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Republican states?

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

As we head into another presidential election as a polarized nation, it's hard to remember when our country wasn't so divided. With so many states dominated by one political party or another, it's easy to equate geography with politics. Yet that language takes a toll: It makes it harder for people to remember the true nuances of presidential voting.

We call a state like Idaho a Republican state because the state legislature and governor's office are controlled by Republicans. Yet 33% of Idaho voters chose President Joe Biden in the last election. That's 287,000 people.

We call California a Democratic state even though, in the 2020 election, 34% of the state's voters went for former President Donald Trump. That's 6 million people. In fact, more people voted for Trump in California than in any other state.

Today we address a note from a listener who pleads with NPR journalists to avoid assigning ownership of states to political parties, when describing who's in charge. Indeed, NPR journalists frequently describe states as "Republican" (more often) and "Democratic" (sometimes). We heard from two NPR editors about this. Their answers are below, as well as a perspective from an academic who specializes in the intersection of language and politics.

We also spotlight a Morning Edition story on the winners of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

What is a "Republican state"?

Angela Dawe wrote on June 7: Reading this important articleabout states pulling out of the Electronic Registration Information Center, I was struck by this statement: "Eight Republican states have now pulled out of ERIC." I am writing to urge NPR reporters to be a little more thoughtful and accurate in their wording. There are no such things as "Republican states." There are, of course, Republican-led states, and there are states where the majority of recent active voters voted Republican, but no state itself is tied to one party or the other, and no state's population is politically homogeneous. It may seem like a tiny quibble, but at a time when politics are so divisive and tribalism is fostering real, active threats to democracy, referring to entire states as belonging solely and entirely to one party seems careless and runs the risk of exacerbating the sort of us-versus-them thinking that's contributing to so many of our nation's current problems. ...

Describing states as belonging to the political party of their elected leaders is a common practice throughout the news media. It's a linguistic habit that can influence how we see ourselves. Our team found several other examples of the term "Republican states," and sometimes the term "Democratic states" being used by NPR journalists:

  • During an All Things Considered story about California's governor denouncing Walgreens, correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin said: "Then 20 attorneys general from Republican states sent a letter in February to Walgreens and lots of other pharmacy chains warning them that if they allowed mifepristone to be sent through the mail, they would be violating a 19th-century federal law."
  • For a Morning Edition story about proposed rules for vehicle emissions, reporter Camila Domonoske wrote that "Republican states, led by Texas, have already sued the EPA over the current version of these vehicle standards, arguing that the body overstepped its authority in crafting those rules with an eye to EV adoption."
  • On an episode of The NPR Politics Podcast about the connection between political views and death rates, correspondent Allison Aubrey said: "And a lot of researchers think that the divergence is the effect of basically Democratic states enacting a whole bunch of policies that Republican states didn't."
  • Other media outlets, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, also use the term "Republican states." Journalists sometimes refer to colors, too: red, blue and purple states.

    We asked NPR's chief Washington editor Krishnadev Calamur how the Washington Desk defines "Republican states."

    "Republican states is shorthand for Republican-led states," he told us in an email. "We understand what the listener is saying, but many of these states are ones in which the Republican Party is fully in charge."

    Ben Swasey, an editor on the Washington Desk who leads NPR's voting coverage, added: "In all the eight states that have so far left ERIC, Republican elected officials made these decisions to leave. They're all Republican-run — with GOP governors, GOP trifectas or, in Louisiana's case, with a veto-proof GOP majority in the legislature."

    Frederic C. Schaffer, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said he shares some of the concerns raised by this audience member about a term like "Republican states."

    "As the letter writer points out, it's quite homogenizing," he said. "In virtually every state, there are voters who are Republican, there are voters who are Democratic, and they get ignored or overlooked by using a term like 'Republican' or 'Democratic states.'"

    Another problem with the term, Schaffer said, is that it doesn't consider history. States that are called Republican or Democratic in 2023 may not have been that way 20 years ago, he said, "and so that historical variability gets completely lost."

    Schaffer noted that this language often glosses over the fact that in some states, laws are enacted and the voting districts are drawn to minimize the power of the minority party. "We can't ignore the place of electoral engineering in producing these outcomes," he said.

    To make the phrase "Republican states" more accurate, Schaffer said he wouldn't say "Republican-led states," but rather "Republican-controlled states."

    "Leading" connotes guiding the way, he said. "I don't know if that's a good way to describe what legislatures and governors are actually doing. In many instances, because of the partisan divide in many states, they're imposing a particular set of rules, policies on the residents of that state."

    In addition to "Republican-controlled states," he'd also use the phrases "states that are presently Republican-controlled" or "states that are presently Republican-run."

    We agree with the points made by both the letter writer and Schaffer. Accuracy, precision and nuance are important principles for journalists to employ in their language. Sometimes, using shorthand language doesn't allow for that. Using more specific words, in the way Schaffer suggested, would better serve the NPR audience.

    While it might be awkward to completely eliminate the shorthand language, reporters and hosts could elect to use the longer and more accurate phrases first and then on subsequent mentions use the tighter version. That would serve as a subtle nod to the fact that no political party owns a state, even though many states are dominated by one party. — Amaris Castillo

    SPOTLIGHT ON

    The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

    Being a middle school student in the U.S.

    The grand prize winners of this year's NPR Student Podcast Challenge for middle school students were featured on Morning Edition . Erika Young and Norah Weiner, both 13-year-old students (and best friends) at Presidio Middle School in San Francisco, produced a podcast about the realities of being a middle schooler today and the ways in which gun violence, mental health and social media are shaping their experience. Their podcastbegins with the recording of a school lockdown, and they interview classmates about what they would do during a school shooting. Young and Weiner also explore other topics like stress and fast-changing fashion trends. While there's no shortage of news stories about students and education, NPR's Student Podcast Challenge is a delightful opportunity to hear directly from students. The energy of the two young winners, as they are interviewed by NPR reporter Sequoia Carrillo, is contagious. — Amaris Castillo

    The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

    Kelly McBride
    NPR Public Editor
    Chair,
    Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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