Digitally Yours: Sinclair Broadcast opens discussions of journalistic independence

Terry Nguyen | Daily Trojan

Throughout March, local TV stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group instructed anchors to deliver a message to viewers that warned against the proliferation of “fake news” by national outlets on social media. The anchors also spoke about the station’s commitment to accurate and fair reporting, and asked viewers to comment on its website if they had any concerns. The comments would then be viewed and handled by Sinclair, prohibiting local stations from interacting with viewers, according to an original CNN report.

Although Sinclair’s actions can be construed as an effort to be politically neutral and emphasize its dedication to unbiased journalism, it’s noteworthy that Sinclair required all anchors to read the corporations’ message word-for-word, treating them as mouthpieces rather than independent journalists.

This overarching demand to local news stations by the broadcast company occurs during a time when Sinclair is seeking to expand its stake in news coverage. Last May, the company announced its decision to purchase Tribune Media, an acquisition to be reviewed by the Federal Communications Commission.

In such a politically divisive climate, with the journalism industry under constant attack from President Donald Trump and his administration, Sinclair’s omnipotence should be questioned.

Although Sinclair currently owns 193 stations under its name and is the largest broadcaster in the nation, the ethics behind a large corporate body dictating smaller outlets’ coverage are concerning, and highlights the disintegration of the ethical wall between journalists and their station owners. This is not the first time the company has overstepped its boundaries by dictating what stations should broadcast.

In May, The New York Times exposed that Sinclair pushes segments it has produced to local stations, requiring the stations to broadcast them within a specific timespan. Critics say these suggestions from Sinclair highlight the company’s conservative agenda, but regardless of whether the company leans left or right, the independence of its news stations has been compromised.

A handful of employees working at local Sinclair-owned stations have spoken anonymously to the press about the company-directed segments, expressing their concerns about journalistic independence. Many are afraid to speak out publicly because their jobs could be on the line, and leaked emails from Sinclair officials suggest there will be consequences for any employee who speaks to the press. Newsroom employees should not have to fear for their jobs for speaking out against the pressures they feel to broadcast messages that purvey a company’s agenda.

Sinclair’s actions, despite its claims that its content strives to be politically neutral, demonstrate the company’s desire to utilize local stations to spread messages that align with its agenda. And, whatever it may be, it is clear that Sinclair has an agenda: No ethical news company would willingly push segments and messages toward its viewers if it had no ulterior motive. Dangerously, Sinclair has an expansive reach in its broadcasting power through local news. Thirty-seven percent of Americans often receive news through local stations, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, and Sinclair owns stations across the U.S. with a concentration on the East Coast.

The news industry is not a goldmine. Too often, the depth of news coverage and the resources a newsroom can provide for stories are dependent on their company’s management, beyond the newsroom’s editorial capacity.

Newsrooms still work to ensure that the ethical boundaries between business interests and editorial decisions are made independently in service of fair and accurate coverage. Journalism is a public service; it’s meant to serve the interests of the community that receives the news, not comply with the whims of media giants.

Terry Nguyen is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the features editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs every other Tuesday.