NPR, bias and journalism: A complex relationship

The top of a news story published this week by a major mainstream media outlet:

Rightly or not, NPR has become the public face of commitment to quality journalism, owing to its taxpayer funding and its ombudsman’s outspoken support of fairness and balance.

Yet the presence of liberals and left-wing politicos in NPR offices is common. And the fact that they often hold leadership positions in NPR newsrooms is the worst kept secret in American journalism.

While many NPR employees tout traditional journalistic values in public, the bars of the nation’s capital are often filled with NPR reporters who advocated for Barack Obama and never quite got over Al Gore losing to George W. Bush. Some NPR executives have become embroiled in scandals involving videos showing that they favor a liberal worldview.

The evidence used to back up the reported claim of “the best kept secret in American journalism?” The report makes a bunch of unattributed, unverified statements. It quotes five conservative critics of NPR, ranging from Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center to Marvin Olasky of World magazine. But it never gives anyone at NPR an opportunity to respond to the allegations of bias.

To illustrate its allegations of widespread bias, the 1,400-word report climaxes with a “gotcha” moment from 2011:

A National Public Radio senior executive, Ron Schiller, was captured on camera savaging conservatives and the Tea Party movement.

“The current Republican Party, particularly the Tea Party, is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental Christian — I wouldn’t even call it Christian. It’s this weird evangelical kind of move,” declared Schiller, then the head of NPR’s nonprofit foundation.

At this point, I have an important confession to make: I made up the above report.

It’s fiction.

But the style of “news story” was inspired by NPR, which used the above formula as it reported this week on black churches and homosexuality.

The headline on NPR’s report:

Blacks, Gays And The Church: A Complex Relationship

The top of the story:

Fairly or not, African-Americans have become the public face of resistance to same-sex marriage, owing to their religious beliefs and the outspoken opposition of many black pastors.

Yet the presence of gays and lesbians in black churches is common. And the fact that they often hold leadership positions in their congregations is the worst kept secret in black America.

While many black pastors condemn gays and lesbians from the pulpit, the choir lofts behind them often are filled with gay singers and musicians. Some male pastors themselves have been entangled in scandals involving alleged affairs with men.

The evidence used to back up the reported claim of “the best kept secret in black America?” The report makes a bunch of unattributed, unverified statements. It quotes five gay-rights advocates, ranging from a liberal pastor supportive of same-sex marriage to a gay gospel singer. But it never gives a single one of the “many black pastors who condemn gays and lesbians from the pulpit” an opportunity to respond to the blanket allegations of hypocrisy and “an unspoken ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ custom.”

To illustrate its allegations of widespread hypocrisy, the 1,400-word report climaxes with a “gotcha” moment from 2010:

Bishop Eddie Long, the leader of one of the nation’s largest black churches, in suburban Atlanta, was sued in 2010 by three young men who claimed Long coerced them into sexual relationships. Long denied the accusations and the cases were settled out of court.

The irony, of course, is that NPR has a reporter on the Godbeat who truly strives for accuracy and balance: Barbara Bradley Hagerty. She was not the reporter who produced the piece critiqued by this post.

Your turn, GetReligion readers: Read the NPR story and weigh in. How might NPR have approached this same report in a less biased way? What sources or angles would have improved the narrative from a journalistic standpoint?

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • David Rupert

    NPR tends to find the contrarian view. They love the alernative lifestyle, the single guy on a street corner who lodges a voice of protest. No problem with talking to these people, but with NPR they often become the news.

    The bottom line with gay marriage is this — the vast majority of churches, pastors and congregants would never go for it, knowing what Scripture teaches.

    Instead, we hear from the media about the handful who think it a wonderful thing. “It’s all about Fairness, right?”

    That’s The F Wordthat the media is in love with and will use to justify every blasphemy and every attack on the church.

    Sorry, but some things aren’t fair in life. When did God ever say he would be Fair? He’s merciful and I’m grateful that He isn’t fair, otherwise….

    The F Word — Cussing at the world around us

  • Dan Crawford

    NPR’s problem pervades everything it does: whether it’s book, music and art critics praising as high art books, music, and art which barely rise above the vulgar, profane, inane and politically correct; or Terry Gross’ relentlessly superficial Fresh Air interviews; or their news reports with their blatant bias. One often has the sense that its reporters have a relatively relaxed work-day – a little more effort on their part might suggest a more complex world than they are willing to tolerate. Their “news” division is, to put it charitably, a disappointment. And has been for quite sometime. But it will never receive any criticism from its allies in the major media outlets.

