The Corner

Translating the FCC Snooping Study

In my post yesterday, I highlighted the questions the FCC intends to ask America’s newsrooms (such as “what is the news philosophy of the station?” and questions regarding intra-officer disputes over coverage), but those questions are not the only problematic aspects of the Commission’s “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs.”

The actual research design is written in a form of language known as “advanced bureaucrat” and is thus indecipherable to mere English-speakers. Fortunately for you, dear readers, I’ve spent eight years in the Army’s JAG Corps and have thus become not just fluent in “advanced bureaucrat,” but something of a linguist in the field. Thus, I can confidently offer the following translation of key elements of the FCC’s snooping plan. Before I begin, however, it’s important to understand the broad contours of the study.

It has two key elements: The “Media Market Census” and the “Community Ecology Study.” The Media Market Census is designed to analyze the content of news shows — and the reason for that content – while the Community Ecology Study discusses the content that the FCC believes the community needs. With that understanding, let’s translate.

FCC: “MEDIA MARKET CENSUS . . . Qualitative Analysis of Media Providers: Utilizing a sample of media providers (n= maximum of 280), we will conduct a qualitative analysis of local media services providing for CINs via in-depth interviewing, with particular emphasis on ownership characteristics, employment data, demographics on decision makers and barriers to entry.”

English translation: We’ll send FCC monitors to your newsroom to conduct up to 280 interviews around the country, and we’re especially focused on whether the people making the decisions are conservative white males.

FCC: “MEDIA MARKET CENSUS . . . Newspaper Content: Utilizing a one constructed week sample of daily newspaper content, as well as weekly newspaper content, we will perform a content analysis of CINs and how they are presented within that content (n=maximum of 252 newspaper issues).”

English: What? We don’t regulate newspapers? That’s outside the scope of our statutory authority? We disagree. Newspapers are “communications,” so stop talking to us about limits.

FCC: “COMMUNITY ECOLOGY STUDY . . . General Population Survey: Utilizing a multi-level sampling method, this survey will measure community members’ actual and perceived critical information needs.”

English: You know the news you want to hear? Well, that’s not the news you need to hear. We’ll decide that.

FCC: “Some of the information on the news media properties can be obtained by examining the respective websites. For instance, it is possible to determine the owner and, for the television stations, the identities of the on-air staff members. Using this method, we can learn the names of the top managers at the television stations and newspapers. Finding radio station news managers is not always successful using the Internet. The most reliable way to collect this information is through personal contact with news media property staff or someone familiar with the staff. However this also presents challenges. It is important to identify and talk with people who are willing to provide demographic information about their respective property’s work force. Official inquiries of this type are normally directed to the Human Resources office, which often refers such questions to the corporate office.

Consequently two strategies must be employed:

1. Locating someone in the station who can provide demographic information; and

2. Making a formal request for the demographic information from Human Resources and/or corporate headquarters.

Strategy #1 could be accomplished by reaching out to acquaintances at news media properties. Strategy #2 usually requires sending a formal, written request to HR and/or corporate headquarters, which could delay results significantly.”

English: Don’t let a private organization keep you from interviewing its employees. Don’t take their “no” for an answer. Instead, investigate the identities of key employees on your own and reach out to them outside normal corporate channels. Make sure the people you talk to can provide confidential information about fellow employees.

FCC: “The purpose of these interviews is to ascertain the process by which stories are selected, station priorities (for content, production quality, and populations served), perceived station bias, perceived percent of news dedicated to each of the eight CINs, and perceived responsiveness to underserved populations. Due to the highly sensitive nature of information collected (particularly among reporters and anchors of television news stations), demographic information will not be reported. Additionally, confidentiality will be assured among all participants interviewed.”

English: We’re going to turn these stations inside-out, so make sure you can find some good confidential informants. We’ll keep some of their information secret, for now, but the important thing is we know what they believe, we know their race, we know their gender, and we know their income.

FCC: “The Community Ecology Study seeks to determine the CINs of a broad and demographically diverse population of a metropolitan area, as they are perceived and demanded by individuals nested in neighborhoods within those areas.

This research is subject to two very important constraints. The first is that the CINs identified represent concrete needs of diverse communities. That means that demand for many of them will be both contextual and latent. Peoples’ CINs vary by context: emergency information is relevant only during a tiny portion of the time, but extremely relevant during a period of emergency or threat. It is also latent, in that it is neither needed nor necessarily perceived to be needed until that threat is activated. A major challenge is to create valid instruments that measure needs across multiple contexts, some of which are latent.”

English: We don’t want to be insensitive and condescending, so we’ll just say that when the public doesn’t really want the information we say they need to have, we’ll call that a “latent” need. For example, there is a latent need for an extended discussion of global warming and why real men drive a Toyota Prius.

FCC: “We anticipate employing a number of statistical methodologies for the analysis of the constructed census of media content. These methods include univariate and descriptive statistics of variables of interest, as well as bivariate analyses (including t-tests and chi-square analyses) in order to illustrate relationships between key variables of interest. For example, we may wish to examine the relationship between presentation mode of story and station (in other words, is there a difference across station types in the mode in which stories are presented?). Chi-square analysis is well suited to questions such as these, while t-tests can answer questions concerning continuous, non-categorical variables. Should the need arise for multi-variate techniques (i.e. exploring the relationship among several independent variables and one dependent variable), we are also equipped with the skill set to handle this type of analysis, including multiple regression, logistic regression, and factor analysis. It may also be possible to employ a multi-level modeling approach, which takes into account differences among individual news stories, nested within broadcasts, nested within stations.”

English: Untranslatable. However in the original German, the word for all of the above is something like “gobbledygookenschtein.” 

I could go on, but you get the idea. The FCC wants to do a deep dive into whether the people are getting the news they “need” or whether state-favored news stories are blocked by state-disfavored demographics.

Charles Krauthammer is correct. The House of Representatives must immediately act to prevent the FCC from spending a single cent on this “study.” The FCC’s investigatory presence in America’s newsrooms is a clear threat to the free press.

UPDATE: It looks like the FCC has now pulled the plug on the study and is pledging not to question station owners, managers, and reporters.


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