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Bursting The Beltway Bubble

Dan Hanrahan works on his farm on October 10, 2019 in Cumming, Iowa. Hanrahan said that "the Iowa caucuses allow a rural area to have a say in the political process."
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Dan Hanrahan works on his farm on October 10, 2019 in Cumming, Iowa. Hanrahan said that "the Iowa caucuses allow a rural area to have a say in the political process."

As I finish up my tenure as NPR's Public Editor, I've been looking back over some of the persistent themes that have run through the audience concerns I've heard. One in particular has come up routinely. Broadly speaking, many in NPR's nationwide audience say they feel that NPR's representation of the U.S. focuses far too much on Washington, D.C., and the largest East and West Coast cities, and not nearly enough on the non-coastal rest of the country.

These concerns have taken many forms:

Listeners, mostly in the rural center of the country, who tell me they feel they don't hear their lives reflected on the radio. As one Pennsylvania listener wrote: "I hear exactly the same news from the different programs you offer ... It's all national news." He added, "I always perk up during those precious few moments you allow for PA, OH, NY, DE and MD news because I live in this region. I also listen carefully to what's happening elsewhere in our country. I want to know what neighboring states in my region are doing and what cities similar to mine are doing."

Concerns during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election about NPR's overuse of "Rust Belt" as a catch-all descriptor for Midwestern industrial states, which a Missouri listener told us was "insulting."

A feeling that NPR, like much of the rest of the media, missed factors that played a role in the 2016 presidential election. Experts who NPR talks to, one Texas listener wrote, almost all "come from the East Coast or West Coast. What of all of us in the middle.... We are not included in your conversations and that's exactly what happened in the election. Everybody forgot that there is a whole big country in the Middle that may have different opinions."

Even recent headlines, like this one, that refer to "Out West," imply that all the readers are further east. As a Colorado reader wrote, "If NPR is to be truly national — and I dearly want it to be — it's got to get up to speed and stop this kind of DC-centric writing and reporting."

We hear these and similar complaints whenever we write about staff and news coverage diversity at NPR, since NPR's human resources department tracks only racial, ethnic and gender diversity, not the economic classes or geographic backgrounds of its newsroom staff.

I understand and agree with many of these observations and complaints. I also think the newsroom has taken some recent steps that have already started to change the situation and will likely have even more impact in months to come.

Putting a finger on the issue

This has been a difficult issue to wrap my thoughts around. Whenever listeners write to us with concerns, we ask for specifics. But it's more challenging to identify what is missing than to focus on what has been done. NPR, of course, does cover stories from across the country, every week, if not every day. NPR's roster of national correspondents based outside the D.C., New York and Los Angeles-area bureaus includes reporters in Miami; Austin; Dallas; Chicago; Boston; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Virginia Beach, Va.; San Francisco; and Boise, Idaho. Some, like Debbie Elliott, based in southern Alabama, regularly cover rural stories. Some of the others in the cities listed here have defined national beats, such as law enforcement or immigration, not regional coverage, although they are available to cover breaking news in their localities.

While it's far easier to keep tabs on what's happening when you live in a community and can build trust with local people, many reporters and editors based in the major bureaus also cover stories across the country. For example, Nathan Rott covers environmental stories and the American West from a base at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Jason DeRose, the western bureau chief based there, has overseen an increase in the coverage of Native American and Indigenous communities, which we looked at recently; he largely taps the reporting of member-station reporters.

Vickie Walton-James, NPR's chief national editor, pushed back at the notion that NPR is not covering rural issues, in particular, to the extent it should. "I think we do a really good job," she said. Of course, responsibility for this coverage is spread across the company and its reporting areas, not just the National desk. A year ago, when NPR's top news executive Nancy Barnes laid out her vision for NPR's newsroom, she specifically said one goal was to get "outside the Beltway," referring to Washington, D.C.

Some special series have stood out during my tenure: coverage of the impact of the opioid crisis in Ohio from the Embedded team; award-winning reporting, in collaboration with PBS's Frontline, on black lung disease among rural coal miners, from Howard Berkes, Nicole Beemsterboer, Huo Jingnan and Robert Benincasa; Kirk Siegler's reporting on the causes and aftermath of the 2018 Paradise fire in California; and the Health team's 10-month-long special series on "Life And Health In Rural America," to name just a few.

We learn more and the people we serve learn more when we have both a presence in and focused attention on the nation's most remote and least populated places.

Deep dives like these are vitally important. But so is the everyday coverage that would convey to listeners and readers — both those who live in the interior of the country and those who don't — the sense that the parts of the nation that are far from the centers of media power do matter to a national audience. How can we understand the world we live in without getting a more complete picture?

