Monday, January 03, 2005

WOTM FAQ, Part 1

Some questions I have answered from time to time, often from students writing papers who e-mail me for some primary research points.

Is there bias in the news media today?

First, see Bernard Goldberg’s books, Bias and Arrogance. Goldberg, a long-time CBS News reporter, provides dozens of examples of bias. Crucial, though, he believes it is not institutional, i.e., corporate, bias. It is seen in the biases of those who edit and report news. Corporations—especially large, publicly owned media corporation -- tend to refrain from overt biases. They are in the business of making money, which means reaching large audiences. Alienating even relatively small audiences reduces their ratings, hence advertising, hence profit. More on this another time. (This applies to TV news—the main interest of most people who ask this question). Obviously many print media want to be biased and make no bones about it: Among many examples, The Weekly Standard and The Nation magazines, books that the largest publishers publish, such as Fast Food Nation, each have stated or obvious biases.

How much effect does corporate ownership have on news media content?

The academic research that has been reported does not support the contention that media ownership by chains or conglomerates leads to any consistent pattern of lowered standards, content, or performance when compared with media owned by families or small companies. For example, a review of 17 studies concluded that there were few differences in the editorial page slant of newspapers owned by groups and those that were independent. On the other hand, editors of chain-owned newspaper were found to have greater editorial latitude in determining editorial policy than those at family-owned newspapers. Put another way, publishers of family owned newspapers exert greater editorial control over the editorial process than at group-owned. While publicly owned newspaper chains perhaps may be more focused on profitability than those that are family controlled, they are less likely to have an ideological agenda they want to promote. The overall consistency of studies show that large group, corporate and public ownership have had a neutral to positive effect on the editorial side of newspapers. One of the most thorough studies of the role of ownership was a five year study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. It looked specifically at television news at the local station level. As most broadcast television programming at local stations comes from the networks –ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, WB, UPN, Pax— the one area for decisions about original programming at the local station level comes in the form of the local news shows.

Ownership Does Matter, But Not in Expected Ways

The Project for Excellence in Journalism study confirms that ownership does matter, but not alway in ways that support the conventional wisdom. The study attempted to create objective measures of “quality” and then used a content analysis to apply these to 23,000 stories in 172 television news programs over five years. “Taken together, the findings suggest the question of media ownership [as it affects local television news] is more complex than some advocates of both sides of the deregulatory debate imagine.”
Among the study’s findings:
  • Stations with cross-ownership—in which the parent company also owns a newspaper in the same market—tended to produce higher quality newscasts.
  • Ownership type made no measurable difference in terms of the diversity of people depicted in the news and little difference in the range of topics a station covered. In general, there is striking uniformity across the country in what local television stations define as news.
  • Stations owned by the largest groups produced higher quality early evening newscasts than those owned by the smaller groups. Smaller station groups tended to produce higher quality late evening newscasts than stations owned by larger companies.
  • Network affiliated stations tended to produce higher quality newscasts than network owned and operated stations.
  • Local ownership offered little protection against newscasts being very poor, and did not produce superior quality.
  • Stations of privately-owned companies and publicly-owned companies did not perform significantly differently from each other.
Even within these overall conclusions there is something for everyone. For example, the notion of “quality” is highly dependent on the criteria used and how they are weighed. Although small company stations were found overall to have higher quality than those owned by the largest companies, those owned by this latter group rated highest on the criteria of “offering communities a variety of viewpoints in their newscasts.” And medium-sized owners were better than the smaller owners when it came to enterprise reporting and the greatest localism.

Local newscasts are the most prominent programming that can distinguish one local television station from another. For the most part, “television” is defined and described by the programming provided by networks. In any market, most programming most of the time is the same, whether the station is owned by a large multi-media conglomerate or an independent local owner, whether the station is owned and operated by a network or is simply an affiliate of a network.

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