Broadcast Newswriters Speak About News Quality

A report from the Writers Guild of America, East

July 2007

Table of Contents
Executive Summary ........................................................................................................................... 3 Rationale ........................................................................................................................................ 3 Description of Report..................................................................................................................... 4 Findings.......................................................................................................................................... 5 Recommendations.......................................................................................................................... 8

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Executive Summary
Rationale
What we have always understood as “journalism” is evolving very quickly. Traditional media outlets, including newspapers, television, and radio, still produce most of the original news reporting in America. Yet the combined pressure of profit expectations and the loss of audiences and advertisers to “new media” are causing media companies to examine every aspect of how they do business. That has led to many changes in the workplace for journalists. The question is: do these changes help or hinder the provision of quality news to the public? Despite the growth of new media options, local television remains by far the most popular news choice for Americans. The Project for Excellence in Journalism found in their most recent report that 65.5% of the public gets news from local TV; another 28% from network TV.1 Local newspapers are at 28%. CBS Corporation and The Walt Disney Company, two of the largest media conglomerates in the world, also dominate the world of television news. They own and operate TV stations that reach more than 60% of the country’s population.2 Their network news programming runs on affiliate stations as well as on owned-and-operated outlets; few if any media markets in America are beyond the reach of their programming. Their network news programs (CBS and ABC) are watched by millions.3 Their radio networks and stations also reach many millions of listeners. For these reasons, taking an inside look at the changing circumstances of news production at ABC and CBS is an important and unique contribution to the debate over news quality and its relation to the public interest.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, “The State Of The News Media 2007.” CBS owns and operates stations reaching approximately 37%; ABC 24%. “View of media ownership limits changes,” David Lieberman, USA Today, 1/29/2007. 3 ABC World News Tonight reaches nearly 10 million, CBS Evening News 7.5 million. “Exec producer leaves NBC post,” Michael Learmonth, Daily Variety, 3/2/2007.
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Description of Report
The report is based on information gathered from May 2006 through April 2007 from: • • • Interviews with WGA members at ABC and CBS news outlets Surveys distributed to WGA members by mail and through the workplace Information from the WGA member database

When members are quoted, they are identified only by workplace to preserve their anonymity. Their workplaces include networks and O&O (owned and operated) stations in New York, NY; Los Angeles, CA; Chicago, IL: and Washington, DC. WGA members play many roles in the newsroom and have overall responsibility to monitor and report on breaking news. These roles include: • • • • • Producers, who select stories and determine the order in which they will run Writers of news voiceovers and anchor copy Assignment Desk Editors Copy/Audio/Video Editors Researchers and fact checkers

The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) and Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) are labor unions representing writers in motion pictures, broadcast and cable television, news, and new media. The Writers Guilds are active in legislative activities on the state, federal and international levels with a special focus on globalization, labor, communications, and copyrights. They also conduct programs, seminars, and events on issues of interest to, and on behalf of writers. Collectively, they are known as the WGA. For more information, see the Statement of Methodology.

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Findings
MEDIA CONGLOMERATES ATTACK UNIONS, SLASH JOBS The conglomerates have slashed jobs overall, converted full-timers to part-timers, and combined jobs. The result is too many conflicting demands on the few workers who are left, resulting in a lower-quality news product. Twenty-five years ago, most jobs at the major media networks, and their owned-and-operated stations in the largest markets, were unionized. But year after year, the media conglomerates have fought to weaken union contracts, including NABET and IBEW as well as WGA contracts, in order to add more temporary and part-time workers and reduce full-time staff positions. Another key demand from companies has been to remove union jurisdiction rules to increase the number of workers holding multiple job titles at the same time. For example, where in the past, writers did all the writing and engineers did all the editing, now “writer-editors” could do both jobs. CBS and the Disney Company have cut back on union staff significantly since 1980. Now they are trying to gut the Writers Guild completely. If Writers Guild news writers, graphic artists, producers and desk assistants go the way of all the other professionals in the newsroom, broadcast journalism may never recover the quality it once had. The charts below show how dramatically CBS, in particular, has slashed full-time newswriters.

ABC News WGAE Staff, 1980-2006
400 300 200 100 0 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005
Full-Time Total

500 400 300 200 100 0 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005
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Writers Guild of America, East, Broadcast Newswriters Speak About News Quality, July 2007

CBS NEWS QUALITY TUMBLES News WGA Staff, 1980-2006
The report demonstrates that our members are experiencing a decline in news quality, especially Total when once-independent newsrooms are consolidated. Some of the aspects of this decline are: • • Less news overall: fewer stories are covered, and they are repeated more frequently, especially on co-owned stations (recycling) Less hard news, more “infotainment” news and more cross-promotions of outlets or Full-Time products owned by the same company.

The charts below show WGA members believe their outlets, particularly local stations, are not spending enough time and energy on important stories. Q. Do you think your news outlet spends enough time and energy making sure that your audience has enough information to make sound judgments on issues relevant to public life? 28% Enough 3% More than enough 56% Not enough 18% Not nearly enough

Q. How often are stories with a true public interest or hard news component bumped for celebrity news, human interest stories, or reports on isolated incidents of crime or disaster?
Total Local stations only

Daily

49% 20% 21% 10% 7% 12% 12% 8% 2%
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57%

Several times per week

Several times per month

A few times per year

Never

Writers Guild of America, East, Broadcast Newswriters Speak About News Quality, July 2007

Other aspects of the decline in news quality include: • • • • • • Less research and fact-checking Less time spent seeking multiple sources Less investigative reporting More VNR use Less preparation time More time spent multi-tasking (for example, doing production work as well as writing)

UNIONS PROTECT JOURNALISTS AND THE PUBLIC INTEREST The report also details how unions protect journalists and the public interest: • • • How union contracts can limit the negative impact of newsroom consolidation How professional journalists continue to uphold standards of quality journalism, and how the protection of a union contract facilitates that professionalism How the decline of full-time jobs and the addition of part-time and temporary jobs with less or no union protection can hurt news quality

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Recommendations
The FCC has the power to ensure that broadcast media provide a higher standard of news quality. The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) supports the Center for Media and Democracy’s proposals around the use of video news releases (VNRs): • • • • All provided and/or sponsored video footage be required to carry a continuous, frame-byframe visual notification of its source. All provided and/or sponsored audio material be required to include a verbal notification at its beginning and/or end, disclosing its source. Broadcasters be required to place in their public file a monthly report on their use of provided and/or sponsored material. U.S. government agencies funding and/or producing video or audio for news broadcast be required to make all such material public and archive it online.

The WGAE also recommends that the following actions be considered: • • • • Hold public hearings specifically regarding localism and broadcast news quality in the top markets where most of the U.S. population lives. Create and publicize a special public comment period and/or public hearing regarding the effect of these labor practices in newsrooms on the public interest. Issue a public statement that the public interest would be served by CBS and Disney reaching amicable contract agreements for their newswriters and other news personnel Appoint a commission or working group to develop standards for broadcast news quality as a public interest requirement. Include working journalists on both the national and local level, as well as industry representatives. These standards could include time requirements for original news production, local coverage, political coverage, and strict disclosure requirements for paid news placement and promotion of co-owned entities. Entertainment programming should not be allowed to count toward a news requirement. Re-introduce the Fairness Doctrine and require newscasters to present multiple sides of an issue. Make infractions of these public interest requirements punishable by fines. Require documented adherence to these standards for license renewal.

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