Journalists: Don't Be Objective About Media Transparency

We try to shine a spotlight on the media policies that shape journalism in America — for better and for worse. The Freedom of Information Act is a key example of how media policy can have a profound impact on journalism. Congress passed it in 1966 and it went into effect in 1967 over the objections of then-President Lyndon Johnson. It has since become a fundamental tool in journalists’ toolbox for accessing government information and holding our leaders accountable.

The Federal Communications Commission is now seeking feedback on a new rule that could open up even more information to help journalists follow the money in elections and media. However, some broadcasters are lobbying hard to derail this effort at enhanced disclosure.

For decades TV stations have been obligated to keep public files that detail a range of critical information about the services they provide to communities — what local issues they cover, who is paying for political ads, etc. But public files are often available only on paper, in dusty file cabinets, in stations that are hard for working people to get to during business hours.

The FCC’s Information Needs of Communities report recommended that the FCC update these policies to move this information online and make it more searchable, more accessible and more understandable. The public has a couple more weeks to weigh in on the proposed rules — January 6 is the deadline, and Steve Waldman, the report’s author, has outlined what is at stake in an in-depth post at Poynter.

In his post he points out a little-known fact:

“By law, local stations must note which candidates or issue groups have purchased ads and at what rate. What’s more, they’re required to update this immediately, which has been interpreted to mean within 48 hours. Even better, it applies to all races — whether for president or dog catcher, as long as it involves TV ads. It’s a goldmine of information.”

These new FCC rules would move all this information online and into a searchable database that journalists could use to follow the money — something that has grown increasingly challenging since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has allowed a flood of new undisclosed campaign cash to fund political ads.

The new FCC rules would also help expose fake news and pay-for-play journalism. Right now, when TV stations allow advertisers to dictate content, those stations often don’t disclose that fact — or they bury their disclosure in small print in the credits at the end of a show. This violates the spirit and the letter of “sponsorship identification” laws.

The new FCC rules would move this disclosure online and, according to Steve Waldman, create “a permanent, searchable record of pay-for-play cases and video news release usage.” He describes the impact this could have:

“In a given market, a local citizen or reporter or a TV competitor [could] track which stations prostitute their newscasts the most. National groups could look to see which chains do pay for play the most or run video news releases as if they’re real journalism. I can’t help wonder whether some of the abuses would disappear if dirty dozen lists popped up shaming the worst stations.”

This FCC proceeding is an opportunity for journalists and government transparency advocates to shed a little of that valuable sunshine on the media itself. However, these rules are only proposals at this point, and could be edited or eroded. That’s why it is vital that journalists weigh in now.

Take action here.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good