On May 24, 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Public Notice announcing release of the Research Design for a study on how media outlets serve the “Critical Information Needs” (CINs) of communities.  The Public Notice indicates that the study is most directly relevant to the FCC’s report to Congress regarding barriers to market entry and participation by entrepreneurs and other small businesses, as required by Section 257 of the Communications Act.  It states, however, that the study will also “be relevant to the Commission’s future analysis of broadcast ownership issues in upcoming Quadrennial Reviews, including issues related to minority and female ownership.”  Based on our review of the topics the study will cover, it also appears relevant to so-called “broadcast localism” issues on which FCC attention has previously focused.  Comments on the Research Design are due on July 23, 2013.

The Research Design will include two parts.  The first, a “media market census,” will examine a “constructed week” – meaning a week constructed out of one day per month, on a randomized basis over a period of several months – of news on broadcast television, news/talk radio stations, newspapers, and the Internet.  The second, a “community ecology study,” will include both a general population study designed to measure the extent to which CINs are met and “in-depth interviews” of community members. 

Researchers will analyze the content of broadcasts, newspaper articles, and website postings to determine the extent to which eight defined CINs are being covered.  The CINs to be studied are as follows:

  • Emergencies
  • Health
  • Education
  • Transportation
  • Economic opportunities
  • Environment
  • Civics
  • Politics

Stories will be further coded by the specific type of content on which they report (i.e., “soft news/human interest,” “consumer news,” “war on terror hard news”). 

Researchers will also conduct a “qualitative analysis of local media services . . ., with particular emphasis on media ownership/management characteristics, employment data, demographics of decision makers, and barriers to entry.”  The Research Design indicates, further, that “[i]n order to avoid relying solely on potentially biased responses from media owners, it is critical to examine providers at multiple levels.”  Accordingly, the researchers intend to interview not only station owners and managers, but also news directors, editors, and on-air staff regarding varied topics, including the following:

  • Station “news philosophy”
  • How stations define critical information and ensure the community receives it.
  • How much stations take into account community input.
  • Demographic information regarding the news management staff, on-air staff, and news production staff.
  • Whether news is produced in-house or by an outside source.
  • Usage of topic “beats” and which “beats” are defined and covered.
  • The decision-making process regarding what stories are covered, including the extent to which reporters and anchors have input and the degree of influence held by various decision-makers.
  • Examples of situations in which anchors and/or reporters have suggested coverage of stories they believed would provide critical information but have had their suggestions rejected by management.

Among other things, the researchers will also collect information regarding whether stations are parties to shared services agreements, joint sales agreements, local marketing agreements, or local news service agreements.  Issues arising from such agreements are not only teed up in the pending Quadrennial Review, but were also recently the subject of a formal request by Senator Rockefeller that the General Accountability Office issue a report examining their use.  

The extent to which the Research Design may impact the FCC’s Quadrennial Review proceeding, result in FCC action related to the recommendations of the Working Group on the Information Needs of Communities, or even breathe new life into the long-dormant localism proceeding remains to be seen.  (In fact, the Research Design indicates that additional approval by the Office of Management and Budget will be necessary before the study can be completed.)  But the questions that the researchers will be asking suggest a renewed interest on the part of the FCC in the inner workings of station and newspaper editorial decision-making, which may itself raise concerns.

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