CCJ's Comment to the FCC on the Future of Media

By RJI on May 4, 2010 0 Comments

by Bill Kovach

The Committee of Concerned Journalists is a consortium of journalists, publishers, owners and academics founded in 1997 in an effort to engage the experiential, intellectual and physical energy of America’s newsrooms in a sustained effort to preserve an independent journalism of verification in the competitive atmosphere created by new technologies that moved news to distribution onto new platforms and to new audiences around the world.

To achieve that purpose, the organization published its statement of concern created by the erosion of standards due to the economic pressures brought about by the revolution in communications technology.

The statement was followed by a series of twenty-one forums, surveys and content studies to identify the core principles of journalism. These findings were distilled in 2001 into a book, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. These ideas have, in turn, been shared with newspeople here and abroad though our Traveling Curriculum of workshops developed with the aid generous support of The James S. and John L. Knight Foundation and continues through further research and reporting to keep newspeople informed and engaged in the process by which they and the American public are creating the journalism of the 21st century.

Fundamental to all of this is a more essential truth. The reason newspapers dig up most of the news and local TV is successful presenting information is because of the foundation on which their business model and editorial systems rest, the specific and identifiable principles we call the Elements of Journalism. Its essence is a discipline of verification based on an obligation to the truth, a loyalty to citizens, an independence from those they cover, a recognition of personal conscience, and the duties to be an independent monitor of power, make the significant interesting and relevant, keep the news comprehensive and proportional, and be a forum for public criticism and compromise.

Providing citizens the news they need to make good decisions is about providing verified information gathered by journalists and others who understand, embrace, and can apply these principles. It is about finding a way to pay people to do this work and to create economic models so they can do this work under the umbrella of sustainable, independent institutions.

Conceived as it was in the early days of the 20th century to control the chaos of created by too many voices competing to be heard on too few frequencies of wireless communications, the FCC and its predecessors have been largely focused on technology.

As a result, today as in the past, content providers enter into the discussion with less urgency than technology. Journalists themselves have been largely absent from the current conversation, which has focused on the information needs of communities, the delivery systems by which those needs might be served, and the business models to sustain this service.

Sometimes lost in the commotion of the moment is the ultimate purpose of this exercise: to provide citizens with verified information they can use to make the best possible decisions about their lives and governance.

A vibrant system to deliver and exchange information is fundamental. But without factual content—the end product of journalism—the system will fail to achieve its potential and, in terms of government policy, its goal.

For this reason, we believe it is important that the members of the Federal Communications Commission have an opportunity to hear the voices of some of the journalists who have devoted their lives to providing the American people the information upon which they can make informed judgments in the political marketplace.

In order to present some of these voices for your consideration, CCJ conducted a survey of its membership in March 2010. That which follows below is, in digest form, some of what these journalists had to say.

1. In terms of the quality of journalism today and how it compares to the past there were a number of overall trends in the responses to this question, including:

  • Improvements in digital technologies have improved immediacy.
  • Investigative reporting is missing, depth has been replaced by headlines
  • The business model has deteriorated
  • There is rise in opinion and spin
  • Quality exists, but the membership believes that this quality exists more/ the most in newspapers such as The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Television news has moved more toward opinion, entertainment and spin.

One respondent provided the following comment, which ties together a number of these points:

“Immediacy has never been better. News technologies let us report breaking news faster and better than ever before. Depth is an entirely different story. Tough economic times and the push for immediate rating have led far too many newsrooms to sacrifice the one thing we need to do the most: in-depth, investigative reporting.”

2. Can you give us an example that illustrates the state of journalism today?

A number of respondents felt the coverage of the health care debate represented the current state of journalism. The press, in covering this issue focused more on the partisan politics involved in passing the bill, rather than its nature and contents.

