Opinion: “Must-run” distorts journalistic integrity

By Andrea Bian

Jesuit News (Portland, Oregon)

In March, nearly 200 news stations across the country included a segment warning their viewers about “fake news” and the dangers of social media. While the statement on the surface did not initially seem concerning, viewers realized the same statement had been read word-for-word at stations across the country.

A video from Deadspin juxtaposed clips of hundreds of news anchors reciting the exact sentences verbatim, sparking concern over the sincerity of the statement.

“The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media,” hundreds of news anchors across the United States said. “Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda…This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

As viewers began to discover details about the widespread statement, they found that the statement came from a script written by Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest television broadcaster in the United States. The group either owns or operates 193 stations (The New York Times). Because Sinclair owns these local stations, the company has the ability to distribute segments—called “must-runs”—to anchors in all states and require them to be shown or read. In the Portland area, the exact statement was included in a segment on KATU, an affiliate of ABC.

Sinclair caught flak after viewers and anchors believed that the statement was politically motivated. Anchors at KOMO in Seattle were some of the most open speakers condemning the segment and expressing their discomfort with being forced to read it.

David E. Price, Democratic Congressman of North Carolina, branded the statement “pro-Trump propaganda,” as President Trump speaks frequently about the supposed prevalence of fake news and biased information (The New York Times).

“So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” President Trump tweeted on April 2. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

While the controversy became widely known due to the speed of social media activity, many people, including students, may be unaware of the control a corporation like Sinclair might have over a seemingly locally-controlled news station. In many households, the consumption of these news stations and broadcasts is frequent, sometimes daily.
For some students, especially those studying journalism and media, a controversy like Sinclair’s can hit close to home.

“I think [Sinclair is] manipulating because local news stations are far more trusted by the general populace than national news stations,” sophomore journalism student Shawna Muckle said. “They’re local reporters, they’re on the ground. There’s a lot more trust inherent in that. To think there’s some major corporation that is unilaterally pulling the strings, it corrupts that information.”

Sinclair has not only been criticized for the messages it pushes—for irritated journalists, the cost of quitting can be hefty. Several employment contracts obtained by Bloomberg indicated that if an employee decided to quit, he or she could be required to pay Sinclair up to 40% of their annual compensation (Los Angeles Times).

In terms of the “fake news” narrative that Sinclair decided to spread, the distrust it instills in journalism can be frustrating for people working in the industry. For Muckle, who immerses herself in journalism—“I heard about this from my News app”—and regularly writes for The Jesuit Chronicle, the prospect of not being taken seriously is concerning.

“It’s problematic to me because ‘unfair reporting’ is such an ambiguous term,” Muckle said. “A lot of people think it’s just like, ‘Oh, you painted me in an unflattering light.’ That is grounds to call [something] fake news. That’s what causes people to attack so many reputable news organizations.”

For a solution to the issue of mistrust in journalism, Muckle is in full support of restoring the widespread trust in news outlets and media.

“It’s annoying now that there’s this pervasive ‘fake news’ scandal,” Muckle said. “That definitely appeals to right-wing politics. Obviously, the First Amendment exists, so you can’t really shoot down propaganda, but I just think there needs to be a lot more information surrounding how journalistic ethics actually work.”

Photo Credit: Jesuit News 

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