Public needs more news, less chatter

Published May 2, 2007

Karen Brown Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, delivered the following remarks at a Federal Communications Commission hearing on media ownership in Tampa on Monday: 

Welcome to Tampa Bay, a great place to discuss media ownership. More than 30 years ago, this area gave birth to a unique form of media ownership. Nelson Poynter, then owner of the St. Petersburg Times, invested ownership of his newspaper in a school for journalists, student journalists and media leaders. At the Poynter Institute, our focus is on improving news media, particularly in the practice of values.

It follows then that while most here will offer suggestions on media ownership, my comments and my recommendation point to news media values.

Underlying the issues of cross-ownership and duopolies of competition, localism and viewpoint diversity is a concern about public affairs programming in a democracy. I will define public affairs programs as presentations that help individuals in their role as citizens.

Entertainment is fine, consumer information is useful, but it is essential for media to provide solid news to maintain a democracy. Think of "news" as an independent report, of facts and opinions, on significant issues and events.

As you consider media ownership, please consider steps that promote quality news reports. In 1927, the nation needed an FCC to serve the public interest by uncluttering the airwaves. Today, the nation needs the FCC to serve the public interest by lifting news from the clutter of talk and opinion.

What can the FCC do to encourage independent reports, free of the entanglements of business and political interests?

How can the FCC promote the use of resources to seek out facts? Talk is cheap. Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser (of the Washington Post) note that programming argument and opinion gives the impression of covering news and costs less to produce than does news-gathering. Quality reporting calls for investments in time, money and training.

What can the FCC do to advance exploration of issues and events significant to citizens' lives? Reports on celebrity breakups or adoptions draw interest, but that doesn't nourish a community. It won't improve our schools, help us understand our environment or tell us about candidates for public office.

Paula Madison, president of KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, and the late Carol Kneeland of KVUE in Austin, Texas, stressed the importance of covering a community. A quote attributed to journalist-philosopher Walter Lippman says, "The role of (the media) is to keep a community in conversation with itself."

That calls for civil discourse.

It calls for all segments of a community to be involved as participants in conversations; all segments as the subjects of conversations, with their views on the victories and challenges of their communities; and as owners and managers of the means of communications.

For years, many stations checked off their public affairs obligation by offering a program, featuring a person of color, that was broadcast when very few were watching.

Instead of that, I ask that you consider a community report prior to the periodic licensing of each station. The report shouldn't be cumbersome or costly. It would be a return to a more rigorous assessment. It could involve a small task force of citizens, a cross-section of a community, led by a leader from outside that community, maybe a journalism professor. A one-day hearing of citizens and station leaders would allow the community to note the strengths and weaknesses in public service. The task force would present a written report to the FCC to raise the level of accountability in public affairs programming.

Clearly, any one form of media ownership doesn't determine the quality of stewardship. Many communities suffer under local owners who bleed their stations for profits and to promote personal interests. There are large corporations, including chain owners, who provide local communities with outstanding service.

The heroes of Hurricane Katrina included the Hearst Argyle chain that moved coverage from WDSU-TV in New Orleans to WESH-TV in Orlando, and the Belo organization which sustained WWL-TV through recovery. Both companies helped to steady citizens when everything was falling apart.

But there's another side, and it is represented by Nelson Poynter. He believed a news organization serves by focusing on its local area. He willed his newspaper to a school, not only to promote journalism education, but also to make sure that his newspaper remained independent and locally owned. He said "ownership ... of a publication or broadcasting property is a sacred trust and a great privilege."

I've suggested a process to improve public service of media. As you ponder media ownership, please focus on steps to maintain an important trust.