The Decline of Broadcast News

"I must have done ten stories in a day about Britney Spears shaving her head." — WBBM Chicago TV newswriter

 

The news about the news is not good, according to a study released today by the Writers Guild of America, East. The report, entitled Broadcast Newswriters Speak About News Quality, traces an ongoing decline in the quality of broadcast news driven by the continual reduction of newsroom staff.

The report, based on 10 months of in-depth research culled from news

quality surveys and the WGAE's own extensive member information

database, includes direct interviews with WGA members at local and national ABC and CBS News television and radio outlets.

Among the reasons for the declining quality of news cited in the report are:

  • Recycling of news is becoming more commonplace as fewer

    newsroom employees mean less stories being developed on a daily basis.

    With fewer stories produced, they must be repeated more frequently to

    fill an increasing mount of available air time.

  • Increased job responsibilities have made research and

    fact-checking low-priority tasks in most newsrooms. Because many

    employees now handle two or three job functions, there is little time

    for research and fact-checking to ensure accuracy before a story is put

    on air. The paper quotes one news employee as saying "Quality is the

    first thing that is expendable… never mind going beyond a Wikipedia

    bio."

  • There is a dramatic and growing shift away from hard news to

    more lifestyle/ entertainment or "infotainment" news. The paper quotes

    a CBS news writer saying "We take a lot of stuff from Entertainment

    Tonight. We watch it at 6:30 and decide what to use."

  • Union contracts, such as those with the Writers Guilds of

    America, provide essential protection for professional journalists as

    they uphold standards of quality journalism. The paper cites instances

    where employees refused to air news that was not fact-checked or that

    was incorrect. Their union membership protected their right to refuse

    management's insistence to air these inaccurate news stories.

"The declining quality of news is staggering and disturbing," said

Chris Albers, president of the Writers Guild of America, East. "This

paper details what our members have been telling us for a long time –

that corporate pressures to cut costs are negatively impacting their

ability to bring the public objective, high-quality news. We hope our

white paper serves as a wake-up call that something must be done now to

stop the rapid decline in news quality."

"News quality remains one of the key reasons our members have been

working without a contract at ABC and CBS for more than two years,"

Albers continued. "We will not enter into a new contract that allows

the companies to cut more people from our union, consolidate newsrooms

in markets to result in even more job loses, and that doesn't properly

respect the contribution of our members."

Broadcast Newswriters Speak About News Quality offers a series of recommendations to address declining news quality:

  • The FCC should hold public hearings specifically regarding localism and broadcast news quality in top U.S. markets

  • The appointment of a commission or working group to develop

    standards for broadcast news quality as a public interest requirement

  • Make infractions to these public interest requirements

    punishable by fine and require adherence to these standards for license

    renewal

The release of Broadcast Newswriters Speak About News Quality follows recent Congressional interest in the issue of news quality and in the WGAE's stalled contract negotiations. On July 6, Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) toured the New York newsrooms

at 1010 WINS, CBS Radio 880AM, CBS Network Radio and ABC Network Radio.

WGAE members told Congressman Weiner about the impact of proposed

consolidations at CBS-owned stations, loss of union protection proposed

in ABC's most recent contract offer, and these actions' impact on the

quality of news and their working conditions. Many of these issues are

addressed in this report, and Congressman Weiner pledged to continue

looking into the issue.

Congressman Weiner and other key legislators have received copies of

Broadcast Newswriters Speak About News Quality. The WGAE expects their

findings will elevate the issue on fall agendas. Prior to its release,

the Writers Guilds also received other Congressional support in their

campaign for news quality. Congressman Maurice Hinchey (NY),

Congresswoman Diane Watson (CA) and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (IL)

sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin saying "We are troubled by

the effort of CBS to fundamentally alter the structure of newsrooms

under its jurisdiction…It appears that CBS seeks the authority… to

terminate workers in the event of mergers, and even merge the newsrooms

of competing stations. If such actions proceed unchallenged, audiences

will be denied the variety in news sources and local coverage necessary

for an informed participatory democratic society."

News quality is a paramount concern for the Writers Guilds of America,

East and West and their memberships. CBS's last proposal demands the

ability to combine newsrooms in markets, such as WCBS-AM 880 and

1010-WINS in New York, KNX and KFWB in Los Angeles, and stations in

Illinois. It also demands the ability to transfer current WGA

responsibilities to non-WGA employees. The WGA-CBS membership rejected

this offer by an overwhelming 99% vote in November 2006. ABC's last

proposal maintains the company's demand to strip newswriter/ producers

from their union protection, which helps them maintain their

objectivity, and ultimately the quality of news, despite rising

corporate pressures.

 

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