Air mail: NPR sees "community" in letters from listeners.

Author:Reader, Bill
Position:National Public Radio - Report

Nearly every week, listeners of National Public Radio's news programs hear a musical segue and then the announcement, "Today we read from your letters ... " What follows is NPR's version of newspapers' "letters to the editor"--a segment in which NPR presents excerpts from listeners' comments. Each "letter" is clearly just an excerpt of a longer submission, and the whole segment is just a snapshot of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of the total submissions each show receives in a given week. The resulting collage of truncated commentary is one of the few regular NPR features that provides a glimpse of NPR's listeners. But what is the nature of that glimpse? What is NPR's purpose for providing it? What can the practice reveal about the intersection of journalism and the public?

This study explores those questions using a mixed-methods approach in the tradition of some important "gatekeeping" studies, such as David Manning White's foundational case study of "Mr. Gates" (White, 1950) and Dan Berkowitz's study of gatekeeping of local television news (Berkowitz, 1990). Although this study addresses a gap in journalism research--there is little published research of broadcast "letters to the editor"--the more substantive purpose is to explore the idea that "imagining community" influences journalism gatekeeping. To that end, the study combines two theoretical frameworks. The first is "imagined community," which suggests how large groups of people with similar interests can view themselves as parts of distinct communities (Anderson, 1991). The second framework is the "news making" branch of inquiry, which suggests that the process of making news is heavily influenced by news industry culture (Berkowitz, 1997, pp. 169-171). The research questions are meant to explore, via a study of NPR's letters from listeners segments, whether the process of imagining audiences as communities could be a process of news making, and, if so, whether the resulting imagined community could reflect the professional values of the journalists rather than the values of the "real" communities they serve.

Literature Review

Overview of Letters-to-the-Editor Research

The idea that journalists construct publics when they edit and publish letters to the editor is not new. Wahl-Jorgensen (2002) gave an excellent treatment of that concept in an ethnographic study of letters-selection procedures at newspapers in the San Francisco region. Nor is there any novelty to the theory that journalists' interpretation of "what's news" is largely informed by journalists' own professional values and rituals (Schudson, 2003; Tuchman, 1978, pp. 182-185). Several researchers have specifically investigated journalists' perceptions of their audiences, often finding that journalists know very little about their audiences, and in crafting the news place more emphasis on the interests of fellow journalists than on the interests of their audiences (Burgoon, Stacks, & Burch, 1982; Gans, 1979). Along those same lines, letters sections also are highly mediated and selective, and in the end perhaps more representative of journalists' ideals than the values of the audiences themselves (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2002). It is known that letters to the editor are not written by a representative sampling of society--most published letters are written by people who are middle-aged, upper-middle income, highly educated, and White (Reader, Stempel, & Daniel, 2004). Beyond matters of self-selection, however, news editors/producers invariably (and, perhaps, necessarily) inject their own personal and professional preferences into the selection and packaging process. For example, journalists' general distrust of anonymous speech explains why many editors hold anonymous letters in low regard and, as such, most of them reject unsigned letters regardless of their content (Kapoor, 1995; Reader, 2005). Although journalists clearly exert strong gatekeeping controls over the letters they publish, letters also can influence the journalists. For example, journalists can use letters forums to gauge public opinion (Herbst, 1990), to make editorial or news decisions (Davis & Rarick, 1964; Pritchard & Berkowitz, 1991), and to enhance newspaper readership (Kapoor, 1995; Ryon, 1992). Many journalists and scholars agree that a handy indicator of a publication's professionalism and credibility is the robustness of its letters-to-the-editor section (Aucoin, 1997; Hynds, 1992; Lauterer, 2006; Shaw, 1977). However, researchers have long found letters to be unreliable indicators of public opinion, and alignment with public opinion is largely coincidental (Forsythe, 1950; Foster & Friedrich, 1937; Grey & Brown, 1970; Hill, 1981; Hynds, 1992). Although all of the above mentioned articles focused on letters to the editor in newspapers, one might expect that similar limitations would apply to letters submitted to television and radio news outlets.

