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Why Some Public Radio Supporters Won't Be Donating to NPR This Year

On-air fracking promotions have left some listeners questioning their contributions.

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In addition to possibly misinforming listeners, Higgins and other signers said NPR’s ANGA plugs may leave listeners questioning whether or not its fracking coverage is actually being compromised. For Higgins, NPR’s reporting is of the highest caliber.

“I regard NPR’s coverage as really the best there is. There is nothing better on,” he said. “That’s all we listen to.”

But when it comes to fracking coverage, Higgins said, “it’s hard to say.” He said he dislikes when NPR frames global warming and fracking as “controversial” issues. “It’s not … controversial. … They don’t think it’s really controversial from a scientific and medical point of view. Only the industry scientists question the dangers.”

Higgins added that some of NPR’s other stories are just not critical enough, pointing to NPR’s recent coverage of fracking in California as an example. He said that while someone from the Center for Biological Diversity issued a warning about the dangers of fracking, the interview was largely dominated by lighthearted talk of the process.

NPR declined an interview, but responded to the request stating:

Corporate sponsors have no input into news content, knowledge about it, or access to our newsgathering staff. … The underwriting credits you heard from ANGA provided general support to NPR, not to any particular program or area or coverage. … NPR News covers our sponsors as we do any other individual or organization: with independent, objective, fair reporting. NPR News has reported critically about a sponsor’s business activities in the past and would have no hesitation to do so again.

(You can read NPR's entire response at the end of the article.)

NPR has also addressed listeners’ concerns about sponsors and underwriters in the past. Former ombudsman Alicia Shepard estimated that 20 percent of these concerns were related to NPR’s funders. NPR continuously insists that it has a strict firewall between business and editorial content. It has also responded to concerns specifically regarding ANGA, and apologized for allowing an ANGA ad to run right next to fracking coverage on its website and promised to “work harder to protect its reputation by avoiding actions that could reinforce perceptions that access to its news gathering is for sale.”

But, it insisted:

NPR had every right to accept underwriting ads from the natural gas industry, as long as they met the criteria. It is a fact of life that underwriting is now an important source of income for NPR.

Regardless of whether ANGA’s sponsorship really is influencing NPR’s coverage, Higgins reiterated that by plugging ANGA, the perception might still be there — plus, it may confuse listeners.

But behind a critique of NPR’s plugging of ANGA lies a critique of funding public media in the United States. If NPR was sufficiently funded by the federal government, it wouldn’t need to take money from corporations or lobbying groups like ANGA. NPR’s member stations’ main source of revenue (39 percent in 2010) is from listener contributions, while its next largest source is from corporations (17 percent). Federal, state and local governments contributed less than 5 percent to NPR, though the federally supported Corporation for Public Broadcasting contributed about 11 percent.

The United States spends less than $1.50 per capita on funding public media, compared to, for instance, the $80 per capita the United Kingdom spends on funding the BBC and other public media.

“Worldwide the U.S. has one of the lowest-funded public media systems in terms of what we as a public contribute through our tax dollars,” said Josh Stearns, the journalism and public media campaign director for FreePress.