Media Weigh in on School Desegregation

Plus: NewsLab study raises questions

Several media companies have joined in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court filed last week. Some media-ownership challenge or indecency issue, perhaps? Nope. School desegregation.

BET, Radio One, Inner City, Viacom, Post-Newsweek, Emmis, Granite and LIN TV were among 24 companies that weighed in on a single brief, arguing that “a ruling that racial diversity in K-12 public education is not a compelling government interest would send a devastating message to Americans and to the world that, as a nation, we believe that we have done enough with respect to racial integration and are prepared to accept the resegregation of our schools.”

David Honig of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council helped to assemble the group.

The High Court is scheduled Dec. 4 to hear two key cases—one in Seattle, the other in Louisville, Ky.—of schools that tried to balance the racial makeup of their schools, a move challenged by some parents in both school districts.

Like First Amendment decisions, affirmative government actions like racial balancing must meet the two-prong test of compelling government interest and the least narrowly tailored means to that end, according to Elizabeth G. Taylor, counsel to the petitioners.

The broadcasters aren't weighing in on whether the schools' method of balancing—in one case, weighting race as one of many factors in deciding whether to place a student in a school—is the most narrowly tailored. But they argue that achieving diversity in schools is clearly a compelling government interest.

Is this just good corporate PR, particularly for an industry that has been hammered by anti-consolidation activists for lack of diversity? Certainly, it's good corporate PR, but it isn't just that, according to Taylor and Honig.

Taylor says she sent questionnaires to the communications companies about their positions and found, “to a company, they all said it really does make a difference that people don't just go through diversity training when they are hired but learn it from a young age. I don't think it is something they are making up. They really believe it.”

Honig points out that the companies are hoping a finding that diversity is a compelling government interest could help in the effort to restore the FCC's tax-certificate policy, which gave media companies a tax break for selling to minority owners. “Congress' consideration of whether to bring back tax certificates could be affected by what the court says about diversity in education,” says Honig.

Since supporting diversity is an industry-wide effort, as is restoring tax breaks, why isn't the list of companies larger?

Honig points out that some companies may file as part of separate briefs, while others do not weigh in on issues that are not directly related to their businesses. Still others have standing policies against filing briefs in cases that their news departments will have to cover.

Newscast Analysis Stirs Broadcasters' Ire

A study by the University of Wisconsin's NewsLab found that Midwest TV stations in nine markets aired an average of 36 seconds of election coverage in a typical 30-minutes' worth of news broadcast, with only foreign policy and “unintentional-injury” stories getting less airplay. Much to the chagrin of broadcasters, that study left out much of the news day, as did one by the same group last year.

Using a grant from media/campaign reformer The Joyce Foundation of Chicago, NewsLab analyzed up to an hour a night of early-evening and late-evening newscasts on 36 Big Four network affiliates in nine markets between Sept. 7 and Oct. 6. The markets were Chicago; Springfield, Ill.; Detroit; Lansing, Mich.; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; and Madison and Milwaukee, Wis.

A total of 1,629 election-related stories aired over that time period, and more than half of all broadcasts surveyed contained at least one story primarily on elections, average length one minute and eight seconds, according to the analysis.

Calling the findings consistent with previous studies, NewsLab Director Ken Goldstein says the analysis showed that “there is relatively little coverage of campaigns and elections on local news.”

The National Association of Broadcasters begs to differ.

“It's hard to take seriously a report that purports to document political coverage of local TV stations that ignores debates, morning news, noon news, 4 p.m. news, and Saturday- and Sunday-morning programming,” says NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton. “This is a sham study from a group with a biased agenda.”

Goldstein says, in a perfect world, he would look at all dayparts but, if he had to choose—which he says he did—he thinks it was fair to look at the late news and highest-rated early-evening news.

NAB also released “just a few” of what it said were many samples—a couple dozen—of broadcasters' campaign coverage, many from of the markets cited. They included a couple of stations' coverage of debates and one offer of five minutes of airtime to 40 candidates in Madison, plus an offer of 90 minutes for debate from WICS Springfield that NAB says was not taken up by the gubernatorial candidates.

The Joyce Foundation's Larry Hansen praises that five-minute offer but says it was not typical of most stations. The intent was not to denigrate the efforts of broadcasters in other dayparts, he says, but most such shows are not at peak hours and have small audiences.

According to the analysis, election coverage came in ninth out of 12 categories in newscast time devoted to it. No. 1 were the ads at 10 minutes, 7 seconds. Also topping election coverage were sports and weather (7 min., 1 sec.); crime (2 min., 27 sec.); other, (2 min., 18 sec.); local interest (2 min., 1 sec); teasers, bumpers and intros (1 min., 46 sec.); non-campaign government news (1 min., 6 sec.); health stories (1 min., 4 sec.); and business/ economy (1 min., 2 sec.). Trailing election coverage were foreign policy (23 sec.) and unintentional injury at 11 seconds.

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