NPR to Stations: 'Avoid' Saying '46 Million Americans' Are Uninsured

Managing Editor confirms that 'guidance' memo was sent to members to stop making controversial claim.

While many in the news media continue to inflate and exaggerate the number of uninsured Americans, National Public Radio is making a change.

NPR’s deputy senior supervising editor Joe Neel drafted an e-mail that was sent out Oct. 14 to member stations addressing the number of uninsured. The e-mail clarified proper use of Census Bureau statistics and advised staff to “avoid the construction ’46 million Americans.’” That number has been a flashpoint throughout the health care debate.

The NPR e-mail said, “We are sticking with the 46 million number issued by the Census Bureau in September (for 2008). It’s the number of people in the U.S. who lack insurance coverage at any point during the prior 12 months. It includes citizens, legal residents and undocumented immigrants.”

The e-mail went on to explain how not to report the issue. “Better to say ’46 million uninsured in America,’ or ‘the nation’s 46 million uninsured people,’ or any other formulation that does not label all 46 million as citizens,” the e-mail continued.

David Sweeney, managing editor of NPR, confirmed to the Business & Media Institute that the e-mail had indeed been circulated and said it was provided to member stations as “guidance,” not as a “dictate.”

“We thought this was helpful to program producers and other reporters and editors who may be working on a health care story,” Sweeney explained. He also told BMI it is not unusual for NPR to send such communiqués clarifying complicated issues or explaining an NPR editorial policy.

NPR isn’t alone in clarifying its wording on the uninsured. In September, President Barack Obama modified his language on the issue, switching from “47 million Americans” to “more than 30 million American citizens.”

The Business & Media Institute exposed the error of many journalists in July 2007 when everyone from politicians, to Michael Moore to major broadcast and print media were claiming that there were between 40 and 50 million uninsured Americans.

Those claims were incorrect because (at that time) the Census was reporting 46.577 million people uninsured in America – including nearly 10 million in the “not a citizen” category.

The latest Census Data, released in Sept. 2009, found the total number of uninsured was 46.3 million people. That figure included 9.5 million non-citizens.