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[GreenYes] TV News Editorial Independence
from the

Project for Excellence in Journalism


News for Sale
Half of stations report sponsor pressure on news decisions

By Marion Just and Rosalind Levine, with Kathleen Regan

How much is your local TV news influenced by the people who buy ads?

In a survey of 118 news directors around the country, more than half, 53
percent, reported that advertisers pressure them to kill negative stories or
run positive ones.

And many of these news directors say the problem won't go away. "Sales is
getting more and more influence on newscasts," said a news director from one
medium-sized market. "Sponsorships, coverage suggestions, on-air mentions."

The pressure to do puff pieces about sponsors occurs "constantly," "all the
time," "everyday," "routinely," and "every time a sales person opened
his/her mouth," news directors reported in a major survey of local news

It is "getting harder every year" to maintain the wall between sales and
news, reported another news manager.

These are some of the findings of the survey of 118 news directors around
the country, conducted between June and August 2001. The sample represents a
significant proportion of the approximately 850 stations that broadcast
news. The answers have a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage
points. News directors in all but two cases wanted their comments to be
anonymous for fear of retaliation for criticizing their companies.

News directors also reported their TV consultants (outside companies hired
by stations to critique newscasts and improve ratings) issuing blanket
edicts about what to cover and what not to cover in order to attract the
most advertising dollars.

Together, the findings and comments raise questions about the journalistic
independence of local television news.

The number of stations that indicate sponsor pressure this year confirms a
problem we first saw in our 2000 study. Last year a third of the news
directors in a limited sample of 20 stations reported advertisers trying to
influence what gets on their broadcasts. Although that sample was small,
when coupled with the comments by news directors, the evidence suggests the
problem is getting larger.

Breaking down the sponsor suggestions more specifically, 47 percent of news
directors this year said sponsors tried to get them to provide favorable

And 18 percent of news directors - almost one in five - say sponsors try to
prevent them from covering stories, a problem that is more acute in smaller
markets. "Interference is common," one news director told us.

Peter Anderson
4513 Vernon Blvd. Suite 15
Madison, WI 53705
(608) 231-1100
Fax (608) 233-0011

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