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Tom – Yes, both stations ran stories using footage of Chris Edwards, a researcher from the Cato Institute. More than that, both stations framed the story in the same manner, using the same budget statistics from the Cato Institute. So, in both instances, the piece starts off by saying that most American think that most of their taxes go to paying for the war in Iraq but that actually the biggest amounts go to social security and Medicare. Then they run the clip of Chris Edwards saying “About 40% of the whole budget now goes to the elderly, it’s essentially money taxed from the young and it goes to old folks.” This is followed by the newsreader providing statistics, saying “Medicaid and Medicare gets 20 %, another 20% goes to Social Security, 19% is spent on defense, 7% pays interest on debt, Education gets 3% and transportation receives 2%. Now those are interesting stats because if you add them up you get 71 %.
Linda – So what is the other 29%? And are these figures by the Cato institute accurate?
Tom – Well first off, it should be noted that the Cato Institute is a very well funded think tank that has an ideological bias. In fact Cato does more than just issue reports, they publicly advocate. Earlier this month they announced the launch of a $125,000 radio advertising campaign to promote Social Security privatization. The fact that both stations used the exact same footage of a Cato researcher and framed their stories in the same manner would indicate that these stories were actually not original pieces created by the WZZM and WXMI but rather put together using promotional materials provided by Cato Institute.
As to the missing 29%, according to the pie chart that is included on everyone’s federal tax booklet, 13% is “other” and 19% is “non- military discretionary spending”. Now, every year War Resistors League put out their own pie chart which they claim is a more accurate depiction of the amount spent on military spending. In their model they put the percentage of tax money spent on defense at closer to 48%, noting that the 19% figure provided by the government does not include factors such as military spending within non-military agencies, such a NASA, social spending on veterans, interest paid on debts resulting from past wars or the current Iraq war which is paid for by “supplemental allowances” not included in the budget. Like Cato, War Resistors League have an agenda, albeit a very different one from Cato, so, as with everything we mention on this show, I would encourage people to go to our website and check out the source material which we link to and judge for yourself.
Linda – On Thursday, April 21 there was a forum for candidates running for the Grand Rapids Public School Board. Jeff Smith which local news agencies covered this story?
Jeff – The Grand Rapids Press covered this forum, as did channel 8 and 13. The Press coverage was by far the best, although it fell way short of providing adequate coverage for voters. They ran a story on page 1 of the region section on April 22nd. They provided a picture of each of the candidates and ran an 8 in column. The Press article provided an overview of the forum with comments from only 3 of the 8 candidates.
Linda – How did both channel 8 and channel 13 cover the candidate forum?
Jeff – Channel 8 ran a story at 11pm that was over 2 minutes, but the story told viewers nothing more than that there were 8 candidates running for office and that if viewers wanted more information they could go to the website. We went to the website, which had short bios on each of the candidates as well as short video clips for each candidate that ranged from 5 seconds to 18 seconds, certainly not enough information that would allow people to make an informed vote.
Linda – What about WZZM 13, did they do any better?
Jeff – They were the only TV station to announce on the 5:30pm newscast that there was a forum that night, but the 11pm coverage was similar to that of channel 8’s, in that it didn’t tell us anything about the candidates. The story was on 17 seconds long and again viewers were told to go to their website if they wanted more information. Again we checked their website and could find nothing on School Board elections or candidates.
Linda – For more on local election coverage go to the GRIID reports section, where you can find analysis of all local election coverage for the past 6 years.
Linda – Our audience has heard us talk about VNR’s, that is Video News Releases, on an almost weekly basis recently on Catalyst Radio. What example of these commercials disguised as news stories have we seen recently, Tom?
Tom – Last week WXMI ran a two minute story during their “Tech Trends” segment about a new Star Wars Lego themed video game. While the local TV stations never actually say if something is a VNR, this one obviously had to be one. The script of the story includes detailed descriptions of the game in language that sounds more like a promotional piece than normal journalistic jargon. For example: “You can play some of the most exciting and memorable scenes from episodes 1 through 3 and the drop in drop out mode lets your parents or friends join or leave the game whenever they want. The article also features footage of a representative from the game design company named “Colby McCraken” standing in a news studio that is obviously not the FOX 17 studio telling us things about the game such as “that the game is really cool, I mean I’ve got a couple at my own at my house, I have little Yoda and little Darth Vader.”
Linda – For more examples of commercials disguised as news stories, check out the “dissecting the local News” section of the GRIID website.
Linda – On April 21 all 2 TV stations and the Grand Rapids Press ran a story about a visit to GVSU by TV talk show host Tony Danza. Jeff, why would the local news even bother to report on this?
Jeff – It is part of a trend in news reporting which is increasingly celebrity focused. Almost everyday news consumers are given a diet of the latest gossip on celebrities, whether it is the Michael Jackson trial or updates on the dating scene from Hollywood. Now, channel 13 did not report on Tony Danza’s visit, but they did report that Ben Affleck has a new girl friend.
Linda – Why else might news outlets run these kinds of stories? Jeff - One of the reasons has to do with self-promotion. In this case Channel 8 probably ran the story because Tony Danza’s show is on NBC as well. We see this quite often with stations promoting programming on their channel in news stories. The local FOX affiliate does it weekly with American Idol and WZZM 13 has done it with the show Extreme Makeover. Lastly, I think it is important for listeners to understand that this is also the result of media ownership consolidation. When big companies buy up local news agencies that results in the downsizing of news departments. If you have fewer reporters you are more likely to run fluff pieces you get from the networks and increasingly stations are told to run these self-promotion pieces as it is good for ratings. Linda – To read more about the trends in News Reporting we’ll link to a new report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Catalyst Radio site.