Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Why the news sucks

Here are some excerpts from The Decline of Broadcast News a report issued by the Writers' Guild of America. Most of you will find things you probably already know. Corporate media consolidation and cost-cutting labor practices have led to a gross mismanagement of your "public airwaves." I encourage everyone to read the report anyway.

The Public Interest

Unlike other media platforms like newspapers and cable, which use privately-owned distribution, broadcasters distribute their product through the public airwaves. The Communications Act of 1934 imposed several requirements on broadcasters licensed to use the airwaves, including that they "serve the public interest."


Several key research studies in the last few years have demonstrated one practice in particular that has alarmed the public and elected officials: the media's reliance on VNRs (video news releases). One study by the New York Times in March 2005 and another by the Center for Media and Democracy(CMD) in April 2006 found that many local broadcasters aired VNRs. These videos look like news reporting, but are produced primarily by PR firms to tout their clients' products or points of view, and are usually aired without attribution to the sponsoring company. After the Times story came out in 2005, the FCC issued a notice calling on broadcasters and cable operators to follow disclosure rules when airing VNRs. The notice explained, "Listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them."

The CMD report found 77 TV stations in markets large and small airing VNRs without proper disclosure. "In each case," CMD wrote, "these 77 television stations actively disguised the sponsored content to make it appear to be their own reporting. In almost all cases, stations failed to balance the clients' messages with independently-gathered footage or basic journalistic research. More than one-third of the time, stations aired the pre-packaged VNR in its entirety." CBS' Los Angeles station, KCBS, was among the stations cited for running VNRs. Disney's KABC, also Los Angeles, and a number of ABC affiliated stations ran VNRs as well. In a follow-up study released in fall 2006, an ABC national news broadcast ran a VNR for a pharmaceutical company


Media outlets have been moving away from hard news and toward more lifestyle/ entertainment news, or "infotainment," for some time now. Whether the trend is driven by cost pressures and a fear of offending the powerful, or by a desire to "give the people what they want" and win the ratings battle, one result is clear. Less hard news is making it on to the airwaves

A member at CBS' KNX Radio in Los Angeles wrote, "I was told at various times, 'There's nothing happening in Iraq'... [Stories] must be titillating, embarrassing, or morally disturbing." Another reported, "Jane Fonda signs a deal, Prince Albert's illegitimate daughter, Britney Spears' baby trouble: All bump real news. We do this every day [emphasis added] on both KCAL and CBS-2."

"Managers seem to think that if it's not entertaining, no one will listen. More to the point - affiliate managers will complain [about the news product], they say." A CBS Radio writer echoed her concerns, and added that the negative effect is not only on today's news. He said, "I feel sorry for our desk assistants, the radio reporters and producers and newswriters of the future. The worst thing you can do to a young journalist is teach them to be scared, and that is what we're doing. The copy editor and the anchor are often hectored [by management] when they don't do enough 'exciting' stories, and it's made them gun shy about doing hard news or otherwise using their own judgment." He mentioned an example: when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie named their baby Shiloh, the news desk personnel tried to find an expert on celebrity baby names, thinking that that might reduce the management's pressure for lighter news.


There are also reports of frequent parent corporation product tie-ins at CBS. WGA members took particular exception to the requirement that they regularly write interviews with the previous night's Survivor or Amazing Race loser, stories about the "real-life missing person" featured on that Sunday's episode of Without A Trace, and numerous feature stories incorporating syndicated daytime talk-show host Dr. Phil. CBS writers are sometimes pressured to use material from "corporate partners" such as Simon & Schuster or politico.com before they go to other sources, who might be able to better speak to an issue.

Like I said, there's much more. Go read.

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