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Dark horses

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Polling research shows that American voters are particularly dissatisfied with their presidential choices this election year. For some, there is a deeper dissatisfaction with the control that the two dominant political parties exert over the electoral system. Critics, including some in NPR's audience, accuse the news media of complicity in perpetuating that entrenched system.

Today we address a comment from an audience member who suggests that a lack of news coverage hurts distant challengers. If newsrooms like NPR gave political dark horses more coverage, the argument goes, more voters would become familiar with them and then offer their support and their votes. And then lesser-known candidates wouldn't be such long shots.

It's a fundamental question in a presidential election year: Should newsrooms devote a greater proportion of their resources to telling stories about candidates who are trying to disrupt the political parties and their control over the process?

NPR's approach is similar to that of other national newsrooms. It produces a handful of stories about alternative candidates. But not many. Below, we asked NPR's chief Washington editor how these decisions are made.

When considering NPR's duty to report on the process of nominating presidential candidates, journalists must examine the impact alternative candidates are creating, then determine which stories merit audience attention.

It would be different in a world where newsrooms were still the primary gatekeepers of election information. But it's quite easy these days for all candidates to get their ideas out to interested voters. That ease of creating and delivering information contributes to the noisy news environment. And that places even more of a burden on newsrooms to report thoroughly on the party process, entrenched as it may be.

Read on to learn more details about how NPR allocates resources to political challengers with little chance of making a dent in the two-party machine.

We also spotlight a new podcast series out of Seattle that explains through narrative reporting why so many people with profound mental illness end up homeless or in jail. — Kelly McBride


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.

NPR's presidential candidate coverage

Tina Rhoades wrote on March 8: It's nice to know NPR rose to the occasion to find some space in order to mention that Rep. Dean Phillips is ending his presidential run. Imagine the possibilities if he, as well as Marianne Williamson, had actually graced your media/airwaves prior to the primary cycle — when voters might have appreciated information regarding these candidates.

As a member of the Fourth Estate, it would be refreshing to see NPR act responsibly by providing readers with candidate information to assist them in making informed decisions. The electorate should choose the Democratic nominee, instead of the DNC, news media manipulation and a handful of establishment, Democratic insiders. We need more democracy, please, not less. Voters want to be active participants, instead of being used as pawns in the game.

During this presidential election year, we've heard from audience members critiquing how presidential candidates are being covered — and not covered.

To better understand NPR's approach to coverage of presidential candidates, we contacted NPR's chief Washington editor, Krishnadev Calamur. He told us in an email that NPR prominently covers "those candidates who meet the threshold to make their party's debate stage and their ability, at this stage in the campaign, to get on a state's ballots." While NPR journalists do cover fringe candidates, they are more likely to be part of a broader story about long-shot candidates, he said.

"No one who consumed NPR over the past few months would be surprised to learn Rep. Dean Phillips was challenging President Biden for the Democratic nomination," said Calamur, who shared the link to a Dean Phillips search results page on that shows numerous stories that center or mention the Minnesota representative.

Calamur also shared links to a couple of NPR stories about Phillips' campaign.

We asked Calamur how much coverage NPR should ideally give to candidates unlikely to win their party's nominations. He said it depends.

"Nikki Haley's long-shot attempt to capture the Republican nomination was covered in earnest because it highlighted some important divisions in the Republican Party, ones we suspect may figure in the general election," he said.

He continued, "On the Democratic side, concerns about Biden's age notwithstanding, the sitting president seldom gets a serious challenge. And while we should — and do — cover his challengers, it's important to provide the kind of coverage that'll allow the audience to know they're running but not that they have a chance to make a serious dent in a presidential primary."

Calamur added that the Washington Desk discusses candidate coverage in their planning meetings, where reporters and editors, in extensive discussions, consider how newsworthy the campaigns are.

For example, he pointed to a December Morning Edition story from NPR's senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith about the Lesser-Known Candidate Forum held in Manchester, N.H.

We found more NPR coverage of candidates other than President Biden and former President Trump, including a story earlier this month on "under-the-radar" candidate Jason Palmer beating Biden in American Samoa during the Super Tuesday primaries and several stories about Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s presidential campaign.

"We ensure that candidates — even the lesser-known ones — are covered. But our focus is and must remain the major candidates who are likely to be the next president," Calamur said.

Given the commanding lead by the Republican and Democratic front-runners in the polls and at the ballot box, NPR's focus on them as the likely nominees is both logical and justifiable. — Amaris Castillo


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.

Lost Patients

We've seen a lot of stories about communities wrestling with how to address the pervasiveness of mental illness and homelessness. A new podcast series elevates the reporting with an explanatory approach, illuminating why some people with mental illness are on the streets, at homeless centers or in jail rather than receiving psychiatric treatment. On March 12, the NPR Network distributed the first of six episodes in the Lost Patients series, a joint production of KUOW and The Seattle Times.

Through deep research and interviews with people who have experienced psychosis, the reporters narrate stories that explore why and how people with mental illness become homeless and end up in jail. They also ask if our systems are reaching a breaking point.

The first episode focused on the story of 40-year-old Adam Aurand, who, after being treated at Washington state's largest psychiatric hospital, was dropped off at a homeless shelter despite his continuing mental decline. If the remaining episodes are anything like the first, they'll provide listeners with analysis and a window into the challenges of living with untreated or poorly treated mental illness. — Emily Barske Wood

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood, 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
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

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