13 J-school deans and chairs issue letter of concern to Sinclair

Thirteen university deans and department chairs sent a letter of protest to Sinclair Broadcasting Group for ordering local anchors to read a company-written statement on the air. The company said it would "learn from" the emotional outpouring that followed this week.

Deans and department chairs from 13 universities sent a letter of protest Friday afternoon to the Sinclair Broadcast Group, condemning the company for forcing anchors at its nearly 200 stations to read a statement accusing other news outlets of publishing "fake news."

The letter, addressed to Sinclair Executive Chairman David. D. Smith was signed by the head 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, University of Southern California, University of California-Berkeley,  University of Illinois, The George Washington University and Morgan State University.   

The letter includes this passage:

While news organizations have historically had and used the prerogative to publish and broadcast editorials clearly identified as opinion, we believe that line was crossed at Sinclair stations when anchors were required to read scripts making claims about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”

Certainly, no news organization is beyond critique. And, as the Sinclair stations noted, social media have been used all too often to spread “false news.” But these are two very different things — the work of professional journalists who produce real news and the false accounts on social media. In making the leap to disparage news media generally — without specifics — Sinclair has diminished trust in the news media overall. Ironically, 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. Indeed, the fears articulated in the Sinclair script regarding an extreme danger posed to democracy by news media telling the public what to think describes our fears about the impact of the Sinclair must-carry script.   (see entire letter text and co-signers at the bottom of this post)

Sinclair Vice President for News Scott Livingston sent Poynter an emailed response to the educators' letter. The response is a softer more responsive tone compared to previous company reactions to criticism this week: 

“We stand for accurate reporting first and foremost. We understand that the promo prompted an emotional response, and we’ll learn from that in the future. We value the connections our anchors have with their communities and trust that they will continue reporting local news for their viewers as only they know how to do.”

The educators' letter, sent Friday afternoon, was the product of growing concern among faculty at one of the nation's most prominent journalism schools just down the road from Sinclair headquarters.

The Philip Merrill School of Journalism at the University of Maryland has a long history of feeding graduates to the Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of local TV stations in America. Sinclair headquarters is 49 miles from the school. "The Merrill School has, until now, had a long and productive relationship with Sinclair," Journalism School dean Lucy Dalglish told Poynter. Eight schools endorsed the letter Friday afternoon and, Dalglish says, more may join over the weekend. "Our students have had a very good experience at Sinclair stations; they have moved up and some of our grads are in the hierarchy of Sinclair management." 

She continued, "In the past, Sinclair management has separated news and editorial content. Until now, newsroom people were not put in the position of being the mouthpiece for the company."

Dalglish said that changed when Sinclair drafted a "news promo" which she describes as a "commentary," and forced local news anchors to read it without disclosing that the corporation had written every word the local news anchors were saying.  

"In the past few days, our students and our grads called us seriously freaked out by what they have seen about Sinclair," Dalglish said. "Our teachers have heard from graduates who work for Sinclair stations who are worried about their futures."

Dalglish said her faculty met in two "animated discussions" and began drafting a statement of concern to send to Sinclair management. The faculty circulated the letter to other journalism schools around the country to invite them to sign on.

Dalglish said, "We are saying to Sinclair that 'you have crossed the line and we are very disappointed in that.' We don't want to do anything that would limit the ability of our students to get jobs with Sinclair, but the school has to speak up for the voiceless kids who can't."

The educators say they have specific concerns about the "fake news" message and how the company reacted to criticism.

On April 3, New York Magazine published statements by Sinclair Chairman David Smith saying, the print media "serves no real purpose." The story included this quote:

“The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away. Just no credibility.”

The attack is similar to broad attacks that President Donald Trump repeats. Trump, this week, voiced support for Sinclair. That comment is part of what ignited the uprising among University of Maryland faculty and a statement from the National Press Photographers Association this week. After NPPA complained to Sinclair, the company withdrew a $25,000 contribution to NPPA's legal fund. 

"Sinclair dumped on mainstream media," Dalglish said. And she disagrees with the idea that the content of the message read by the anchors is harmless. "It generally disparages the news media and that is distressing."

