Summary and Commentary:
Alternative Things Considered:
A Comparison of National Public Radio and Pacifica Radio News Coverage
prepared by Jesse Walker

By popular demand, here are the highlights of the JQ article. I wish I had time to enter the whole thing; interested archivists can find it in the Winter 1994 Journalism Quarterly, volume 71, number 4, pages 775-786. The full title is "Alternative Things Considered: A Comparison of National Public Radio and Pacifica Radio News Coverage." The authors are Alan G. Stavitsky and Timothy W. Gleason, both of the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon.

Methodology: "The authors recorded Pacifica Radio News and NPR's All Things Considered each weekday during a five-week period in November and December, 1991." ATC "was selected as representative of NPR because it was transmitted in the late afternoon, as was Pacifica Radio News. Weekday broadcasts were examined because Pacifica does not broadcast its newscast on the weekend.... Several major news events occurred during this period: the release of several Western hostages, including U.S. journalist Terry Anderson; the dissolution of the Soviet Union; and the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia." NPR's news summaries were ignored, since (at that time) Pacifica did not include news summaries in its broadcast.

Comparison between NPR and Pacifica by story category:

Politics: 10.4% of the stories on NPR, 13.4% on Pacifica
Governance: 19.9% NPR, 30.9% Pacifica
Economy: 3.2, 3.2
Business: 3.2, 1.4
Law: 8.1, 13.8
Crime: 2.7, .05
Environment: 3.6, .09
Health/Medicine: 2.7, 2.3
Social Trends/Human Interest: 12.2, 2.3
Arts/Media: 9.5, .09
Sports: .05, 0
Technology/Science: 1.4, 0
War & Peace: 20.8, 29.9
Education: 1.8, .05

The analysis is of 221 NPR stories and 217 Pacifica stories.

The authors note that ATC is a 90-minute show, whereas Pacifica is 30 minutes, explaining the greater number of "soft-focus" stories on ATC. Often, of course, Pacifica has other programs that cover the arts, "social trends," etc.

Comparison between NPR and Pacifica by geographic focus:

State/Regional: 19% NPR, 10.6% Pacifica
National: 37.6, 26.3
International: 19.4, 32.3
Foreign: 23.9, 30.9

The difference between "foreign" and "international" stories hinges on whether the U.S. is considerably involved. Obviously, Pacifica runs a lot more of these reports than does NPR. Just as obviously, NPR is more likely to run state/regional stories -- interesting, considering Pacifica's status as "community radio." The authors suggest that this may relate to Pacifica's small, Washington-bound staff and NPR's network of affiliates. But then, Pacifica has affiliates, and they can contribute stories -- I remember a friend of mine at WCBN getting a report he did on a local protest broadcast on the national news.

Comparison between NPR and Pacifica by Source Classification:

This is where it gets really interesting:

Official: 30.9% NPR, 55.3% Pacifica
Citizen: 33.6, 8.5
Expert: 15.6, 5.5
Journalist: 9.9, 9.1
Activist/Advocate: 10.1, 21.6

NPR used 527 sources; Pacifica, 329.

The authors comment: "[B]oth services ... often 'round up the usual suspects' -- leading officials, experts, and activist/advocates whose names are generally found on journalists' phone lists -- for sourcing stories. This may indicate that while the mix is different from that found on commercial broadcast news and is often of high quality, ATC and Pacifica are offering services that are largely grounded in the same journalistic values and routines as mainstream news."
"While routinization and efficiency may explain Pacifica's heavier emphasis upon governance and official sources, this finding suggests that Pacifica is not providing a significant alternative to the mainstream media's heavy reliance upon official sources and government-generated news. The fact that Pacifica's newscast originates from Washington reflects Pacifica's view -- similar to that of other US national news organizations, including NPR -- that the capital is the primary source of 'news' for the nation. Given satellite technology, it would be possible to originate a national newscast from almost anywhere in the United States; a news organization expressly seeking a different perspective might broadcast from, say, Chicago or Seattle. The dominance of the Washington-New York axis for network broadcasts underscores the power of routinization and conventional journalistic values."

Me again: The one place where Pacifica seems to have carved out a niche for itself, besides the greater focus on non-U.S. news, is in the heavy use of activist sources. It's not clear, though, that this is always an advantage. Another quote from the article: "A vivid illustration of the differing use may be found in a comparison of NPR and Pacifica coverage of the naming of Senator Al Gore as Bill Clinton's vice presidential running mate in July 1992 (outside the period of this study). NPR's reporting emphasized the political implications of Clinton's choice, such as the impact upon Southern voters, and used mainstream political analysts as sources. Pacifica, in contrast, downplayed the political angle and instead interviewed a series of activist/advocates who expressed dismay that Clinton did not choose a woman or person of color as his running mate."

Think about this. Both networks take on a DC-centric story. NPR then pursues it in a manner that, though mainstream, actually relates to the story at hand: the political rationale for Clinton's decision. Pacifica ignores the substantial story, and instead invites activists to whine over the air. I suppose Pacifica might have done a good alternative story about the political reasons why Clinton would not choose a female or nonwhite running-mate -- but, to judge from this report, they didn't. They might have done a good alternative story about Gore's record on feminist and racial issues -- and once more, to judge from this report, they didn't.
Their idea of an "alternative" news report was to complain that the power structure wasn't letting them in. I don't consider this radical radio. And I don't consider it a good use of activist sources.

Some final quotes from the article:
"This study raises important questions, then, for the concept of alternative media. Does alternative simply mean a longer story form and a somewhat different mix of story types and sources? Or should we be thinking about alternative media as providing a different definition of news and a different form of presentation?"
"It could be argued that Pacifica's emphasis upon international news coverage and activist/advocate sources represents a genuine alternative from mainstream news outlets. However, there are indications that Pacifica aspires to achieve NPR's stature. Pacifica officials want their expanded evening news program to be a 'real competitor' to NPR and they plan to upgrade their equipment so 'there will be no discernable difference between Pacifica's sound and NPR's.' The Pacifica Radio News format at this writing was strikingly similar to ATC's, with news summaries followed by extended reports that were separated by snippets of recorded music. Further, Pacifica has long been viewed within public radio as a 'farm team' for NPR. Numerous NPR news staffers began at Pacifica before leaving for the larger network's higher profile and better pay and working conditions."

-- Jesse Walker
Seattle, WA

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