Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"Media Tracker" a useful tool for identifying media competitors by locality

A useful research tool has been relaunched by the Center for Public Integrity as part of its Telecom and Media Ownership Project. Dubbed Media Tracker, it’s an enhanced data base that identifies media outlets in any geographic area as well as the ownership of each outlet. The data base includes newspapers, television, radio, cable and broadband providers.

So, for example, if you want to see the media outlets and their owners in Philadelphia, you might enter 19104. A map shows the location of broadcast towers and a summary identifies the five largest television licensees in the area. Links for many of the largest firms drill down further into the data base.

Media Tracker is a helpful tool, but is only a starting point for many of the needs of identifying media owners. The geographic region that is used seems to follow the FCC’s Grade B contour territory, which encompasses far more licensees than viewers can receive. For example, Philadelphia shows 17 full power stations, but those included in Reading, Trenton, Bethlehem and Allentown don’t reach most of the Philadelphia market area. And, of course, the 90% of households that receive TV by satellite or cable would not likely find their providers offering duplicate network stations in any event.

Similarly, the data base kicks out 55 daily newspapers within 100 miles of Philadelphia—which includes New York City and Asbury Park, NJ. But looking at the list recalled the Umbrella Model for newspaper circulation. This model, first described by Stanford economist James Rose in the mid-1970s, noticed that the newspaper market consists of four tiers, with the lower tiers competing with those above it. The top tier consists of metropolitan dailies having regional market coverage. In Philadelphia, that would be the Inquirer and the Daily News, late of Knight Ridder. The second tier consists of satellite city dailies, which differ from the first tier in that they have more confined markets. This could include the Courier-Post, based across the river in Cherry Hill, NJ or the News Journal, out of Wilmington, DE. A third tier is made up of suburban dailies around the metropolis and cities., such as the Burlington County (NJ) Times. The fourth tier includes weeklies and “shoppers.”

In looking at the newspapers in Media Tracker, this hierarchy of markets becomes more evident. While the residents and advertisers of Philadelphia can choose from the Inquirer or Daily News, both from the same owners, residents of Camden NJ might want (and many do) buy the Philadelphia papers—OR the Courier Post—OR both. Burlington residents will have ready access to either of those papers—ad well as the County Times. Region-wide advertisers have their choice as well.

Being able to pull out this type of data is a strength of Media Tracker. But it is still a work in progress. The ultimate service would take a given ZIP code and provide a list of what media are available in that ZIP: the outlets offered by the local cable company or other broadband provider, those available from the satellite services beamed to that area, only the newspapers that circulate there, the radio stations that can be received with any AM/FM radio. (Of course, the entire notion of local media availability is undermined to the extent that anything is available to anyone via the Internet).

But even as it is configured today, Media Tracker is a helpful resource. Whether it tells us there is more or less competition in media availability in any geographic area is in the hands of the researchers who will use it.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

NSF-Funded Study Finds Newspaper “Slant” Comes from Readers, Not from Owner

Once again, does ownership matter? A new, comprehensive, methodically unbiased study from two academic economists asks the question: “What Drives Media Slant?” Using robust statistical tools and a novel approach to measure “slant,” this National Science Foundation-funded study found that the largest single variable is that “Firms respond strongly to consumer preferences.” That is, to the extent there is a bias—or slant—in coverage-- newspaper editors tend to write for their audience. Bias comes from below, not above—from owners.

Whether it’s at the FCC hearings on ownership rules or at stacked conferences, such as National Conference for Media Reform, the rhetoric behind media ownership has been one of diversity and the implication—supported primarily by anecdotal stories—that large media companies stifle diversity. There is the subtext that the owners of the large media companies could -- if not actually do—promote their personal, political and/or cultural agendas.

This is despite the preponderance of evidence from sources that are not stakeholders or don’t have ideological axes to grind, that ownership matters, but not in the direction these advocates promote. As I have pointed out here before, describing a study undertaken at Harvard’s Kennedy School that finds the US has the most diverse and competitive media environment in the world, or the British-lead “Trust in Media” study that had a similar finding. The very well conceived content analysis study, “Does Ownership Matter in Local Television News?” from the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported very mixed, sometimes counter-intuitive results, such as that local TV stations with cross-ownership—in which the parent company also owns a newspaper in the same market—tended to produce higher quality newscasts.

The “What Drives Media Slant?” study is unique in several ways. Key is the method for determining slant: instead of researchers constructing a basket of content criteria and setting a handful of graduate students to laboriously try to categorize thousands of newspaper articles over a manageable period of time—often as few as two weeks-- Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro draw their definition of slant directly from the words of ideologues—members of Congress. They started with a computer-driven analysis that examined the set of all two and three word phrases used by representatives in the 2005 Congressional Record, and identified those that were used much more frequently by one party than by the other.

For example, they discovered that when referring to estate tax legislation, Republicans tended to use the term “death tax,” while Democrats were partial to calling it the “estate tax.” Republicans were biased toward “tax relief,” Democrats liked to call it a “tax break.” And so it went: “personal account” for Social Security change and “war on terror” (strongly Republican) vs. “private account,” and “war in Iraq” (strongly Democratic).

The researchers were then able to take the 1000 most strongly identified terms and use computers to compare them to the full content of 400 newspapers accounting for 70% of daily circulation—far more than is possible using conventional content analysis. The key finding: “Using zip code-level data on newspaper circulation, we show that right-wing newspapers circulate relatively more in zip codes with high fractions of Republicans, even within a narrowly defined geographic market.” And by implication, these papers circulate less strongly in areas of a left leaning constituency.

The study further found that newspaper companies with publications in multiple markets followed the same principal: their papers published in “red” markets showed more of a Republican slant than those published in Democrat “blue” markets.

The political composition of the market did not account for all the explanation for slant, the study found, but it was the largest identifiable variable. The study was robust in that it controlled for many possibilities that could account for slant, but none undermined the central finding: bias is driven more from the readers, less from the editors or owners. In economist language, newspaper content is largely demand driven.

Advocates who claim to “know” that owners—often large media companies—set an editorial agenda that is their own invariably use anecdotal stories or a narrow, limited study to “prove” their point. Or they advance their position simply on faith. The empirical evidence keeps piling up that overall ownership does matter—but not in a single nor predictable direction.

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