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Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

Summaries of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories

 + YOUR LOCAL NEWS FOR SALE   In the days immediately following the terrorist attack, Americans stayed pinned to TV and radio. Would there be more attacks? What monsters were behind the deed? You might think that the broadcasters must have welcomed a record-breaking audience -- but nothing could be further from the truth. Investment bank Robertson- Stephens says that broadcast media companies lost about $1.1 billion that week alone, and newspapers and magazines are expected to post a similar loss.

Corporate America is skittish about advertising when the nation is in crisis. Ads must portray a positive message, and that's not easy when the blurb follows horrific coverage of the burning World Trade Center ("...brought to you by Burger King, home of the flame-broiled whopper"). But within hours of the attack, many of the biggest advertisers pulled the plug on future ads or reduced advertising campaigns significantly.

The worst part was that those advertising cutbacks followed months of financial losses for the broadcast and print news industry. Every week through the summer brought another wave of newsroom firings, including a shocking 10 percent layoff at The New York Times Company. The Poynter Institute now even produces "Crunch Times," a web newspaper that reports on the latest cutbacks. (Don't feel too sorry for the news industry, however; even with the recent hard times, they still enjoy an obscene profit margin -- see Greed And Newspapering for more background).

Will these money woes harm the quality of your news? You can bet on it. According to a recent study, TV newsrooms are under heavy pressure to turn news broadcasts into infomercials for sponsors. The same study finds over half of the stations use consultants who recommend that the stations devote even more airtime to fluffy lifestyle features. And here's the worst part: the study was conducted before Sept. 11, when most of the advertisers raced for the exits.

The study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, "News For Sale," reports that over half of the news directors are pushed by advertisers to either kill negative coverage or produce favorable stories. "Interference is common," one news director said. Sometimes the request was for news coverage of events sponsored by the advertiser (thus giving them free advertising); sometimes the station was even a partner in that event -- which increased pressure for news coverage. The study found that the smaller the station, the worse the problems.

Additional arm-twisting is done by the station's own sales office. "Sales is getting more and more influence on newscasts," one news director was quoted. A colleague added that additional pressure from their sales staff was the biggest newsroom change this year. Sales departments are also draining resources from newsrooms; in one example cited, expensive remote camera units intended to cover breaking news are instead used to produce commercials or scheduled to provide live coverage of an advertiser's event.

It's important to remember that these problems aren't unusual -- the purpose of the study was to show conditions at the typical station. But it isn't hard to find cases where abuses were extreme. In April, 2000, WCBS-TV/New York ran a news feature on laser eye surgery, featuring a particular doctor and clinic. Viewers were invited to watch a live webcast of the procedure on the WCBS Internet web site. But viewers weren't told that the station had been paid $300,000, or that the news staff had fought station management, arguing that the newscast had been reduced to an infomercial.

The PEJ report did mention two kinds of stories that broadcasters avoid:

A half a dozen news directors singled out local car dealerships and auto manufacturers as the focus of squashed stories. "We don't aggressively go after car dealers," one news director admitted. Another reported a "negative story on an auto dealer canned under pressure from client."

News directors also mentioned health investigations at local restaurants as vulnerable. At two stations, for instance, stories were killed when they reflected poorly on restaurant sponsors. Two other news directors said grocery stores tried to get them to drop investigative stories.

But it's no surprise that groceries and auto dealerships want to censor news broadcasts; these same businesses are known to intimidate print journalists. A few years ago, the San Jose Mercury News lost about $1 million in revenue when local auto dealerships pulled ads to protest a story that was slightly unflattering to their businesses. And as another 404 report described in June, NY City grocery chains boycotted the Daily News after it presented the first installment of an investigative series on mishandled foods. The newspaper quickly apologized to those advertisers by praising them in a series of "advertorials."

The final irony of the PEJ report on news censorship; we cannot find any media coverage of the report when it was released on Nov. 15. Sure, there was a time when there was still much heated coverage of post-Sept.11 events -- but also blame cowardice. This was not the sort of story that your local "eyewitness news" wants you to know about. (Dec. 15, 2001)

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