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The FCC doesn’t need to invade newsrooms (academics have already done it for them)

This is a guest post by Joseph E. Uscinski, an assistant professor of political science at University of Miami and the author of the new book The People’s News: Media, Politics, and the Demands of Capitalism.

A firestorm erupted in conservative media circles last week over a planned Federal Communication Commission (FCC) study that intended to send outside contractors into newsrooms to better understand the news process and news content. The FCC killed plans for the study on Friday.

The objections to the study centered on two things. First, that the FCC could, based on the findings of the study, seek retribution against news outlets that did not report the proper news in the proper way. Since the FCC has the power to withhold broadcast licenses, it could use this power to subtly (or unsubtly) encourage certain stories to be reported in certain ways.

Second, that there is such a thing as proper reporting. Part of the FCC study was intended to see how often news outlets covered certain types of stories which they referred to as Critical Information Needs (CINs). These include: information about emergencies and risks; health and welfare; education; transportation; economic opportunities; the environment; civic information and political information. But it is open for debate if stories falling into these categories are really needed per se, or if other types stories are more important than the eight identified CINs. (I could see how emergency news could be a need, but I am not sure that reporting on the environment or education constitutes a critical need.)

I would argue that there is perhaps a third criticism that escaped the debate, one that is particularly relevant given Nicholas Kristof’s recent criticisms of academics (and the stern rebukes his op-ed received.) That is that scholars in political science, sociology, journalism and communications have already done the work the study intended to do. Instead of spending millions of dollars retreading old ground, the FCC could have gone to Google Scholar and found a wealth of knowledge on this issue.

Scholars have for decades studied the exact questions the FCC hoped to answer: how newsrooms work, what stories are reported over others, are news outlets biased, how does issue reporting vary across time and space. While answers across studies can conflict, the accumulation of findings would likely prove illuminating for the FCC.

For example, my book, The People’s News, is based on data I collected from the nightly network news broadcasts over a period of forty years. The sample yielded about 60,000 stories. Much like the proposed FCC study, I content coded the stories into issue areas to see which issues received the most attention over time. While the categories I used vary slightly from the CINs, there is enough overlap to tell the FCC at least part of what it wants to know.

For example, health and welfare stories comprised about three percent of stories reported by the networks broadcasters. Transportation comprised two percent; the environment 0.6 percent, and education 0.3 percent. The stories receiving the most coverage in my data were international affairs, defense, federal government operations, and law and crime — which collectively account for about 50 percent of my data.

But collecting and coding news stories are the easy parts. Understanding why news content is what it is takes a bit more effort, and scholars do not necessarily agree on the extent to which certain forces affect the news. Some argue that news content is driven by the biases of journalists or owners and managers, while others point the finger at government elites.

By contrast, I and others argued that the demands of news consumers drive news content.  So if the FCC believes that topics such as the environment and education do not receive much coverage, they are probably right. But we should ask: would the public be interested if more coverage were given to these and similar issues?

Public opinion data averaged over forty years suggests no. When asked which issues are the “most important problems,” only 10 percent of Americans responded that health and welfare stories are the most important, 2 percent cited transportation and education each, and only 1 percent cited the environment. So while the FCC may deem some issues as needs, it is not clear that most Americans do. Herein lies the difficulty of deciding what should be reported and what should not be reported: people will gravitate to the stories they want to know about and to the stories that are reported the way they prefer.

In the end, this episode shows exactly what we should expect from a free press. A government whistle-blower made the media aware of the study. Some outlets chose to cover the story; some chose not to. Concern over the story led the government to withdraw the study. Some criticize certain outlets for not making a bigger deal about the intrusion, but the free press worked exactly as it should – and without an FCC telling it what to do.