Media consolidation wreaks havoc on local news but does not necessarily skew coverage

Chris Vargo. Credit: University of Colorado at Boulder

When large conglomerates buy small news outlets, local news suffers. But the parent company may not be influencing its stations’ political agendas as much as some suspected, new research from CU Boulder on TV goliath Sinclair Broadcast Group finds.

The article, published this week in the journal Electronic News, analyzed hundreds of thousands of reports from six stations over six years, using big data to ask the question: What happens to a station after Sinclair purchases it?

The results, say the authors, are both bad and good news for journalism.

“This article provides strong evidence that when a large company takes over a news station, the amount of local content produced decreases. This is something to be concerned about,” said co-author Chris Vargo, Associate Professor at the College of Media, Communication and Information (CMCI). “But we haven’t seen, on a large scale, the blatant manipulation of the problem that some suspected. We haven’t found any smoking guns.”

Newsroom exhausted and syndication booming

With 186 stations across 620 channels in 82 markets, Sinclair is one of the largest owners of news television channels in the country, reaching about 40% of American households.

Some have criticized the rapidly expanding company for stripping newly acquired newsrooms of resources, even though federal licensing requires a focus on local coverage.

Sinclair has also been accused of forcing a conservative top-down editorial stance on its stations.

In one case, the company asked the stations to air a weekly commentary titled Bottom Line with Boris presented by a former senior adviser to President Donald Trump.

In March 2018, Sinclair asked all stations to air a video of local presenters reading a script denouncing the “disturbing trend of irresponsible and one-sided news in our country” and accusing other media of publishing “fake stories.” and promote their “personal biases and agenda.” Viral videos about the incident abounded.

“This company has a reputation for buying businesses and growing quickly, as well as for its conservative approach. We wanted to ask, ‘How does this really affect local coverage?” Said co-author Justin Blankenship, Assistant Professor at Auburn University.

To answer this question, the researchers used a massive database to analyze 346,586 news articles published before and after Sinclair’s acquisition of six stations in Nebraska, Montana and California.

They found that the amount of news content posted overall declined sharply after the Sinclair acquisition – evidence that the company may indeed be depleting its newsroom resources, the authors said.

For example, at one station in Montana, the average number of stories produced each week increased from 410 before acquisition to 160 after acquisition.

For five out of six stations, local news content – which was already down – continued to decline. For a station that had expanded its local news coverage, that expansion slowed after the acquisition.

Meanwhile, syndicated content reposted by other stations in different markets continued to increase.

“The situation was already bad for local news, then it got worse” after the acquisition, Vargo said, noting that an argument for media consolidation is that, through economies of scale, stations will be able to improve coverage. “There is no evidence that these stations are better supported by a conglomerate.”

The standards of journalism “alive and well”

The study, however, did not find a clear conservative change in coverage once Sinclair took over.

Instead, he found that the newly acquired stations covered less of party politics.

“Some have assumed that if a conservative parent company takes over, they will highlight some issues and downplay others. But we have found no evidence that this is happening on a large scale,” Vargo said.

This finding is in agreement with other research on the so-called Sinclair effect or what happens to the stations owned by the company.

Comparing the content of Sinclair news shows versus non-Sinclair stations, Blankenship found that while those owned by the media giant tended to be more “cable news style” with dramatic debates involving highly partisan sources, they did not have a conservative outlook. political bias.

The infamous “fake news” script incident, while disturbing, only happened once, Blankenship notes. And, for the record, some news directors have pushed back staple segments like Bottom Line with Boris – deliberately showing them at low-audience times.

“If you’re looking for a ray of hope here, this is it:” he said. “It appears that the standards and norms of journalism are alive and well among individual journalists and are not easily compromised by a new owner.”

Sinclair to sell 7 TV channels to Fox for regulatory approval

More information:
Justin C. Blankenship et al, The Effect of Corporate Media Ownership on the Depth of Local Coverage and Issue Agendas: A Computational Case Study of Six Sinclair TV Station Websites, Electronic News (2021). DOI: 10.1177 / 19312431211043483

Provided by the University of Colorado at Boulder

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