US

FCC to police news media, question reporters in wide-ranging content survey

The Federal Communications Commission is planning a broad probe of political speech across media platforms, an unprecedented move that raises serious First Amendment concerns.

The FCC’s proposed “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” which is set to begin a field test in a single market with an eye toward a comprehensive study in 2014, would collect a remarkably wide range of information on demographics, point of view, news topic selection, management style and other factors in news organizations both in and out of the FCC’s traditional purview.

The airwaves regulator would also subject news producers in all media to invasive questioning about their work and content.

A methodology [pdf] worked up by Silver Spring, Maryland-based Social Solutions International (SSI) says that in addition to its general evaluation of news content, the survey will include a “qualitative component” featuring interrogations of news organization owners, management and employees.

Among the questions federal contractors will be asking of private media companies:

For media owners:

“What is the news philosophy of the station?”

For editors, producers and managers:

“Do you have any reporters or editors assigned to topic ‘beats’? If so how many and what are the beats?”

“Who decides which stories are covered?”

For reporters:

“Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers (viewers, listeners, readers) that was rejected by management?” (Followup questions ask the reporter to speculate on why a particular story was spiked.)

According to a May article in Communications Daily, Social Solutions International will be paid $917,823 for the study, which also questions news consumers about their habits and numerically codes news content according to how well, in the FCC’s view, it meets the “critical information needs” (CIN) of particular “communities.”

“The FCC has a duty to make sure that the industries it regulates serve the needs of the American public no matter where they live or what financial resources they have,” acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said in a May announcement [pdf] of the survey. “The research design we announce today is an important next step in understanding what those needs are, how Americans obtain the information critical to their daily lives in a dynamic technological environment, and what barriers exist in our media ecologies to providing and accessing this information.”

Other observers take a less sanguine view of the proposal.

“In this study, the FCC will delve into the editorial discretion of newspapers, web sites and radio and TV stations,” Hudson Institute Fellow Robert McDowell, who served as an FCC commissioner from 2009 to 2013, told The Daily Caller. “This starts sticking the government’s nose into what has traditionally been privileged and protected ground. Regardless of one’s political stripes, one should be concerned.”

In comments about the survey methodology, the National Association of Broadcasters also expressed concerns about the “constitutional implications” of the FCC’s inquiry.