To cite just one example of what I'd call a missing story, I took a look at NPR's coverage in the last year of rural broadband access. As more and more of contemporary life moves online, access to reliable high-speed internet connections becomes vital. NPR itself reported in late 2018 that by one estimate, a full 162 million Americans do not have regular access to high-speed broadband internet, with all sorts of implications. But, by my count, NPR ran some two dozen stories in 2019 that mentioned rural broadband issues, several of them part of that good Health team series. (By contrast, just to pick a random measure, there were more than a hundred stories about entertainment streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Disney Plus that largely aren't accessible to those without reliable high-speed broadband.)

Perhaps that's why the smallest detail in this very good story from Montana, about how Medicaid work requirements could affect rural workers, jumped out at me last fall. One of the people profiled by Corin Cates-Carney, a reporter for Montana Public Radio, said she "only gets cell service at the stop sign on the edge of town." That detail paints a picture of rural life that I would hope many residents found represented their experience authentically.

A dedicated beat?

One way to get more robust rural coverage would be to have a reporter and editor dedicated solely to the rural beat, as NPR did from 2003 to 2013. Berkes had the Rural Affairs beat, before moving to NPR's investigative team.

Berkes, who retired from NPR last year, told me: NPR needs "geographic and class diversity. We learn more and the people we serve learn more when we have both a presence in and focused attention on the nation's most remote and least populated places. They comprise about 20% of America and they are typically misunderstood by journalists who parachute in and out with notions developed from a distance."

While he was on the beat, NPR "reported on bipartisan polling in rural counties in battleground states," Berkes said. "We identified otherwise hidden trends (for example, the disproportionate share of war casualties from rural places that cut into the rural support for President George W. Bush). And we were able to explain the significance of rural voters in presidential and congressional elections."

As part of his plea for NPR to revive the beat, he added: "Everyday, issues are developing in all parts of this country, people's lives are deeply affected, trends are forming, climate is changing, economic hardships grow, political allegiances are forming and shifting, not just in the cities where most editors and reporters are based. These things don't happen the same way everywhere. We do a disservice to the notions of diversity and reflecting America if we don't have reporters and editors in every region, and we don't have focused and systematic reporting and editing for the rural places that matter as much as everywhere else."

Hopeful signs

The good news for those concerned about this issue is that NPR has already made some recent changes to broaden its coverage.

One change was a reworking of the assignments for NPR's bureau chiefs — the editors across the country who are responsible for keeping tabs on the news that happens in their regions.

For many years, NPR has relied on four bureau chiefs, based in Birmingham, Ala.; New Gloucester, Maine; Cleveland; and NPR West in Culver City. Several years ago, NPR added a fifth bureau chief, based in Seattle, which eased some of the workload but, given that it was based in a major U.S. city, didn't do much to spread out the geographical perspective. After some personnel changes, however, starting last fall, the fifth bureau chief is now based in Missoula, Mont.

That new Mountain West/Great Plains bureau chief, Eric Whitney, is a longtime Colorado and Montana reporter. He oversees NPR coverage from 10 states: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nebraska and the Dakotas. "He knows that part of the country in a way that's going to serve us really well," Walton-James said.

And after five years with not a single reporter based in any of those western states (although for two years there was a reporter in Las Vegas, who mostly covered culture, diversity and race) NPR now has one, Kirk Siegler, whose beat is the urban-rural divide, which he has called a reframed Rural Affairs beat. As of last August, he reports from a home base in Boise; previously he had been based in the NPR West bureau, while traveling extensively. Walton-James said the move was intended to "get him out closer to the story, closer to the communities that he covers." She also argued that, while all his recent work has been Western-state focused, he "is covering rural America. It is virtually all he does."

The changes have already yielded reporting from a wide variety of new datelines. Whitney told me the member stations he has talked to in his region are "in general, very encouraged about NPR's progress in and stated and apparent commitments to improving rural coverage."

One reason listeners may not be aware of all the reporting NPR does is because of where the stories are placed in the daily lineup of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Rarely do stories from outside the Beltway lead in what's known as the A-block, that chunk of time that follows the top-of-the-hour newscast.

The problem has been even more acute in the last year. Barnes, NPR's senior vice president for news, said the need for coverage of the impeachment of President Trump "really hampered" her stated goal to add more geographically diverse reporting to NPR's mix and "get out of the Washington bubble." She said she hopes "the coverage of the election will get us back out into the country, because the whole point there is to go to the voters where they are."

Indeed, on Wednesday NPR rolled out the first installments of an ambitious new yearlong series of election reports, known as "Where Voters Are." Teams of national NPR correspondents, member-station reporters, hosts and production staff will regularly visit eight locations around the country to measure voter sentiment. Charlotte, N.C., and Pueblo, Colo., kicked off the reporting, which also includes an Instagram component (an account called NPR Community). Other communities on the list are Philadelphia; Dallas-Fort Worth; Milwaukee; Pensacola, Fla.; Orange County, Calif.; and southwest Washington state.

One other big change is just now coming to fruition at NPR after years of work: collaborations among regional member stations that are designed to bolster reporting in their own regions while also supplying more coverage to NPR's national news operation. We'll look at those in Part 2 of this column, coming soon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.
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