The real story behind the FCC’s study of newsrooms

(This opinion piece by Lewis Friedland, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, originally appeared in the Washington Post on Friday, February 28, 2014.  We repost it in full here with the permission of the author.)

Sometimes research takes on a life of its own and becomes more like a Rorschach test for a national policy controversy. That’s what’s happened to a review of the literature on the critical information needs of American communities that I and colleagues from around the country conducted for the Federal Communications Commission in July 2012. The recommendations of the review informed a proposed pilot study in Columbia, S.C., of what, if any, critical information needs citizens have and whether they are being met in our rapidly changing media environment.

To conservative media from Fox News to Rush Limbaugh, this was an attempt to reintroduce the now-lapsed Fairness Doctrine and for President Obama to take control of America’s newsrooms. Other former journalists and media critics apparently agreed. Still others took a more nuanced view – that this may not have been a government plot, but that it would be a waste of money, because either we already know what these needs are, or, there aren’t any, or if there are, we can’t know what they are.

In the end, the underlying theme was: we already know the answers. Americans either have no needs or none that the market is not meeting or can’t meet. Don’t do research. Don’t ask these questions.

Almost all of the critics (save one) didn’t appear to have actually read the original review or proposed study. The FCC called for the literature review because in a rapidly changing information environment it wanted (and was mandated to) understand whether Americans have critical information needs, if so what are they, and how would policymakers and the public know whether they are being met.

As most Monkey Cage readers know, the literature review is one of the most basic procedures in the social sciences. If you want to understand a problem (or even whether there is a problem), you gather all of the existing evidence, review it, identify the most important issues, and then, if warranted, suggest further research. And that’s what we did. We identified about 1,000 peer-reviewed articles in political science, communication, economics, sociology, urban studies, health, education and other fields that might bear on the concept of critical information, winnowed these to 500, reviewed each and reported on them. Our review built on previous studies conducted by the FCC and the Knight Commission on the information needs of communities.

We also outlined a plan for additional research, including studies of whole communities to see whether the needs we found in the areas of risk communication, health, education, the environment, economic development, civic, and local political information were being met or not. Our report was presented and peer-reviewed by scholars at the FCC in July 2012. The full review and bibliography was published on the FCC web site for anyone to see. The FCC then funded Social Solutions Inc. to pull together scholars from multiple disciplines to discuss how to conduct a limited study of whether critical information needs were being met in local media ecologies. (I participated in that research design meeting). SSI proposed a research design based upon that meeting and the criteria set out by the FCC. Largely because of limited funding, the FCC reduced that research to a small pilot study in Columbia, S.C., to see if such a study was viable.

The proposed pilot had three parts. To find out whether community information needs did exist and to what degree, surveys, interviews and focus groups would be carried out, drawn from a broad cross-section of the public. A content analysis of newspapers, broadcast, and Internet outlets would determine whether the information being provided matched people’s expressed needs and how well.  Finally, a third component would conduct a “media market census” to “determine whether and how FCC-regulated and related media construct news and public affairs to determine” critical information needs. One aspect of this was a voluntary questionnaire to newsroom decision-makers about their own perceptions of those needs.

This last component became the spark that set off the firestorm. When the National Association of Broadcasters came out in opposition to the proposed pilot test, they focused on the voluntary questions of newsroom decision-makers. Republican members of the House of Representatives used much of the same language as the NAB in writing to the FCC, and much of this was repeated by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai (a Republican appointed by President Obama) in his editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

Examining the relation of news standards to news content is a staple of communication research, going back at least  60 years. There have been dozens if not hundreds of studies since then. That said, it was probably a mistake to include one in this study, only because FCC sponsorship could (and might) raise the appearance of a possible conflict. Accordingly, the FCC recently dropped that portion of the study while deciding how to proceed. This was a good and responsible decision, because it clears away the red herring of government control of newsrooms and allows us to focus on the real question: whether the information needs of Americans are being met.

In much of the 20th century, Americans received the information that they depended on through newspapers. The decline of newspapers as economic institutions is now a truism. But whether the information they provided is no longer needed, or is being provided by some alternative source (usually asserted to be the Internet) is not clear. In a 2011 quantitative study of local news provision in 100 markets Matthew Hindman found that there is only a trickle of local news on the Web, and most of this is simply repackaged from newspapers or broadcast. He concluded that while there may be some consumer substitution between online and traditional news sources for national or commodity news, this is not true for local news (an error made by Joe Uscinski in his earlier post in this space).

Why does this matter? Because more and more of the basic institutional needs of Americans depend on local information markets. For example, local school systems are rapidly expanding school choice and charter schools. When newspapers had robust education beats, they might regularly (or at least annually) report on the quality of specific local schools, providing parents at least some chance to receive good information about where to send their children. But as education reporting declines, there is no evidence that the Internet is taking its place. For several years, one of the highest-achieving charter schools in Washington, D.C., had trouble meeting its enrollment quotas, suggesting that a robust information market in the capital does not exist.

Of course, this is an anecdote, and that’s precisely the point. There is much about community information needs that we just don’t know. And the only way to know more is through high quality research. That’s exactly what the FCC is trying to do before making critical decisions on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership that could further reduce the production of local community information, or allowing the expansion of  national cable concentration and greater control of local broadband markets that, for most Americans, are poorly performing, overpriced duopolies. To fail to even ask the questions would be an abnegation of its responsibility to the public interest.

