Why Sinclair’s promos were a journalism ethics train wreck

If you’re in media or a news junkie, you’ve probably heard more in the past week about Sinclair Broadcast Group than in your entire life — if you’d even heard of them before.

A week after Deadspin’s video mashup of local anchors at Sinclair stations from coast to coast reciting an identical script echoing President Trump’s attacks on “fake” news in national media sparked an industry outcry, it’s worth deconstructing the series of ethical missteps Sinclair made along the road to the now-infamous promos.

From putting partisan language into the mouths of news anchors to serve what appear to be financial and political interests of corporate owners to the stripping of local content and trust in community news, the episode has been a debacle for Sinclair, its employees and its audience. News executives, take note.

The maelstrom began with 60-second promos that local anchors were ordered by corporate bosses to record word-for-word, to be aired three times in a day at 193 Sinclair TV stations. Sinclair stations include local affiliates of ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, Univision and other networks and reach 38 percent of American households, just under limits set by the Federal Communications Commission “in the public interest” to prevent monopoly control of media. The media commentariat and indignant Sinclair employees condemned the spots as “manipulative” and “Orwellian.” Trump jumped into the fray on Twitter, praising Sinclair, mocking its critics and calling CNN, NBC, ABC and CBS “fake news” and “the most dishonest groups of people” with a “sick and biased AGENDA.”

The SAG-AFTRA union, which represents thousands of TV journalists, blasted the promos, while anchors posted their frustration on social media and in an anonymous commentary for Vox, explaining they couldn’t resign in protest because the penalty for breaking contracts is too steep. An ex-Sinclair employee claimed the company pushed “must-run” content that was so slanted against Democrats and supportive of Trump in 2016 that if “it weren’t for Sinclair Broadcasting, Donald Trump would not be in the Oval Office right now.”

Sinclair defended the promos as non-partisan and its chairman was defiant, calling criticism “nonsense.” The company doubled down, yanking a $25,000 donation to the National Press Photographers Association after the group assailed the promos, as my colleague Al Tompkins reported.

Sinclair’s vice president for news, Scott Livingston, told Poynter the impetus for the spot was an audience survey that asked if viewers were worried about “fake news.” The script pledged that unlike other media, Sinclair stations would be truthful — a message Livingston said tested positively with audiences.

Alarmed deans at 13 university journalism programs signed a protest letter to Sinclair Friday evening, saying that the anti-press jeremiads were eroding confidence in local newscasters, as Tompkins reported. By then, the magnitude of the public relations disaster may have sunk in. “We understand that the promo prompted an emotional response, and we’ll learn from that in the future. We value the connections our anchors have with their communities and trust that they will continue reporting local news for their viewers as only they know how to do,” Livingston said.

The ethical problems with Sinclair’s promo fall into several categories:

  • A news outlet using its anchors to echo the inflammatory rhetoric of a president known to watch hours of  TV news a day. This creates the impression of a message custom-made to curry favor with the chief executive and his supporters and amplify his attacks on any news critical of him.

“The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, national media outlets are publishing these same fake stories,” recited anchors in 80 local TV markets, who were instructed not to deviate from a text dictated by Baltimore-based Sinclair. “Unfortunately, some members of the national news media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda. … This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

If the script sounds familiar, it’s because it echoes one of Donald Trump’s top talking points. In 2016, “fake news” referred to misinformation — conspiracies and hoaxes, false headlines such as Pope Francis endorsing Trump, which spread on social media and predominantly favored Trump. Indignant at the suggestion that fake news helped him win, Trump cannily appropriated the term and redefined it to mean any coverage he dislikes, even if it’s true. The term has become politicized, weaponized against the fact-based media to the point that it’s devoid of meaning.

Sinclair chairman David Smith has said he views print media as “left wing … meaningless dribble,” undermining the assertion that the corporate promos attacking “fake” national media have no political overtones.

  • The inappropriate use of news anchors to deliver corporate editorial opinions.

This is an ethical no-brainer. News anchors and reporters must stick to the news; when they inject opinion, they squander trust as impartial truth-tellers. Cable news has badly muddied the waters on a national scale by using partisans both as anchors and analysts, without clearly labeling shows or comments when they are opinions, not news.

Eighty-five percent of Americans trust local news, according to Pew Research Center, far more than have confidence in national news or what they hear from family and friends. By forcing anchors to recite commentary written by corporate bosses, Sinclair has tarnished its greatest asset: credibility in local communities.

