By Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh
Who makes decisions about what your newsroom publishes? Is it just the people in your newsroom? What about corporate owners?
A common misconception among news consumers is that journalists aren’t in control of what stories they cover. That misconception probably includes an assumption that whoever is telling us what to do is driven by money and a political agenda.
Most journalists would refute those ideas. But we have to remember that in some cases, what is said on a local TV station does come directly from the top.
You’ve probably seen this Deadspin video making the rounds. It splices together segments from Sinclair-owned TV stations in which anchors and reporters tell viewers about how their station is committed to reporting the truth while some other news organizations are using “their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think.”
First, some background about Sinclair
Sinclair owns close to 200 TV stations in 89 U.S. markets, making it the largest broadcast company in the country. The company is trying to buy Tribune Media, which would let the company reach 70 percent of American households. Free speech advocates say allowing the deal to move forward limits the diversity of news, something that is harmful for the public and threatens what information the public receives. On Monday, President Donald Trump tweeted his preference for Sinclair.
For most of the public the name “Sinclair” probably doesn’t mean much. The stations owned by the company bear the affiliate logos they belong to: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, etc. While they share the logo with the big-name TV broadcasters, the content produced is controlled by Sinclair. For example, a local TV news program using NBC’s colorful peacock logo is most likely not owned by NBC. The content of the local news programs is therefore controlled by a local ownership group like Sinclair, not by NBC (Today Show, Nightly News, Dateline).
Based on what our Trusting News partners hear from their communities, we can assure you that most of your audience lacks this basic knowledge. And why wouldn’t they, if we haven’t explained it?
Talking about ownership and funding is something the Trusting News project is encouraging newsrooms to do. And for one partner, this Sinclair video provided a perfect opportunity.
WCPO tells its own story
“Act independently,” writes News Director Chip Mahaney. “That’s one of a few basic creeds of journalism ethics, and we claim it proudly. At WCPO-9 On Your Side, our journalism decisions — what we decide to cover and how we tell our stories — begin and end every day right here in our Cincinnati newsroom.”
Mahaney’s article, posted Monday, gets directly to the point.
“At WCPO, you don’t have to worry that our anchors, reporters, digital journalists, photographers — or anyone else — are being told what to read or what to report from outside influences. That’s not us.”
In another article, the staff pulled together nine stories that exemplify the kind of journalism that motivates their newsroom. By publishing this, they’re inviting their community to get to know their philosophy and mission and providing evidence to back it up.
What does your newsroom stand for? How do you make decisions? Who makes your decisions? Which stories are produced in your newsroom, and which come from elsewhere? Have you made it easy for your community to know the answers to those questions? If you stand behind your newsroom’s ethics, now is the time to answer these questions and provide explanations to your community.
If you’re frustrated by a lack of understanding about how you operate, do something about it.
Trusting News, staffed by Joy Mayer and Lynn Walsh, is designed to demystify the issue of trust in journalism. We research how people decide what news is credible, then turn that knowledge into actionable strategies for journalists. We’re funded by the Reynolds Journalism Institute, the Knight Foundation and Democracy Fund. Follow along here on Medium and at #TrustingNews on Twitter.