Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Hyman and the Misstatement of the Media


[Editorial note: this commentary can also be found at http://sinclairaction.com.]

On the April 5 edition of "The Point," Sinclair Broadcast Group commentator Mark Hyman attacked the quality of mainstream media outlets, singling out newspapers for particular criticism. Hyman suggested that local news -- Sinclair's own business -- is a more reliable, popular, and trusted news source than the "liberal media." But a comparison of Hyman's claims with the source he cites to back them up -- the recently released annual report from the Project on Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), State of the News Media 2005 -- reveals that Hyman and his employer are the last people who should be passing judgment on the state of contemporary journalism.

Given that Hyman speaks as an employee of a company devoted to buying up local television stations and remaking their news programming, it's not surprising that Hyman would focus on the positive numbers for local television news as compared to other media. From "The Point":

HYMAN: Local TV news is the most used news sector, with 59 percent of Americans
watching it. It is also the "most believable" category with 23 percent of
Americans ranking it so. Next came network TV news at 22 percent. Newspapers are the least believable of all media sources, with a rating of just 17 percent.
Cable and Internet news ranked above newspapers.

These numbers are misleading in two important ways. First, Hyman's claim that local TV news is the most used news sector obscures the fact that regular viewership for local news has declined steadily over the last decade. The 59 percent figure Hyman refers to is the number of people who refer to themselves as "regular" viewers of local news. But that number is down from 77 percent in 1993. In fact, eroding viewership is one of several negative trends afflicting local news since the mid-1990s.

As for the claim that local news is the most trusted voice in the media, it's simply false. Hyman lumps all cable news into a single category, but, the
poll cited by PEJ, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, asked questions that were more detailed than Hyman lets on. Respondents were asked to compare local news to each of the three broadcast news networks, several newspapers, and several cable news outlets. While local news bested NBC News, ABC News, and CBS News by one percentage point each, CBS' 60 Minutes and CNN both finished ahead of local news, and even Fox News finished in a dead heat with local news.

Beyond the simple desire to suggest Sinclair's own product, local news, is superior to other news media, there's another possible motivation behind Hyman's commentary. Though ostensibly a journalistic enterprise, Sinclair's News Central operation, which provides "news" content to the 62 local broadcast stations that Sinclair owns or manages, benefits from a growing skepticism about "truth" and "facts" being presented in the media. If everything is assumed to be slanted or biased, then Sinclair's practices become the norm rather than the exception. Hence, we have someone posing as a journalistic voice - Hyman -- suggesting that journalism as traditionally conceived is going the way of the dinosaur. The more jaded the public becomes about old-fashioned concepts like objectivity, fairness, and balance being crucial to the journalistic enterprise, the better it is for Sinclair.

Not surprisingly, Hyman remains silent on the many less flattering findings the PEJ reports about local news in general and Sinclair Broadcast Group in particular. According to the study, audiences for local news have been
shrinking in recent years. This, in combination with a stagnant economy and ownership consolidation, has brought hard times to local news operations. Sinclair and Hyman himself are singled out in the report as factors in the growing discontent with relaxation of ownership regulations:

The issue of media ownership might have been ignored during the
presidential campaign except for a late controversy involving Sinclair Broadcast
Group. ... One of the largest groups in the country by number of stations owned,
and reaching more than a quarter of U.S. homes, the Sinclair group had also been
one of the most aggressive companies when it came to exploiting the post-1996
media ownership regulations. Indeed, Sinclair, headquartered outside Baltimore,
even used the courts to try to dismantle the remaining rules. In April 2002 it
won a ruling from a federal appeals court ordering the FCC to either rationalize
its ban on duopolies in certain markets or eliminate its regulations. In the
face of the controversy surrounding the FCC's proposed ownership rules, Powell
would argue that he had no choice but to deregulate in the face of the Sinclair
ruling and similar court decisions."

Many suspected partisanship in Sinclair's plans to run [the
anti-John Kerry
film
] 'Stolen Honor.' The company had previously blocked the showing on its
ABC affiliates of a 'Nightline' tribute to soldiers killed in Iraq, and
political donations by company executives significantly favored Republicans over
Democrats. The company also required its stations to air commentaries by Mark
Hyman, a Sinclair executive who was a blunt, talk-radio-style critic of the
Democratic party and an advocate of conservative positions and the GOP. Finally,
Sinclair was also highly likely to benefit from the ownership rules revision
approved by the FCC's three Bush-appointed commissioners.


Such revisions would further empower Sinclair to follow its business model, which is geared toward de-localizing local news and using the public airwaves for purposes of turning a profit and espousing the political beliefs of its owner. Therefore, we shouldn't be shocked that Hyman would be silent on the central conclusion of the PEJ report: that the encroachment of profit pressures onto news operations is harming the integrity of news organizations nationwide.

Among the study's other findings that would rub Sinclair executives the wrong way:

  • Many observers now believe that local news must become less centralized (or is that News Central-ized?) and become a more truly local product geared toward its specific audience if it is to survive.
  • Since the late 1990s, the amount of "third-party" material used in local newscasts has increased, while the number of on-air reporters delivering stories has decreased.
    In the last two years alone, the "believability" of local news (as measured by viewers' attitudes) has
    fallen measurably.
  • When asked two basic questions about the presidential candidates in 2004, viewers who got their news primarily from local TV were the least knowledgeable (only 14 percent were able to answer both questions correctly). Newspaper readers came out on top, followed by viewers of cable news and network news.
  • Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the viewing public feel local news decisions are often influenced by a desire to get higher ratings. More than half (54 percent) believe local news stations are often influenced by a desire to make a profit when making journalistic decisions.
    Since 1998, local news has tended to feature more and more stories that are
    easy and cheap to produce, at the expense of local news stories. When local news is covered, it's often done in a perfunctory manner.
  • The PEJ report cites a survey by NewsLab, a nonprofit research institute serving local TV and radio stations, which found that homogenized content of local news has played a significant role in driving viewers away.

It's not just that these findings about local news suggest that the medium is in worse shape than Hyman lets on; it's that nearly all of them are indicative of the effect that Sinclair itself, and media consolidation in general, has had on local news.

One last fact from the PEJ study helps put things in perspective: Notice that many of the negative trends in local news mentioned in the study have emerged or become particularly acute in the last eight to 10 years. In 1995, Sinclair Broadcast Group owned 14 stations; it currently owns or manages 62 stations nationwide, adding more stations both in terms of raw numbers and as a percentage increase in its holdings than any other ownership group. Sinclair is now the
largest single owner of local television affiliates in the country.

Make of this fact what you will.

And that's The Counterpoint

1 Comments:

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Dash said...

Excellent dissection - but you didn't mention the most obvious point, though your studies allude to it:

Opinion of "believability" is a very different thing than actual believability. Sources of news that don't confirm one's knee-jerk worldview are dismissed, not because they're not true, but because most people don't like to have their beliefs challenged. It makes them uncomfortable and they shy away.

We are in real trouble when we no longer have an objective and accessible source of information about the world where the consensus is, even if I don't like what they're showing me, I accept that it's true. Local news has never been that, but the big-3 network shows once were. CNN had that role on cable at first. It's basically the Musak of the news world now.

 

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