Brief History of Broadcast Letters to the Editor

Because so little has been written about broadcast letters, it is necessary for this study to include a brief history of the phenomenon.

A clear difference between the two media is the fact that, unlike the relatively unregulated print media, U.S. broadcasters are subject to government regulation, and the Federal Communications Commission often has regulated expressions of opinion over the airwaves. Prior to 1987, the FCC's so-called "Fairness Doctrine" required stations to facilitate dissenting viewpoints. Many scholars contend that because of the Fairness Doctrine, many radio stations did not air controversial opinions to avoid having to provide costly air time to opposing viewpoints (Aufderheide, 1990; Brennan, 1989; Cronauer, 1994). After the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, the chilling effect seemed to dissipate, as many struggling AM stations became profitable by airing long-form opinion talk shows in which hosts could opine freely without having to accommodate opposing views (Albarran & Pitts, 2001, pp. 51-52). Although the FCC still requires stations to provide response opportunities if they broadcast personal attacks or station editorials, equal-opportunity claims are not required in most cases (Albarran & Pitts, 2001, p. 53). Therefore, broadcast media are in no way required to provide audience feedback segments on their newscasts; to do so is voluntary, just as it is for print media.

One of the more notable proponents of reading audience letters on the air was Dick Salant, the president of CBS News during the 1960s and 1970s and a member of NPR's board of directors in the late 1980s. In his memoirs, Salant explained: "Over the years, I struggled with ... a letters to CBS News broadcast series--the broadcast equivalent to print's letters to the editor" (Salant, 1999, p. 232). Part of the problem was the sheer volume of letters CBS News received, a number Salant estimated to be 150,000 letters annually (Salant, 1999, p. 232). Salant said he would respond personally to some of those letters, writing: "Because broadcasting is such an extraordinarily one-way street with not even a regular letters-to-the-editor opportunity, it was important, as a safety valve at least, to try to respond to mail" (Salant, 1999, p. 232). Salant eventually implemented an on-air letters segment for the 60 Minutes news show, a feature that media historian Richard Campbell wrote "celebrates viewer diversity through its semi-regular 'Letters' segment.... It is perhaps the only program in the history of prime-time American television that, within its limited and carefully edited forum, explicitly encourages diverse and alternative readings of its own narrative interpretations" (Campbell, 1991, p. 176).

Research of NPR's Audience

But who, exactly, is writing those comments? This author could find no published research into the demographics of NPR letter-writers, but there is some research about NPR's audience that might help give a sense of who might be writing such letters. A 2002 study found that NPR had an estimated 27 million listeners, and the average NPR listener spent at least half of his or her radio-listening time listening to NPR (Bailey, 2004). NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, both of which have regular "letters" segments, accounted for 23% of all listening to U.S. public radio (Giovannoni, Peters, & Youngclause, 1999). NPR's own audience research in 2004 showed NPR's audience skews male (54%); that 85% of listeners are White and 10% are Black; that 66% are between 25 and 54 years of age (48% are 35 to 54); that 69% have household incomes above $50,000 per year; and that the majority have lifestyles that include public involvement (61% claim to vote), patronage of performing arts (51% attend theatre, concerts, or dance performances), travel (72% traveled domestically in the previous year, 38% overseas), and computer use (85% own computers, 71% use online services) (Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 2005). They consistently rate learning about the world around them as being "very important" (Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 2005, p. 23). NPR's audience also is predominantly "iconoclastic" in that they are much less likely than most Americans to make sense of the world through traditional or religious views (Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 2005, p. 24). NPR's audience also is highly educated. In 2004, 68% of NPR news listeners had college degrees, and 32% had attended graduate school (Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 2005, p. 4).

But middle-class intellectuals were not the target audience of NPR pioneer William Siemering, who wrote the original NPR mission statement and served as the network's first program director. Siemering wanted NPR to be a vehicle for diverse views from all of America's cultural corners, not just college towns where affiliated stations would be based (Engelman, 1996, p. 116). An overarching goal was to have NPR serve as a forum for multiple and differing points of...

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