FCC report: Local TV ‘more important than ever,’ but thin on accountability reporting

After a year of study, a Federal Communications Commission special report, "The Information Needs of Communities," says there is a lot of journalism out there, just not much "accountability reporting" of local and state government. Rather than leveling criticism on media companies for giving up their watchdog roles, the report offers observations without judgment.

The report notes the important role of television news but also describes how cutbacks have resulted in newsrooms without deep, beat-oriented expertise. It also says that news stations need to do a better job disclosing paid programming and how they serve the public interest.

The study, based on interviews with 600 journalists, scholars and industry leaders, found that newsrooms are scaling back their coverage of important institutions such as local and state government.

It says there should be state versions of C-SPAN (called STATE-SPAN) to provide coverage of local government. Twenty-three states have such programming now, but in only four cases do cable operators fund the channels (as with C-SPAN); in the others the state funds coverage of itself. Steven Waldman, who led the study, suggested in an FCC meeting Thursday that Congress consider incentives to help cable providers launch such channels.

The FCC report says that newspapers and TV news networks have half the staff that they had in the 1980s and that newsrooms now stand at pre-Watergate employment levels. As a result, local news coverage is in trouble. Courts, schools, legal affairs, environment, state government and education once were priority beats. Now they lack reporters to cover them. The number of newspapers with bureaus in Washington has declined. Local news coverage of religion "is all but gone," Waldman said.

The FCC team that wrote the report coined the term "hamsterization" (based on a CJR story) to describe the way that reporters now have to scurry to cover story after story without having the time to "turn over the rocks" to find out what is really going on. "The waste of taxpayer dollars, corruption, coverage of schools" all get less coverage, according to Waldman.

"Reporters write from press releases more and don't have time to dig," he said.

The role of radio and TV

In some ways, Waldman said, national radio is covering news quite well. But the story on the local level is grim. Only one-third of the U.S. population now has access to an all-news radio station. In the 1980s it was half. From 2004 to 2009 the number of public radio stations "doing news" grew.

Regarding TV news, Waldman said:

"Local TV news is more productive than it has been, perhaps ever. The number of hours of local TV is up, TV stations are using mobile applications and multiple digital channels. They are still the number one source of news. They are increasingly an important source of online news and the newspaper contraction creates an opportunity for broadcast stations. In many ways local TV news is more important than ever."

Problems with local broadcast news

Of broadcast news, Waldman said, "'If it it bleeds it leads' is still true, maybe even worse now. Most stations have no beat system," which leads to a lack of expertise.

Waldman told the Commission that "pay-for-play" is still a big problem, especially when hospitals, for example, pay for airtime and dictate who can appear on a program. The report urges the Commission to require clearer disclosure of paid content. "The station discloses it quickly" and "you really have to be an attentive viewer" to recognize that the material you just saw or are about to see was bought and paid for. The report recommends that these disclosure be easier to understand and be posted online.

Even as stations increased local programming by 35 percent, they cut staff. "One-man bands," in which one person shoots video and reports, are more common. Stations changed from the old two-person crews to solo crews, sometimes promising to cover more news by putting more people on the street. "But this just has not happened," Waldman said. They just use fewer journalists.

Despite the abundance of local media outlets, Waldman said, there is "a shortage of media reporting." In Baltimore, for example, there are 53 news outlets, but a Pew study  said most of the content came from one TV station and The Baltimore Sun. "So far the news media is not filling this key need" to report news and not just repeat what others have reported, Waldman said. About 15,000 reporters have left newsrooms in the last decade in America, he said.

One-third of local TV stations "do no local news or programming," Waldman told the Commission.

As for print, "regional newspapers used to be very important players in overseas coverage but they basically have packed up," Waldman said. However NPR, cable networks and Bloomberg have all increased international coverage, and consumers now have more international coverage at their fingertips than a newsroom editor had not long ago.

The Fairness Doctrine and FCC regulations

The reports recommends against re-instituting the Fairness Doctrine. "We concluded as I think all of you have, that the Fairness Doctrine would undermine free speech," Waldman said.

The doctrine, which became FCC policy in 1949, required broadcast stations to provide balanced and fair coverage of controversial issues. But to institute the doctrine now would threaten information sources such as talk radio, which often is one-sided.

The Fairness Doctrine has been all but dead since the Reagan administration discarded many FCC rules. This week, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said he is removing the doctrine from the FCC's rulebook.

The report's strongest criticism of the FCC's current enforcement came when Waldman said his report finds that stations must provide little proof that they are serving the public's needs — a requirement of keeping their licenses. In the last 75 years, only four stations have lost their licenses because they failed to fulfill their public service obligations. Not one station has lost a license for that reason in the last 30 years.

Waldman said one station, in its public file, said its coverage of the casting call for "America's Next Top Model" in its town was an example of public service. Others, however, logged significant public service. "The public-interest obligation system at the FCC currently is broken," Waldman said.

I take that to mean the FCC should more clearly define what "serving the public interest" means and then enforce those requirements. The report says it should be easier for the public to inspect a station's "public file" by requiring stations to post the contents of that file online.

Related: "Broadcasters see positives in FCC proposals," TVNewsCheck

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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