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.

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About Greg D.

Greg Downey is a Professor in both the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He uses historical and geographical methods to uncover and analyze “information labor” over time and space. Downey is the author Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology, and Geography 1850-1950 (2002), Closed Captioning: Subtitling, Stenography, and the Digital Convergence of Text with Television (2008), and Technology and Communication in American History (2011).