The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) attempt to assess who is really controlling the content of our news has been put on a temporary hiatus due to discontent with the research proposal. The research design, proposed last year, intended to analyze the media’s record in transmitting critical information to the public. At the FCC’s request, the University of Southern California collaborated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison to determine eight categories of information necessary for citizens and community members to have full access to available opportunities. The identified categories range from emergencies to political information to environmental news.
The FCC planned to analyze several issues, including how effectively the media communicates critical information to American communities and potential barriers to entry in regulated media markets. The study would have examined content and market demographics. Researchers planned to survey media outlets in regards to both content choice processes and what employees are involved in those decisions.
The GOP and many other proponents of free speech have been less than thrilled about the supposed breach of first amendment rights. According to Ajit Pai, the government has no place applying “pressure [on] media organizations into covering certain stories” by sending “researchers to grill reporters, editors, and station owners about how they decide which stories to run.” In fact, they were so outspoken that Chairman Wheeler announced that the entire section of the design where content decision makers were going to be surveyed about their processes has been thrown out. Additionally, the pilot study that was supposed to occur in Columbia, South Carolina by June 2014 will not be happening until a new research proposal has been designed.
Although many are concerned about government intrusion into the news media, it is incredibly important to document current content failures in the news market, especially in underserved communities. According to Ben Bagdikian, media critic and dean emeritus of UC-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, “The proper measure of a country’s mass media is whether, by thorough examination and reporting, they increase understanding of important realities and whether, through presentation of the widest possible spectrum of thought and analysis, they create an adequate reservoir of insights into the social process.” Bagdikian’s definition of a successful media market is not driven by viewership; it is driven by how well the media communicates important information, regardless of ratings.
In a society married to quantitative analysis, we have accepted ratings as proof of success. But I am not proud to see story after story on the Casey Anthony trial or Justin Bieber’s latest outburst airing on shows that promote themselves as deliverers of “hard news.” By focusing on this “softer news,” networks ensure that Americans have limited knowledge of important events such as presidential elections in El Salvador and the complexities of the U.S. Farm Bill. Entertainment has its place, but should it really be transmitted under the category of news? It is fair to say that if the public demanded higher quality news, than media outlets would be forced to perform at those standards.
However, the deeper issue is that the public is unaware of how certain issues actually affect them. News outlets have the option of reporting important news in a relatable manner, or simply giving the population what they want to watch. With ratings leading the way, the latter has been employed more frequently than the former. If news stations educated our population, then maybe the general public would have increased interest in what is deemed to be critical information. Furthermore, how can the general public begin to demand change when they are unaware of who owns their news and are uninformed of what candidates think? Shouldn’t news organizations be held accountable for the quality of their stories?
It is possible to argue that news stations are exercising their first amendment rights, but it seems like the first amendment is used more and more as an excuse to not report certain stories. The idea behind freedom of the press is that critical information for citizens is not censored by the government. Is it fair to use that same amendment to skew the information Americans receive every time they turn on the television or open a newspaper? How do we protect people from organizations that do not report critical unbiased information? The purpose of the hard news market is to inform citizens of what they need to know. When the market design does not accomplish this, and when news corporations hide behind the veil of the first amendment to refrain from taking responsibility, the government is obligated to intercede on the public’s behalf.
The FCC research proposal was not a façade for government censorship; it was a critical step towards making news organizations more accountable to the public they claim to serve. The government is supposed to represent citizens’ best interests, and because we currently have menial methods of holding our news sources accountable, government should be interested in finding how to help the public receive accurate and socially beneficial information. Illuminating the processes for which content is chosen is not government manipulation.
The very notion of government manipulation is ridiculous; it would never be allowed to happen. Given the uproar generated by mere research, it seems highly unlikely that actual regulatory control is politically feasible. If censorship were what truly concerned people, then there would be more outrage over the concentration of media ownership. But people are afraid of government intervention, even when the market is failing to provide citizens with critical information. There is a structural problem when certain, systematically underserved populations do not have access to information they need to improve their own lives, ranging from educational and job opportunities, accurate and full information on politics.
The government is free to circumvent the media and publish news it deems important on the internet. By this logic, government news, reported from one perspective, may help balance corporate-generated news. However, this system is unrealistic when considering the dominance of corporate produced news. A much more practical option is for the government to impose some modicum of balance on already popular corporate news. Government can create incentives for balanced coverage of quality content instead of imposing strict standards, which does not infringe on First Amendment rights. It is time that we recognize that news is far too important to be left to the whims of corporate tycoons. By holding private news stations accountable, the general public will have more access to pertinent information. The FCC study should have been the first step to finding out where the media market is failing, determining what processes are inhibiting success, and working to alleviate those issues that threaten the soul of our democracy.