from the ill-communication dept
While US journalism is certainly in crisis mode, it’s particularly bad on the local level, where most local newspapers and broadcasters have been either killed off or consolidated into large corporations, often resulting in something that’s less news, and more homogenized dreck (see: that Deadspin Sinclair video from a few years back). Data suggests this shift has a profoundly negative impact on the culture, resulting in fewer investigations of corruption, a more divided and less informed populace, and even swayed political outcomes as nuanced local coverage is replaced with more partisan, national news.
The latest case in point: as Amazon has faced questions about warehouse worker safety during the pandemic, the company has been pushing local news outlets to carry a gushing piece of fluff PR loosely disguised as journalism. More than 11 local broadcasters agreed to do so, and the result is… well, see for yourself:
NEW: Here?s 11 local news stations just straight up running an Amazon scripted segment ahead of their shareholders meeting pic.twitter.com/wc8HbJT4ki
— Colin Jones (@colinjones) May 26, 2020
The spot didn’t just involve real reporters reading from a script Amazon provided, it included Amazon PR rep Todd Walker posing as a reporter during the segment:
“Each station introduced Walker as though he were one of their own reporters. He is, in fact, a “PR manager” at Amazon, according to his LinkedIn page. Walker used to be a broadcast journalist, according to his personal website and a sizzle reel he produced for his site.”
In reality, Amazon has come under fire recently for ending $2 per hour hazard pay bonuses despite being owned by the wealthiest human being in the history of the planet, something (oddly!) not mentioned during the segments. Nor did the segment bother to mention that at least eight Amazon warehouse workers have died so far during the crisis, resulting in ample criticism from employees about the lack of personal protective equipment and adequate job safeguards. Fortunately not everybody was willing to play along with Amazon, and some journalists were clearly disgusted by the effort:
Just got an email from Amazon?s PR team with a pre-edited news story and script to run in our shows. They are selling this as giving our viewers an ?inside look? at the company?s response to COVID-19.
Let us go inside a fulfillment centers with our own cameras… pic.twitter.com/7mDk2xmf4O
— Zach Rael (@KOCOZach) May 24, 2020
As media has gotten more consolidated, this kind of fluff has proliferated. Under Section 317 of the Communications Act, broadcasters are allowed to air PR as “news,” provided they’re clear about where they received the original programming from. Even then, enforcement is sporadic at best, with the last meaningful action from the FCC coming in 2011, when several broadcasters were fined a measly $4,000 for airing advertisements without adequate disclosures.
In this case, it’s pretty clear that these broadcasts not only didn’t inform viewers that the “news” story came and was produced by Amazon, but they falsely introduced the Amazon PR rep as a station reporter. It’s also fairly clear the current Trump FCC won’t do much of anything about it.
While the failure of local journalism certainly can be blamed in large part on the failure of local outlets to adapt their business models, the industry is also the victim of relentless merger mania and industry consolidation, resulting in local broadcasters that simply parrot whatever script is handed to them by corporations, politicians, or the national head office (as opposed to doing quality local investigative reporting on things that matter). To cut costs, giants like Sinclair routinely shutter local newsrooms, fire local reporters, and replace more nuanced, non-partisan local reporting with homogenized fluff.
The resulting “news deserts” are often falsely treated as an esoteric problem with an ambiguous impact, but again the data is pretty clear that the end result is a dumber and more divided public, often quite by design.