The closest analogue to the Sinclair promo is a newspaper editorial that reflects the views of a paper’s owners, not the newsroom. Sinclair would have faced far less backlash if it recorded the same message in the mouths of owners or executives, and clearly marked it as editorial commentary that “represents the views of Sinclair Broadcast Group, and does not necessarily represent the views of this station.”

  • The perception that a broadcaster is cozying up to the president to get approval for a lucrative business deal.

The commercial backstory is critical here. Sinclair has expanded its holdings three-fold since 2010 to become the largest owner of TV stations in the country, and is seeking Trump administration approval to buy dozens more stations that would bring Sinclair to more than 70 percent of U.S. homes — nearly twice the FCC limit as of last year.

Trump’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, pushed to allow broadcasters to own more stations, and soon after rules were relaxed, Sinclair announced a $3.9 billion deal to buy stations owned by Tribune Media. The FCC inspector general has opened an investigation into whether Pai and his aides — who met and corresponded with Sinclair executives — improperly pushed for changes to benefit the company. The deal has stalled at the Justice Department because of antitrust concerns about unfair competition and undue influence by a single company over advertising rates and licensing deals with cable and satellite companies.

Sinclair already owns stations from coast to coast, but they’re concentrated in the Southeast, in conservative broadcast areas that voted for President Trump by a 19-point margin on average, according to a Washington Post analysis. If the merger goes through, it would acquire stations in more liberal markets, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

  • A history of political donations by Sinclair and its executives favoring the president and other Republicans, and of Sinclair executives’ attacks on other media as “left-wing” adds to the perception of bias.

The company insists the spots were apolitical “journalistic responsibility messages,” but that claim is undermined by campaign finance data showing political donations by Sinclair’s political action committee, owners and executives have favored Republicans for more than 20 years. This year, the company even solicited donations from news directors at local stations, putting those in charge of editorial content in the untenable and unethical position of being asked to support political causes. News directors are meant to lead impartial coverage of their communities; having journalists make political donations undermines the premise of unbiased news and erodes public trust.

This is not just about Sinclair; partisan donations by media owners, executives or news journalists are equally problematic, regardless of their political orientation.

Industry codes of ethics and newsrooms typically forbid journalists from donating to candidates, parties, or political causes because of the perception of bias. The New York Times code of ethics states it clearly: “Staff members may not themselves give money to, or raise money for, any political candidate or election cause. ... any political giving by a Times staff member would carry a great risk of feeding a false impression that the paper is taking sides." The Associated Press, under its conflict of interest policy, instructs editorial employees that "under no circumstances should they donate money to political organizations or political campaigns. They should use great discretion in joining or making contributions to other organizations that may take political stands."

  • A pattern of imposing “must-run” content created at the corporate level and imposed on local stations, flying in the face of FCC requirements that broadcasters “serve the needs and interests of the communities to which they are licensed.”

Deadspin’s montage underscored the uniformity and absence of local control over the promos (down to the wardrobe colors permitted for female anchors). As HBO comedian John Oliver said wryly, “Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again, like members of a brainwashed cult.”

While corporate owners can certainly provide packages to local stations, excessive centrally imposed or partisan content in local newscasts starts to dangerously resemble state-run television. (I was based in China as a foreign correspondent, and Americans do not want that kind of newscast).

Sinclair produces a steady stream of “must-run” segments that parrot the president’s talking points on a range of issues that some local stations have complained are irrelevant to their audiences, from commentaries by former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn (which air nine times weekly without any rebuttal from opposing voices) to a daily “Terrorism Alert Desk” whose segments echo Trump’s fear-mongering about Muslims and Mexicans and have included unproven reports about chainsaw murders and a story about a burkini ban on French beaches that had nothing to do with terrorism.

Like the scripted promos, “must-run” segments take time away from covering local news, raising questions of whether Sinclair is fulfilling what the government defines as “the basic FCC requirement that [broadcasters] air programming that responds to the needs and interests of the community.” It would be equally troubling if left-leaning or apolitical national content were robbing time from community news, which is the licensed mission of local TV.

A local newscaster’s reputation as a reliable source of news relevant to their communities is their most valuable currency, and it rests on the belief that anchors are unbiased and mission-driven to deliver accurate local news. Just because corporate owners can impose “must-run” content doesn’t make it a good idea.

Sinclair's mandated content, including the misfired promos, contradicts the principles of independent, unbiased local journalism. Alongside other ethical blunders described above, it creates the impression of commercial and political interests pulling the strings. Rather than building audience trust, Sinclair has undermined its stations' credibility as a reliable and impartial source of news.

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    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan is the executive editor at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a Boston Globe columnist. She also served as the first Newmark chair in journalism ethics at Poynter.

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