By Marion Just and Rosalind Levine
At a time of growing concern about commercial influence in the news, there is new evidence that the problem of sponsor interference may be more widespread than many journalists realize.
A third of news directors surveyed in this year's local TV study report being pressured to kill negative stories, or do positive ones, about advertisers.
In many cases, perhaps most, the pressure is coming internally from station management.
We sent questionnaires to all 49 stations studied in this year's report and received responses from 25. While those numbers are small, the answers about sponsor interference are troubling.
A third of news directors answering the question said they "were discouraged or interfered with" editorially "because of concerns about sponsors."
One news director vividly described "strong internal pressure to drop negative stories or do positive ones" on a variety of topics including "consumer, investigative, and medical" news.
"Car stories" are especially vulnerable to sponsor pressure. In one incident, a station wanted to explore "complaints about the local car dealer," a news director reported. "We were told not to do this story [even] before we shot anything."
Two news directors said they were encouraged to cover stories about "station-sponsored" or "company events." One was pressured to cover "events where [the] station ‘partners' with an advertiser."
Not all news departments succumbed. At least one news director reported that he was pressured to help advertisers, "but we say NO!"
The finding of widespread pressure within TV stations to slant the news both to protect and promote advertisers is part of a growing concern in the industry.
Last year's study found that more than two thirds of stations now run sponsored news segments, many where the sponsor has a commercial interest.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway recently refused to let local stations send their own cameras to cover a major race, insisting that they air the highlights as edited by race organizers. Three out of four stations agreed. In another city, a local theme park wanted the weather report to say skies would be partly sunny, rather than partly cloudy, because it might encourage more visitors. The station declined.
The other major finding in this year's survey concerns the growth of the Internet. Every station responding to our survey now has a World Wide Web site.
However, forty-six percent said they were being given no new funds to finance their sites. The money had to come out of the existing newsroom budget.
In addition, at no station surveyed were any proceeds from the Web returned back to news. Only a few Web sites had turned a profit, and the amounts were small. Still, even in its infancy, the Web was expected to add immediately to the bottom line of the station.
Most news directors thought the Web site was important enough to "assign full time staff to keep [the site] interactive and current," as one response put it, although others saw the Web primarily as a "complementary service to the newscast." The trend was to send television viewers to Web sites where they could follow either breaking news, or obtain "background information that can't be included on TV because of time limits" as one news director explained.
According to our survey the average number of Web updates was seven per day, but the range was considerable —from stations that only updated once a day to those that updated "constantly." The results seem encouraging. Stations reported a median of 400,000 visitors per month to their Web sites.
The great majority of stations provide weather for radio or other news programming. A like number provide news either for an affiliated broadcast or cable network.
The local news Web staff was small, averaging two persons per station. Likewise the budget investment was small ($15,000 to $200,000), averaging two percent of the budget.
When asked how to integrate new and old media, news directors agreed that mechanisms ought to be found to encourage communication between the staffs. News directors thought the Web should be "part of the daily news operation." Local news Web and newsroom staff should "work side by side." It was not clear, however, who should be in charge.
Only a small number of stations in our survey were willing to detail how they allocated their budgets. Of those stations that did respond, we noted that the greater the percentage of budget spent for on-screen talent, the lower the station's quality scores — and the results are statistically highly significant.*
In other words, spending more on anchors at the expense of producers, writers, editors and camera crews tends to hurt quality.
What's more, contrary to conventional wisdom, we found no correlation between spending more on high-priced talent and building ratings.
Marion Just is a professor of political science at Wellesley College and a research associate at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard. Rosalind Levine is an attorney in Boston.