Statement on School of Journalism and Mass Communication involvement in Critical Information Needs Study (reposted, with resource information)

Reposted from UW-Madison News today, an issue that has been getting some recent coverage, especially in the partisan press:

The Federal Communications Commission will amend its Critical Information Needs (CIN) pilot study in Columbia, S.C., after concerns were expressed that some of the questions were inappropriate and improperly directed at media owners and journalists.

As part of the discussion, there has been interest in the role of the Center for Communication and Democracy, housed in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The center participated in completing a literature review for the FCC, which provided information used in designing the study.

Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor Lewis Friedland, director of the center, is the lead author of a 2012 study commissioned by the FCC whose full title is “Review of the Literature Regarding Critical Information Needs of the American Public.”

Its co-authors also include Carola Weil of the USC Annenberg School, Ernest Wilson (now at American University), Phil Napoli of Rutgers, and Katya Ogyanova, a USC grad student at the time.

It was an examination of roughly 1,000 pieces of literature in the fields of communication, urban planning, economics, health, the environment, political science and other allied fields concerning the information needs of Americans. In the end, roughly 500 articles were included in the review. (The study did not seek or receive human subjects approval because it reviewed only articles and did not include human subjects.)

The study concluded that the rapidly changing information environment in the U.S. opens new opportunities but also creates potential new problems and barriers in the meeting of local community information needs. It recommended a broader study of local community information environments.

The study was vetted by a broad panel of scholars at the FCC itself, as well as by representatives of industry including but not limited to representatives of the National Association of Broadcasters, the telecommunications industries, and others.

UW’s Center for Communications and Democracy received $20,000 for the work from the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at USC, to which it was a subcontractor. The sum represented the majority of its recent research funding.

The FCC decided to conduct a pilot study based on the recommendations. Friedland was a consultant to SSI, a Washington, D.C. firm that was contracted by the FCC to design the study itself. He subsequently received $6,000 from SSI.

According to our information, the new CIN pilot study has not been suspended; rather, the questions that became controversial were removed.  The study itself is still going forward.  Details directly from the FCC can be found here.

Back in 2012 we previously posted an announcement of the original literature review that preceded the current pilot study, excerpted below:

An SJMC professor and colleagues across the country are looking forward to 2042 and imagining how communities will meet the information needs of citizens, in a broad range from making emergency police calls to finding a job to finding local well baby care and finding the local civic and political information necessary for full democratic participation.

The American public has measurable and unmet information needs at both the individual and community levels, according to a report presented to the FCC in Washington Tuesday, June 26.

Lew Friedland, SJMC professor and Director of the Center for Communication and Democracy, was co-Principal Investigator and lead author of the report with Dean Ernest Wilson of the USC Annenberg School and Professor Phil Napoli of Fordham University. Video of their FCC presentation is available online, as is the executive summary.

[...]

The team’s recommendations are:

  • To fulfill FCC’s statutory mission, we need to investigate whether and how local information needs are met, which is the critical first step to understanding how markets, government policies and individual and group actions can meet the information needs of their communities.
  • Take into account variations within communities and specific populations in studying critical information needs – Look to America of 2042.
  • Incorporate into analysis the exponentially growing costs of network exclusion and increasingly complex functioning of local media systems.
  • Complement existing econometric analyses with additional analytic models such as a communication ecological approach (multilevel/multi‐method); aim to be valid, replicable and parsimonious.
  • Develop robust, testable indicators of performance for policy- and community‐relevant evaluation.

For an explanation on what this issue is all about and why it so suddenly emerged, this article by Corey Hutchins of the Columbia Journalism Review provides some good context:

 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.”

The full CJR article also quotes professor Friedland at length:

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.

For even more background information, the full 2012 literature review report identifying “basic information needs that individuals need met to navigate everyday life, and that communities need to have met in order to thrive,” can be downloaded from the FCC here.

Students and the Supreme Court

During this momentous week at the Supreme Court, I was delighted to see some of our former students working on the coverage.

Alison Fox (’09) covered Edith Windsor, who sued over the federal Defense of Marriage Act and won, for the Wall Street Journal.

Emma Roller (’11)  wrote for Slate, covering people who camped out overnight in advance of the Windsor decision and a challenge to Proposition 8 in California.

And finally, I saw Erin Banco (’11) writing about the crowd reaction to the DOMA and Prop 8 decisions for The New York Times.

All three spent time on the news desks of the Daily Cardinal: Alison from 2005-07; Emma as editor in chief in 2010-11; and Erin as campus editor from 2008-09. Congratulations to all for your coverage and making an old prof proud as you showed up in her various feeds today!

If others had a role in Supreme Court work this week, add a comment and a link. It’s great to see where you are. And as always, update me anytime by email.

~ Katy Culver

Resource page for WCIJ/SJMC budget bill amendment crisis

Update 30 June 2013: Governor Scott Walker has used his line-item veto power to strike the provision; the crisis is over and our collaboration has been preserved.  Thank you!  For discussion of “lessons learned” see the tip sheet from WCIJ and the blog post by SJMC Director Greg Downey.

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