Story by Conrad Scheid, photos by Sarah Chaput de Saintonge
Even in an era when finding information is often as simple as a Google search, news organizations focused on producing stories quickly can fail to identify sources and their motives to readers.
To understand how Montana’s TV stations measure up, MJR studied coverage of the debate surrounding energy development and its environmental impact. When it comes to informing audiences on the intentions of special-interest groups, Montana TV outlets – at least on their websites – deliver the bare minimum. They could do much more.
Starting from the digital transition for television in 2009 until August 2014, MJR gathered stories from Montana TV stations by searching their websites for a list of keywords related to energy issues. For our final analysis, we checked how each article or video went about identifying advocacy groups on both sides of the political aisle. We used a five-point scale, from explicit definition, to none at all.
The totals for each station include AP content and stories from affiliated networks because the material is under the editorial control of each station that posts it. MJR cannot guarantee that this is a complete survey for these stories, as the archives for some stations are incomplete or nonexistent. But we did analyze over 370 stories and included two newspapers (the Billings Gazette and the Great Falls Tribune) for comparison. TV stations where fewer than 10 results were found were not included in the analysis.
Overall, newspapers showed a limited advantage over their broadcast counterparts: They gave some definition of their sources in 74 percent of their articles, as opposed to 62 percent for TV stations. Newspapers also fulfilled the criteria for a clear-in-context definition in 33 percent of the articles analyzed, compared to slightly fewer than 20 percent for TV stations. However, when it came to explicit definitions, newspapers were only one percentage point stronger. In addition, they did not link to outside sources for added information, whereas TV stations did so in 11 percent of the cases.
The practice of using links could indicate specific newsroom policies, especially in the case of websites like KAJ18.com (34 percent of their stories included links) and KPAX.com (53 percent), which are both CBS affiliates. Some stations hyperlink depending on subject matter, says David Sherman, KRTV’s online producer. “I see what gets clicked, and political stories don’t.”
When a story about a boy in Great Falls dying from a spider bite lit up the station’s social media, Sherman inserted links to memorial fundraisers, a Facebook page in memory of the child, and even a quote from an entomologist explaining the geographic range of the arachnid. It’s not something he’ll do for a story with only a few views.
The time crunch for individual reporters could also be causing the problem. Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Fellow for Journalism Values, says shrinking newsroom staffs means less time for journalists to develop the knowledge base in a specific field to inform audiences of the motives of interest groups in their stories. “Too often nowadays, journalists aren’t very well schooled in the fields they report,” Steele says, adding that thoroughly identifying sources bolsters two pillars of good reporting: accuracy and fairness. “If a news organization ignores the identification of an advocacy group, the news consumer may be confused or even fooled.”
Bob Hermes, general manager of KPAX in Missoula, says there’s no intention on the part of his newsroom to mislead its audience. “There’s no reason we wouldn’t attribute correctly,” Hermes said. Perhaps not, but the evidence suggests that Montana’s TV stations aren’t paying enough attention to their public service duties. Whether or not they can recover depends on where they set their priorities over the next few years: total page views, or a well-informed audience.
Research by Courtney Anderson, Tera Dittbrenner, Jesse Flickinger, Michael Hanan, and Ryan Mintz.
A column about public trust in these “experts” is here, by Lisa Graves, the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy.