Annenberg signs open letter to Sinclair

The Sinclair Broadcast Group required news anchors at its broadcasting stations to read a company statement on-air accusing other news outlets of publishing “fake news.” Photo from Sinclair Broadcast Group

Thirteen university deans and department chairs from journalism schools across the country, including USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, signed an open letter to the Sinclair Broadcast Group Friday protesting Sinclair requiring news anchors at nearly 200 broadcasting stations to read a statement written by the company on-air. The statement accused other news outlets of publishing “fake news.”

“The educators say requiring the anchors to read the company’s statement violates a tenant of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics which is to ‘Act Independently,’” a Poynter article reported on April 6.

“Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think,” the statement Sinclair wrote said, which was read on-air by dozens of news anchors last month.

Gordon Stables, the USC Annenberg School of Journalism interim director, said that the University of Maryland shared a draft of the letter that they were planning to send to Sinclair and asked USC if they would like to co-sign it.

“Sinclair’s use of news personnel to deliver commentary — not identified as such — may further erode what has traditionally been one of the strongest allegiances in the news landscape, the trust that viewers put in their local television stations,” the letter, addressed to Sinclair Executive Chairman David Smith, read.

Along with USC, heads of journalism schools at the University of Maryland, Syracuse University, Louisiana State University, University of Georgia, University of Mississippi, Temple University, Ohio University, University of Arizona, UC Berkeley, University of Illinois, The George Washington University and Morgan State University signed the letter.

“We reached out to our faculty by email on Friday afternoon and evening and had a substantial and overwhelming response of the faculty strongly supporting us adding our signature to the letter,” Stables said.

Sinclair Broadcast Group operates or owns 193 broadcasting stations across the country, and is the nation’s largest broadcaster. According to The New York Times, the company regularly sends out “must-runs” to the local news stations that they operate, which are video segments with content such as terrorism news updates, commentary and more.

Stables said Sinclair is crossing a line when it comes to ethical reporting.

“As a school that focuses on teaching journalism as a career and profession, there are some important professional norms,” Stables said. “One of them that you should not breach is the difference between reporting and commentary or opinion pieces and news coverage. And I think the Sinclair broadcasting decision to blur that line is really disturbing.”

Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s vice president for news, issued a response to Poynter regarding the letter addressed by journalism educators.

“We stand for accurate reporting first and foremost,” he said in a statement. “We understand that the promo prompted an emotional response, and we’ll learn from that in the future.”

Sinclair has received criticism for the company’s most recent live must-read, mostly due to its eerily similar rhetoric to President Donald Trump’s censure of the American press, and the Trump administration’s refusal to condemn Sinclair.

“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,” Trump tweeted in defense of Sinclair on April 2.