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Researchers examine how well TV stations inform their viewers

Danilo Yanich and Allison Becker present their research on broadcast news during a meeting with Federal Communications Commission representatives.

A first-of-its-kind analysis by the University of Delaware of television news broadcasts has resulted in a model that researchers hope will enable federal regulators to assess how well individual stations are meeting their viewers’ needs for critical information.

“The media serve such an important function in our democracy,” said Allison Becker, who earned her master’s degree in public policy at UD in 2015. “It’s the entity that connects us to our officials, to what’s being done in Washington and to all the policy issues that matter to us as citizens.

“But the question is: Are we really becoming informed? The model we developed is a tool to help answer that.”

Becker led the effort to gather data and wrote the report, Citizens’ Critical Information Needs and Local TV News, with Danilo Yanich, associate professor in UD’s School of Public Policy and Administration and a policy scientist with the school’s Center for Community Research and Service (CCRS).

The report was published by CCRS last year, and Becker and Yanich met with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) staff members in late November to present their findings. The model they developed will assist the FCC as it evaluates the performance of television stations in supplying important information, Yanich said.

“This is critically important, as the FCC will have to make decisions — as required by law — regarding market structure and consolidation [when stations merge],” he said. “The model we presented offers them a way to look at a particular aspect of the stations’ performance, particularly as it affects the public interest.” 

The presentation and discussion of the model at the FCC “highlighted the important policy research” conducted by the CCRS and its research on local TV news broadcasts, Yanich said.

The FCC is responsible for ensuring that broadcast media serve the public interest, and it reviews television stations’ performance as part of its process of examining ownership agreements. It oversees such decisions as whether stations should be allowed to consolidate or to operate cooperatively under what are called “joint service agreements.”

Becker, who said she felt that their presentation was well received by the agency, noted that the UD-developed model does not argue for regulators to decide in any particular way in individual cases or in general broadcasting issues.

“We made an academic presentation at the FCC,” she said. “Our model does not make a judgment about what the FCC should do about the media landscape as a whole. Instead, it gives them a tool that we think will be useful in evaluating how stations are meeting citizens’ needs for information.”

The model could be used in cases where the FCC is deciding if a joint service agreement between two stations is serving its stated purpose of providing two independent news sources to viewers in the area, or if both stations are actually covering the same stories with the same reporters and perspectives. 

Becker said she also thinks it could be used to examine markets where viewers have access to news broadcasts in English and also in another language, such as Spanish, to determine if both groups of viewers are being given critical information.

“I think this model provides a great way to evaluate other news media, too, such as radio, the Internet and newspapers,” she said. “There’s a vast array of directions that this research could take, and that’s one reason I’m so excited about it.”

The UD research looked at a sample of news broadcasts in a market selected by the FCC for the study, Columbia, South Carolina, during November and December 2013.

Researchers categorized news stories according to eight areas that a previous report for the FCC had identified as critical information for viewers: emergencies and public safety, health, education, transportation systems, economic opportunities, environment and planning, civic participation, and political life.

Yanich and Becker are continuing to pursue funding to extend the research and to test out the model in different cities and different times. With the recent increase in media consolidations throughout the United States, it’s especially important to evaluate how well citizens are being informed by their local stations, Yanich said.

“As far as we know, this is the only research that has taken the study of CINs [critical information needs] to this extent,” he said. He called the new study a logical extension of his previous research on political advertising and television news coverage.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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Researchers at UD analyzed telelvision news broadcasts and developed a model they hope federal regulators can use to evaluate how well stations inform their viewers.

A first-of-its-kind analysis by UD of television news broadcasts has resulted in a model that researchers hope will help federal regulators assess how well stations are meeting viewers' needs for information.

1/26/2016
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