February 28, 2014

FCC Adds To Long History Of Trying To Regulate Newsrooms

By: Hadley Heath Manning

Media research can be fascinating. Next time you are watching a news broadcast, note the “top story” – the one that leads the broadcast. Did the show select the most important, most newsworthy story? How many minutes did the show spend on each story? Were various perspectives represented?  These are the kind of notes I took as a journalism student in college, trying to analyze the fairness of a particular show.

The Federal Communications Commission proposed similar research, in a new, in-depth but controversial study.  They planned to visit news headquarters and speak with producers about how stories are selected and reported. The purported goal of the study was to determine whether news outlets are relaying “critical information” to the public.

Because of serious backlash, the study has been suspended. But it should be cancelled and abandoned entirely.  It’s one thing for journalism students or independent researchers to perform this kind of study. It’s another thing – inappropriate at best – for the FCC. After all, the news outlets under examination couldn’t even operate without their FCC license.

The FCC has long played a role in the regulation of broadcast communications. Starting in 1949, the Commission imposed a “Fairness Doctrine” that required broadcasters to give equal time to opposing views when covering controversial topics.

As a result, some broadcasters simply aimed to avoid controversial topics altogether, and the policy faced constitutional challenges in court. The Fairness Doctrine had good intentions, not so good results.  The FCC essentially stopped enforcing the policy in 1987, and it was officially repealed in 2011.

But regulators never let failed experiments slow them down. Now the latest language from the FCC is “Critical Information Needs.” The suspended study was intended to investigate whether certain communities have access to the news information they need. But what would the FCC do with this research anyway?

Critics of this study rightly pointed out that it could lead to a muzzling of our First Amendment freedom of the press. The FCC defended itself in a letter saying it has “no intention of regulating political speech.” But even if it wouldn’t directly muzzle the press, this type of “research” is textbook intimidation.

For their part, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) criticized the proposed research design in a comment: “NAB is concerned that the Research Design authors may not fully appreciate that the Commission faces certain constraints here. The agency is not primarily a research institution; rather, it directly regulates some of the speakers to be analyzed in the CIN Study. That raises some constitutional concerns…

NAB continued, “NAB suggests that the Commission forego one component of the proposed study. There is no compelling need for the ‘Qualitative Analysis of Media Providers,’ which calls for government-sponsored researchers to question local journalists in the six analyzed markets about their news judgments and editorial decision-making.”

They’re right: There’s simply no need for the government to perform such a study.  There are various independent institutions – like Pew Research – that regularly study news outlets and report on their reporting. These non-governmental groups are capable of studying the media and sharing information with the media-consuming public, so that we can “beware” what information we’re buying.

One (wise) FCC commissioner wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week that this government intrusion into the newsroom doesn’t make sense, especially when we consider the different news consumption preferences of a diverse population. We each have our own opinions about which stories deserve more or less time in the broadcast, and today we have more options than ever about where to hear the news. Let audiences hold news outlets accountable for the quality of information provided.

In college, I also learned the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. Above all, journalists should “Seek the Truth and Report it.” It’s up to journalists and news organizations to chose to follow this code, and it’s up to the public to hold them accountable. The government has no place saying what the truth – or “critical information” – is, and the FCC certainly shouldn’t intimidate journalists by inappropriately invading newsrooms and questioning editorial decisions.

The government shouldn’t waste any more resources redesigning such a study. Instead, it should abandon the study and allow news markets to function freely.

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