The text of the statement that Sinclair called a "news promotion" closely mirrors a version that Livingston himself fronted a year ago. The corporately produced copy said:

Hi, I’m (Anchor A) ____________, and I’m (Anchor B) _________________…

(B) Our greatest responsibility is to serve our Northwest communities. We are extremely proud of the quality, balanced journalism that ___ News produces.

(A) But we’re concerned about the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country. The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.

(B) More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories… stories that just aren’t true, without checking facts first.

(A) Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think’…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.

(B) At _____ News, it’s our responsibility to pursue and report the truth. We understand Truth is neither politically ‘left nor right.’ Our commitment to factual reporting is the foundation of our credibility, now more than ever.

(A) But we are human and sometimes our reporting might fall short. If you believe our coverage is unfair please reach out to us by going to ____.com and clicking on "Content Concerns." We value your comments. We will respond back to you.

(B) We work very hard to seek the truth and strive to be fair, balanced and factual… We consider it our honor, our privilege to responsibly deliver the news every day.

(A) Thank you for watching and we appreciate your feedback”

Livingston said in an email release, "The stories we are referencing in this promo are the unsubstantiated ones (i.e. fake/false) like ‘Pope Endorses Trump,’ which move quickly across social media and result in an ill-informed public.” 

Dalglish said, "In the statement that they had anchors read on the air, Sinclair is feeding the hysteria over distrust in media. They are saying 'we are as pure as snow here and everyone else is not.'" 

The educators also said by forcing Sinclair local anchors to read a corporately worded statement without disclosing where the statement came from, they put the journalists' reputations at risk. 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." 

The unedited letter from journalism school deans and department chairs:

April 6, 2018

David D. Smith
Executive Chairman
Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc.
10706 Beaver Dam Road
Hunt Valley, MD 21030

Mr. Smith:

We are writing to you as faculty and leadership of journalism schools that have produced many fine graduates who have gone on to work at Sinclair-owned stations across the United States. Our comments are informed by our awareness of these fine, responsible, ethical journalists at Sinclair stations who have spent years building reputations as professionals with high standards for accurate and ethical news reporting.

One of the tenets of American journalism and one of the foundations of American democracy is that news reporting serves as an independent voice free from government censorship and influence. Moreover, American news consumers have come to expect that news professionals cover news rather than advance the business or political interests of news organization owners. 

While news organizations have historically had and used the prerogative to publish and broadcast editorials clearly identified as opinion, we believe that line was crossed at Sinclair stations when anchors were required to read scripts making claims about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.”

Certainly, no news organization is beyond critique. And, as the Sinclair stations noted, social media have been used all too often to spread “false news.” But these are two very different things - the work of professional journalists who produce real news and the false accounts on social media.  In making the leap to disparage news media generally - without specifics - Sinclair has diminished trust in the news media overall.  Ironically, 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. Indeed, the fears articulated in the Sinclair script regarding an extreme danger posed to democracy by news media telling the public what to think describes our fears about the impact of the Sinclair must-carry script.

We have heard from students who now are apprehensive that what they have come to believe and appreciate about ethical and unbiased news reporting will come into conflict with demands placed on them by future employers. We would like to be able to continue to enjoy the relationship we have had with Sinclair, which provides our students with important opportunities to advance their careers while maintaining their journalistic integrity. We hope that your response to these concerns will make that continued and mutually beneficial relationship possible.

Sincerely,

Dean Lucy A. Dalglish and the faculty of Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park

Dean Jerry Ceppos, Manship School of Journalism, Louisiana State University

Prof. Janice Hume, Department Chair, and the faculty of the Department of Journalism, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia.

Prof. Robert Stewart, Director, E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University

Dean DeWayne Wickham, School of Global Journalism and Communication, Morgan State University

Dean Will Norton, Jr., and the faculty of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, University of Mississippi

Dean David Boardman and the faculty of the Klein College of Media and Communication, Temple University

Dean Lorraine Branham, the Newhouse School, Syracuse University

Interim Dean Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko, College of Media, University of Illinois

Edward Wasserman, Dean and Professor of Journalism, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley

Director David Cuillier and the faculty of the School of Journalism, University of Arizona

Director Frank Sesno, School of Media and Public Affairs, The George Washington University

Interim Director Gordon Stables and the faculty of USC Annenberg, University of Southern California

  • Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

 
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