“Although some news organizations (e.g. NPR, The New York Times. Kaiser Health News) did a great job, the vast majority of news organizations seemed to have focused PRIMARILY on the “horse race” elements of the controversy; Does Pelosi have the votes she needs to get the proposal through the House? Will Senate Republicans be able to block reform now that citizens don’t give a damn about these questions, really. What they want to know—and don’t know—is how the proposals will actually help affect them. I saw some good coverage of that—but only AFTER the bill was passed. People need that information while the proposals are being considered!”

The move to online journalism, (via blogs and digital newspapers), and shrinking bureaus nationally and internationally also emerged as the face of modern day news.

As one respondent summed it up:

“Dead trees are being replaced by computer screens. The younger generation doesn’t mind. And us older folk are going to have to adapt.”

3. What would like us to say to the FCC about the health of journalism and the future of news and information?

Asked what CCJ should say to the FCC the responses leaned toward the “hands-off” stance, that such intervention would encroach on the freedom of the press.

“Journalism, as a check in excesses committed by concentrations of power (government power or that of companies), is a vital public good. And a publicly funded “news” entity, like the BBC (as one example) carries too much risk of government regulation as additional baggage. It’s a pretty short distance from ‘ensuring diversity of views’ to ‘regulating the marketplace of ideas’”

On the other hand, responses thought that regulation could be enacted that would promote successful business models for quality journalism, and promote fair coverage to (controversial) issues.

“It’s clear the old business models aren’t going to work. FCC policies should make it easier for news organizations based on non-profit models to get started and to compete with for-profit news organizations. In general, the trend toward concentration of ownership seems to have contributed to the current financial crisis in journalism, rather than making journalism healthier. In fact, I frankly blame earlier FCC de-regulation for encouraging the over-reaching of large media companies. Acquisition of too many media properties is a major reason so many large news organizations ended up is a financial mess.”

A number of responders called for the FCC to reinstate the “Fairness Doctrine.”

The “Fairness Doctrine,” which was repealed in 1987, “mandated that broadcast networks devote time to contrasting views on issues of public importance,” and was meant to “level the playing field” when the rise of TV networks in the late 1940s and early 50s lead to fears of biased news. ("A Brief History of the Fairness Doctrine" Time February 20, 2009)

4. Do you have any suggestions about what might be done to assure that Americans continue to receive quality, verified, information on which to make decisions about their lives and government?

Responses leaned primarily towards problem in education and that in order to insure that American get quality information, they have to be able to identify it. American education, both generally and for those in the journalism profession, has to be better; it has to emphasize knowing and identifying what is quality information, distinguishing solid from specious arguments.

“Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the citizens to demand quality information. If people would rather watch American Idol than the evening news, all great journalism in the world will be of limited impact”

“Where viewers and readers see bias, the reporters are simply passing along information that does not comport with the views of the individual reader or viewer. This goes to our system of public education that has failed to show students the importance of being well informed or how to weigh information critically and with an open mind.”

The economic floundering of the media industry lead to responses calling for the development of new business model to ensure that quality journalism will survive:

“Somehow, the industry has to figure out that our product, news, has a value, and then find a way to make it profitable. Advertising will never again be the savior; people have to be convinced that news is the product and be willing to pay for it.”

This survey and all of its questions can be found here

Two centuries ago, what we now call hyper-local journalism was abundant, hundreds of individual newspapers or broadsheets. The problem then was the lack of a delivery system. The government intervened to create the US Postal Service and later to license the use of the public spectrum for radio and television broadcasting. These actions helped create a sustainable journalism and business models that promoted an imperfect but nevertheless vibrant flow of verified content.

Now things have been turned on their heads. There is more delivery than we know what to do with—so much capacity that the economics of content creation are being threatened and in the case of news coverage, destroyed.

And it’s a much trickier question for government: how to sustain an institution that, to perform its civic function, must also be independent?

So far, the market has been left to run its course and the outcomes are becoming clearer. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism has been reporting now for several years in State of the Media reports, there is more news available but the content is growing consistently and significantly thinner.

