April 27, 2012

NPR | ProPublica

Update: The Wrap reports that the FCC has voted to require the four largest broadcasters in the top 50 markets to post records online; everyone else is exempt for two years. This means that 160 markets, everything smaller than Louisville, Ky, are excluded, as the Sunlight Foundation illustrates. ProPublica’s Justin Elliott notes that stations will be allowed to provide the reports in any file format, so they won’t be searchable.

The sticking point, as noted below: disclosure of ad rates.

Original post: Today the FCC is expected to vote on a new rule requiring that broadcast television stations post their records of political ad buys online. The debate over this rule is another illustration that the real test of public access is putting records online where anyone can get them, anytime, rather than filing them away in an office that few will visit.

First, broadcasters argued that putting records online would cost too much. In a recent push, reports ProPublica’s Justin Elliott, they’ve lobbied to disclose only aggregate information, not the individual ad buys now in the paper files. But if it would cost too much to simply scan the documents and put them online, wouldn’t it be more expensive to create another system of online-record-keeping?

Maybe there’s another motivation for stations’ commitment to some measure of transparency. As NPR’s Brian Naylor explains, because stations must offer political campaigns (but not super PACs) their lowest ad rates, which are disclosed in the files, they’d be telling their competitors how much they charge for ads. (This is called information symmetry; it means markets can operate more efficiently, but that could mean some sellers make less money.)

ProPublica has called on people around the country to visit their local TV stations and copy the files so it can post them online. Files for 26 stations have been put online so far, Social Media Editor Dan Victor tells me.

Before they vote, I wish FCC commissioners would look at the video below produced by by Kent State University journalism students. They tried to videotape their examination of the public files at Cleveland-area TV stations. Seems that the TV stations don’t like being on camera: Three of the four wouldn’t let the students record. (WOIO-TV, a CBS affiliate, was the exception.) And no one would agree to be interviewed on-camera about whether they thought these files should be put online, although an employee at ABC affiliate WEWS-TV did say off-camera that they should be. It’s a solid piece of journalism about journalism, student or professional. || Related: Charlotte television reporter notes that TV newsrooms would rather avoid reporting on this issue, but he doesn’t || Earlier: FCC about to require TV stations to put public records online

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Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens,…
Steve Myers

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