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).

Said Friedland:

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.”

Those studies, however, were for independent research, and not commissioned by the FCC. And while he understands the criticism, he think it’s unfair to frame it in a way that invokes an image of a government monitor prodding a reporter or influencing how he or she does their job. Said Friedland:

I understand that because this is an FCC study that it could be framed that way, and it was framed that way, but I’m just telling you that’s not the case. I understand why certain people, particularly those for whom the Fairness Doctrine has been a longstanding area of fear or concern, would frame it that way. But I can tell you with an absolutely clear mind that that was never even remotely involved in this case. There was no monitoring to be done, these were always voluntary interviews.

Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, a reform group that advocates for quality journalism and public media, sees the backlash as an intentional effort to distract from a larger upcoming debate. As Adweek reported February 25, the FCC could be looking at tightening media ownership rules under its new chairman Tom Wheeler.

“There is an ownership fight coming,” says Aaron, who expects the FCC under Wheeler will look at some of the structural agreements that have allowed consolidation over the years, and perhaps begin to tighten them. As that debate gears up, he paints the backlash to the CIN as a purposeful distraction.

“The idea that this study becomes this huge thing, I think, is really a political effort to undermine any effort to look at who owns what, and how much should they be allowed to own,” Aaron says. “It’s an effort for the opponents of media diversity…to try to throw a wrench into some very sensible policies and research that might actually shed some light on how we ended up in 2014 with no black-owned TV stations and very few stations owned by any other people of color.”

As for Friedersdorf’s question of how studying critical information needs could help the FCC’s efforts to encourage ownership diversity in American media, Friedland has one answer.

The FCC is the single agency charged with regulating the communication environment. It does not (nor should it) regulate the news. Hence, the newsroom questions were a mistake that has since been corrected. But if the FCC approves, for example, unlimited newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership, or, for example, allows Comcast to dominate 40 percent of the national cable market (taking into account that local broadband service in almost any community is, at best, a duopoly) this could easily affect the provision of community information needs, should they be found to exist. If the internet is held to be the primary alternative information provider in an era of newspaper decline, then this should be testable and the FCC should be allowed to see whether, for example, broadcasters and broadband companies provide information that local communities need. Localism is still a core doctrine of the Communications Act. If conservatives have absolute faith in the market to provide every need that people have, then they shouldn’t worry about properly designed research that tests whether, in fact, this is the case or not.

It remains to be seen how the FCC will re-tool the way it seeks to understand whether the critical information needs of citizens in Columbia, South Carolina—or anywhere—are being met. And we’ll likely have to wait until next month to see if the FCC takes any bold steps toward altering ownership rules. In the meantime, Craig Aaron of Free Press hopes the CIN doesn’t further distract from what he sees as a larger, more important fight.

“This is a smart political play to try to throw the FCC off balance before we move into the next phase of this ownership debate,” he says.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent for Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. A former alt-weekly staffer, he has twice been named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the S.C. Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity, and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, and Medium, among others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.