When it comes to seeking “expert” opinions on events for its reports, NPR often looks to a trusted roster of think-tank sources. In a study of NPR’s Morning Edition from February to July 2018, FAIR found that sources from left-of-center think tanks were underrepresented, with right-leaning think tank sources appearing almost twice as often.
Out of 129 episodes aired Monday through Friday over the course of six months, researchers and fellows representing think tanks were quoted 144 times. Centrist think tanks were most commonly heard on Morning Edition, with 63 interview (44 percent of citations). Fifty-one (35 percent) of the show’s interviews were with conservative or center-right groups, while 28 (19 percent) involved progressive or center-left groups.
Of the 63 right-leaning interviews, we characterized 37 as featuring representatives from conservative groups—e.g., the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute—while 14 categorized as center-right, like the Cato Institute and Foreign Policy Research Institute. The 28 left-of-center interviews broke down into 16 from center-left think tanks (e.g., Prison Policy Initiative and Center on Global Energy Policy) and 12 with progressives like the Women’s Refugee Commission and the MLK Research and Education Institute. (Center-left think tanks were distinguished from progressive think tanks largely on the basis of their corporate underwriting.) The contrast between Morning Edition’s use of clearly conservative and clearly progressive think tanks was stark: Analysts from the former appeared more than three times as often as interviewees from the latter.
FAIR has noted (e.g., Extra!, 7/13) that the funding think tanks receive from corporations, wealthy foundations and governments often shapes the agendas they push. NPR’s own Ethics Handbook employs a cautionary tone regarding the sourcing of think tanks. It stresses NPR reporters’ responsibility to be aware of such organizations’ conflicts of interest...
Contrary to its code of ethics, NPR rarely if ever discloses the financial supporters of think tanks. For example, one of its most-cited think tanks, the conservative Center for Strategic and International Studies, receives funding from weapons manufacturers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. This was not mentioned during a segment (7/13/18) on arms control negotiations between Russia and the US, even though NPR cited two different representatives from the think tank.
Think Tank Watch's favorite line from the FAIR piece: "Representatives from two think tanks—the pro-seafood Lobster Institute and the Rich Earth Institute, which promotes turning urine into fertilizer—could not be placed on the political spectrum."
Harvard has put out an excellent tip sheet for citing think tanks.