and goes viral.

Thirteen years ago, conservative political activist James O’Keefe launched his “sting” operation of NPR’s top fundraising executive. This time, the call is coming from inside the house: NPR Senior Editor Uri Berliner penned his opinion piece, “I’ve been at NPR for 25 years. Here’s how we lost America’s trust,” for the Free Press.

Berliner’s essay spread through conservative media until the New York Times did its own story with the headline, “NPR Is in Turmoil After Being Accused of Liberal Bias.”

The essay inspired a special meeting of GMs and NPR officials last week and prompted NPR’s new President Katherine Maher to publicly release the letter she sent to NPR staff.  

Even before this, growing numbers of audience members and donors have been complaining about bias, according to several station leaders. Here are some examples of the criticisms they’re accustomed to hearing:

“I’m left of center and I used to give to NPR, but in the last few years I can’t listen anymore. It’s too WOKE!”

“Looks like I’m not the only one that thinks NPR is carrying water for the Democratic National Committee.”

And the complaints aren’t just coming from the right. “I’m hearing, ‘Why do you keep platforming Republicans?’” said Louisville Public Media CEO Stephen George.

If you’re a station leader, how do you respond to these accusations of bias? I asked several current and former station leaders that question to come up with these five things to do and not to do.

1. Don’t overreact. Do be ready to respond.

The Berliner essay came out one day before WBHM’s pledge drive, said Executive Director Will Dahlberg. In ruby-red Alabama, he knew it would be an issue.

On the other hand, it’s easy to give something like Berliner’s op-ed too much oxygen. What seems so important to insiders may not even register with our supporters and audience.

WBHM staff reviewed their pledge scripts and tweaked some of their messaging. They are well practiced in what to do when people complain about bias.

“Listen. Acknowledge their question. Help them connect with NPR,” Dahlberg said.

2. Don’t make assumptions. Do be curious. Listen.

Dahlberg says he listens to the complaint and then asks questions.

“I get hyper-specific. ‘What exact piece are you talking about? Why do you hear it that way?’” he said.

Respond with curiosity, said Rima Dael. She leads the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and, until recently, was GM at WSHU in Fairfield, Conn., and an NPR Board member.

“The unifying trait and value for all our audiences is curiosity. We are curious about each other, about music, about the world at large,” she said.

“This is the heart of wanting to center the voices of folks who have not been allowed to be at the center before,” Dael said.

3. Don’t conflate increased racial and ethnic diversity with a lack of ideological diversity. Do defend our mission to look and sound like our communities.

The Berliner essay appears to link increased racial and ethnic diversity at NPR with a lack of what he called viewpoint diversity. (He denies this. You can decide for yourself.)

“This drives me crazy,” Dael said. Critics of NPR’s coverage sometimes blame increased racial and ethnic diversity in its newsroom for everything from political bias to declining ratings, with no evidence.

“It is emotionally exhausting work to have to again defend the rights of people of color who have historically been marginalized,” she said.

NPR CEO Katherine Maher focused on this in her statement: “Questioning whether our people are serving our mission with integrity, based on little more than the recognition of their identity, is profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.”

Correlation is not causation. Station leaders, especially white ones, should push back against racist assumptions by reminding people of our common values: fairness and a desire to represent everyone in our community.

4. Don’t throw NPR under the bus. Do emphasize your local mission.

George sometimes hears this from supporters: “Your local stuff is great. My problem is with NPR.”

“It’s like that old joke that everybody loves their member of Congress, but hates Congress,” he said.

It may be tempting to nod along or even join in the complaints. But it’s disingenuous. You can’t say, “We’re your NPR station” on the air while you distance yourself from NPR’s programming. NPR and local stations sink or swim together.

Instead of throwing NPR under the bus, you can explain our federated system. You can help them share their comments with NPR directly.

You also should pull back the curtain to show how the editorial process works, said Judith Smelser, president and GM of Central Florida Public Media, a former news director and newsroom trainer.

“We know how we do our work, but we can’t expect everyone else to magically know,” she said. “People are more skeptical, which can be challenging, but also can be an opportunity. They want a reason to trust us, not just because we said so.”

When confronted with a stubborn news critic, emphasize the good things your station is doing in other areas. Remind them of your “One Small Step” initiative, music programming or educational service. Some stations allow donors to direct their giving to local projects instead of NPR.

One more thing: if the comments cross the line into harassment, make sure you protect yourself and your staff. Greater Public is a good resource for how to do this.

5. Don’t forget our mission to serve all Americans. Do stand up for that ideal.

Today, news sources are fracturing. They are focusing on smaller audience segments. Many are upfront about their political leanings. It’s their business strategy.

One reason NPR receives so much criticism is its lofty, increasingly-difficult mission: to sound like America.

Is that still wise? Is it possible? Maher thinks so.

“At its best, our work can help shape and illuminate the very sense of what it means to have a shared public identity as fellow Americans in this sprawling and enduringly complex nation,” she wrote in her letter to staff.

Illuminating that shared identity has become harder in recent years, Smelser said.

“My newsroom has a hard time getting conservatives to talk to them,” she said. “The deep distrust means that it can be harder for our newsrooms to do nuanced reporting. But we have to make the effort to talk to real people on all sides of an issue,” she said.

Public radio stations may struggle to reach that ideal, but we should continue to try, George said. It’s our competitive advantage in a divided media landscape.

George recently met a conservative supporter at a breakfast fundraiser for kids with special needs. The Berliner essay came up.

“Yeah, I bet all that stuff’s true,” the supporter said. “You’ll never convince me that there’s sufficient viewpoint diversity at any mainstream news outlet, including NPR.”

“Can I keep trying?” George responded.

That conservative critic of NPR reads LPM’s newsletter every morning. He doesn’t always agree with it, and sometimes sees bias in the reporting, but he still depends on it.

This is one of the biggest values of our member station system. Thousands of station employees live in every community in America. At soccer games, art shows and farmers’ markets, they make the case for public media’s mission.

“These people are my neighbors and friends,” George said.

Scott Finn owns Finn Advising, which helps the people who are rebuilding local news. He’s worked as a GM at West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Vermont Public, a news director, an award-winning reporter, and a really bad whitewater rafting guide. Have a question you want tackled in a future column? Email Scott at [email protected].

One thought on “Five dos and don’ts for responding to accusations of bias

  1. Great advice Scott! Thanks for this piece. Number 3 is particularly difficult to answer. It could unintentionally lead to: “oh, no, we were left-biased well before we became more diverse”. I know that’s not your intent. My only point is that we as a system do need to understand and address the “why?” of the responses from some in our audience that hear bias. To simply write it off as “oh, we get complaints from both sides” is to put our collective heads in the sand. (again…I know you’re not suggesting ignoring that).

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