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Study Raises Hackles

Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The Project for Excellence in Journalism released a highly publicized report Feb. 17 called “Does Ownership Matter in Local News?” In the wake of the report’s release, many of the news professionals whose names were listed as part of a design team say they feel blind-sided.
They say this was not part of the project they agreed to participate in, and they were never told it was coming out or that their names would be on it. They also say they were not given a chance to comment on the final draft before it was released.
The data was originally collected for the Local TV Project’s annual report card on TV news at stations around the country. Several journalists said they were not comfortable with the way data that was collected to make one set of judgments was then recategorized to come up with another set of conclusions.
In some cases the disappointment and anger is exacerbated because some design team members have changed jobs since 1997 and now work for some of the corporations or station groups mentioned in the study. The inclusion of their names makes it appear they were boss-bashing on the eve of important hearings on these and other hot-button regulatory issues. The PEJ report on local news was cited by one pro-ownership cap witness at last week’s Federal Communications Commission hearing in Richmond, Va. (Additional coverage, Page 6.)
But mostly there was dismay that a project that design team members said had been supported somewhat reluctantly and only because even a flawed attempt to raise standards for TV news is better than no discussion of the subject, had been reconstituted to play an unintended role in a broader debate.
Two of the 11 members of the design team have since resigned: Carl Gottlieb, who was deputy director of PEJ and managed the Local TV Project until he became managing editor of the Sinclair Broadcast Group; and Gary Wordlaw, who until last year, when he was named general manager of Viacom-owned UPN station KSTW-TV in Tacoma, Wash., had been a news and station executive with less powerful station groups.
“I was very disappointed that Tom Rosenstiel and the Project for Excellence in Journalism would craft a report of this magnitude without first soliciting comments from the committee,” Mr. Wordlaw said. “I also am concerned that the report was put together without any input from any original members of that committee. So I have no way of verifying its correctness because I had no input into it. Therefore, I felt the need to resign from the project.”
Members of the design team last week began receiving letters of apology from PEJ director Tom Rosenstiel for not running the idea of the ownership-quality past the design team and for not letting them see a draft before it was released to the press.
But Mr. Rosenstiel defended the Feb. 17 report itself. “We think the data [is] valuable,” he wrote, “and it would have been a mistake to withhold it from the public debate.”
Bruce Owen, of Economists Inc., a consultant for Viacom, NBC and Fox on the regulatory issues, described the Feb. 17 report as “measurement without theory,” and Viacom Television Stations chief Fred Reynolds wrote it off as a “white paper” that “wouldn’t pass their criteria” at PEJ.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Rosenstiel said that PEJ decided to recategorize the existing data after numerous approaches from FCC, network and other factions seeking access to the raw data – which PEJ declined to provide.
He and Lee Ann Brady, senior project director of Princeton Survey Research Associates, which developed and applied the methodology, maintained that any disagreements were from people who have a lot riding on the FCC proceedings or from people who not statisticians or academics.
“I Am Disappointed”
Indeed, Marty Haag, is not a statistician, but he was a legendary news director and an executive with Belo when he served on the design team and he is among those second-guessing the project.
“I am disappointed that a report that made such sweeping observations was delivered without consultation of the original design group,” Mr. Haag said last week.
“I think it would be worthwhile to reconvene a group of people – and not necessarily the original people on the design team – to look at what has been done over the course of five years and to analyze the effectiveness over the years, because sweeping observations have been made based on coding of content that has never been explained to the original design team.”