Last year, for example, PEJ researchers drilled into the “news ecosystem” of one American city, Baltimore, and examined a week’s worth of content from more than 50 old and news media sources to see “How News Happens.”

The “old” media – led by the Baltimore Sun newspaper – created 96% of the content offering new information and, by doing so, also set the news agenda for everybody else.

Though the Sun initiates the majority of original community coverage, its reporting capacity has nevertheless been decimated. According to a PEJ examination of the Factiva database, the Sun produced 32% fewer stories in 2009 than ten years earlier and 73% fewer than it did just 8 years before that, in 1991.

Nor does it appear that non-affiliated journalists – whether occasional contributors or regular bloggers or even news site operators – have the capability – or even the desire – to fill this information void.

Though 37% of Internet users may “participate” in the news process, just 9% actually contribute to “the creation of news” by transmitting their own article, opinion piece, picture or video to an online news site. And most of that engagement is reactive – commenting about or sharing an item from the legacy press.

A new survey of 91 citizen news site operators found that while all want to increase traffic, they care more about impact than profits. “The financial side of the operation seemed almost an afterthought,” wrote researchers. “Very few (citizen web site operators) said they were in it mainly to make money. Generating revenues was the lowest measure of success.”

This high level of personal commitment is the strength and weakness of community journalism. As study co-author Esther Thorson of the University of Missouri noted, citizen sites “are usually fueled only by personal motivation and when that disappears, so will the site.”

While mainstream media, particularly newspapers, supply virtually all the original community journalism, local TV – and its visual story telling – remains the most popular way to consume news and information.

The Pew Research Center recently reported that on a typical day, 78% of Americans get news from local TV, 73% from a network or cable, and 61% on line. (54% tune into radio and 50% read a local newspaper).

Almost half the audience, 46-percent, are “Traditionalists” – older, less educated, less affluent. Though most have a computer, few get news on line. They rely heavily on TV news, and half say it’s because they understand news better by seeing pictures rather than reading or hearing.

Another 23-percent of the audience, “Integrators,” are affluent, well-educated, middle-aged people for whom TV is also the main source of news, though supplemented by the Internet at work. Together, Traditionalists and Integrators represent a visually predisposed news audience that includes seven of every ten people in the country (69%).

The “Disengaged” (14%) do not closely follow any news while the smallest group, “Net-Newsers,” comprise just 13 percent of the audience. And though three-quarters of Net-Newsers cite the Internet as their primary source of news, their on-line destination is usually a legacy news organization web site (72%).

These are realities future information delivery systems should leverage rather than abandon or ignore. Mainstream news organizations, particularly newspapers, provide most of the original reporting in a community. Local TV news, built on visual story telling, remains the top source of news and information.

These facts also point to the most important needs:

  • How to maintain the sustained discovery, production, and delivery of verified information about community issues and events.
  • How to improve the economic health of the local newspapers, in print or on-line, that provide most of the original reporting and set the agenda for everybody else.
  • How to maintain the vibrancy, but improve the diversity and quality, of local television news, the vehicle by which most people get the most community information.
  • How to improve story telling, and particularly visual story telling, on all platforms so that complex issues might be covered in ways that are more understandable to large segments of the audience.

The public interest requires not merely the presence of voices, but also the guardianship of healthy, trusted, news organizations. Institutions like the Arizona Republic newspaper, the state’s largest, which on May 2, 2010 devoted its entire Sunday front pages to an editorial calling on state leaders to “Stop Failing Arizona; Start Fixing Immigration.” It began with the words: “We need leaders.”

Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley visionary known as the father of virtual reality technology and an expert in interfacing computer technology with medicine, physics and neuroscience, recently wrote about the role of journalism in a world where a sophisticated “collective intelligence” is encouraged by a connected, aggregated, Internet. “Without an independent press, composed of heroic voices, the collective becomes stupid and unreliable…” (You are Not a Gadget, Knopf, copyright 2010, p. 57)

On the FCC site @