  • tmatt


    I don’t know ANYONE who works harder than people at NPR.

    No, this is a matter of accepting that NPR is a complex shop and that some people are more interested in the American Model of the Press than others.

    Don’t be simplistic. Not everyone at NPR is cut from the same cloth. However, it’s clear that NPR has problems getting balanced coverage done on moral and social issues.

  • Jerry

    To try to answer the question rather than drag political bias into the comment, I used to believe that stories such as this one had fact checkers and editors behind them and that the result was mostly trustworthy. But I’m sad that I have to agree about the lack of attributable facts in the story since I assume that these days fact checking is at best spotty.

    Although in this case, perhaps the statement is not far from the mark. I’ve never seen any information that the percentage of black LGBT people are any different from that with whites. So it’s a reasonable presumption but one that should, of course, be verified if at all possible although Is suspect that verification would be hard if not impossible.

    Rather I suspect that gold old fashioned (sigh) sensationalism was at work.

  • Jeff

    “How might NPR have approached this same report in a less biased way?”

    By *not* being NPR – by being what journalism, especially *public* journalism, is bound by moral duty to be.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The standard way liberals inject their bias into stories is by making them about a particular person who becomes their avatar for the story, a witness who can express their biases and assumptions freely, while the reporter says they are being objective by reporting simply “what John doe said”. Hearing the voice of someone who has a different viewpoint within the same story is rare, in my observation.

    This is especially pronounced when they bring in an “expert” to comment on a conservative or Republican or Christian, giving several minutes to the interview without an opportunity for someone with the non-left wing view to be heard at all. And they clearly do not see this as biased reporting. Rather, this is reality for them, so there is no reason to question it or offer a contrasting voice.

  • Dan Crawford


    I’m not “simplistic” – I listen to them everyday, and I can predict with unerring accuracy the direction the story will take from the two lead sentences. I didn’t say everyone was cut from the same cloth. The exceptions are not heard everyday.

  • MJBubba

    I also listen briefly to NPR every day during my 15-minute commute times. Fifteen or 20 years ago I would say “yeah, you can easily tell that they are a bunch of liberals, but their longer format provides the time to include both sides and more actual facts.” I have noticed a leftward slide over the years. They are following the progressive media tilt as all the other broadcast journalists (Fox is an outlier with its own issues). I still listen, since they do deliver a lot of information, but on culture war issues I am primarily getting the talking points of the left and not complete stories.
    I have come to view them and all the others as enemies of my values in the culture wars. They are actively campaigning for the triumph of same-sex marriage, and every story that deals with the topic is spun to help the cause. They are pro-abortion, and they take up every cultural issue on the post-modernist side. As a religious person who believes that ultimate spiritual truths are knowable and that the moral values of the ancient church remain unchanged, I find that they have the same agenda as all progressives; to undermine the cultural moorings of Western Civilization and bring down all opposing institutions (starting with the church, beginning with the biggest). They are just guilefully taking the long slow approach. I get the feeling that, if they thought the time was ripe, they would bring out the guillotine like the French Revolutionnairies.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    A reader contacted GR and said he no longer can get e-mail notifications when someone adds a comment to a post. Is that an isolated case? If you receive an e-mail notification on this comment, please let me know.

  • Steve Bauer

    I used to listen to NPR quite often. I heard the first airing of On Point (Tom Ashbrook) and listened regular for years after. About a year ago there was an episode on gay marriage. As commentators there was a published author who was for natural (one man, one woman) marriage. However, when asked to explain his position he could barely cobble together five words to make a sentence. There were two other experts who then tore his words (or lack of words in this instance) apart. Up until that point I had a great deal of respect for that show. So also, as a pastor, I used to listen regularly to Speaking Of Faith (Krista Tippett). She had an episode about homosexuality as viewed by Christians. It was very balanced, considerate and thoughtful. However, after that, hearing the point of view of a Christian who both believes the bible is true and can also articulate that conviction was extremely rare (on that show). After I stopped listening to Speaking of Faith, I found out that the name of the show had changed to On Being. At least the title now fits its show’s content.

  • http://!)! Passing By


    My browser (chrome) no longer shows the box to check if you want email followups. Thus I no longer receive emails.

  • Passing Ny

    It’s not showing in IE, either.