CHARLESTON, SC — The Federal Communications Commission publicly backed off part of a controversial research study last week in the face of mounting criticism that the research included interviewing local journalists about how they choose what to cover. The backlash to the Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs (CIN), which is set for a test run this spring in Columbia, SC, included Republicans in Congress invoking the (defunct) Fairness Doctrine, and one of the FCC’s own commissioners accusing the agency of taking “a first step” toward “newsroom policing.”
At the heart of criticism of the CIN is why the FCC-commissioned study would include interviews with local journalists about their “news philosophy.” The image of a government goon squad grilling reporters is pretty evocative, if hyperbolic, but criticisms of the study haven’t come exclusively from conservative media. In a Feb. 21 column in The Atlantic titled “The FCC’s Dubious Study of American Media,” staff writer Conor Friedersdorf wrote that that while it seemed unclear whether the CIN intruded on press freedoms, he couldn’t understand how a study about critical information needs could help the FCC’s efforts to encourage ownership diversity in American media. “If there’s a good answer, I haven’t found it,” he wrote.
I thought someone who was deeply involved with the CIN might be able to shed some light on that, so I spoke with Lewis Friedland, who directs the Center for Democracy and Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was the lead author of a literature review for the study’s research design. In an interview he explained the impetus for the study—and defended it from what he called a “mis-framing” in the conservative media. No part of the CIN was ever meant to intrude on the prerogatives of local news managers, he said. (Calls to Social Solutions International, the company that prepared the study, to former acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, and to the National Association of Broadcasters were not returned).
It was simply to get their point of view of how they understood the information needs of their local communities. Because part of the point of the study was to actually go into a pilot community to use standard social science methods of both qualitative interviewing focus groups, but also surveys, and to find out what people perceived their information needs to be. And then to look at the total information environment—the total output in that community—and to see whether those matched or not, to see whether they were being met or not. And that was the core of the study…So, long story short, the reason that we wanted to talk to broadcasters and newspaper editors … was to see how they perceived their mission and who they perceived their audiences to be.
According to an April 2013 research design document, parts of the study would involve taking a census of newspaper, radio, broadcast, and web coverage in a given market, along with surveying and interviewing local residents about their critical information needs. But it would also involve surveys and interviews in newsrooms, questioning journalists about their news philosophy and how they choose what stories to cover, among other things. It’s that part that has drawn the most fire, and Chairman Wheeler said last week the FCC will scrap those questions as it re-evaluates the study.
For his part, Friedland thinks dropping the journalist interviews is probably the right move—but he says the questions were never intended to be a centerpiece for this study, and “they were never intended to be a form of critical review by the FCC of the output of the content of broadcasters.” Friedland notes he’s done “probably a dozen of these studies in my time” and calls the newsroom interviews “a standard community-level research study technique,” adding that he’s “talked to literally hundreds of news managers and reporters” in his academic career and “can’t think of one that…didn’t want to sit down and talk to me about the work that they did and the way that they saw their community.”