Most news is created to make money. That’s not to say that most people who are working as journalists didn’t get into the profession with the best intentions of making a difference, or that there isn’t a lot of high quality content being produced—but the simple fact is the main priority of most news networks is attracting advertisers, not informing viewers.
My views on this are shaped by my research, and my own experience working in a privately owned newsroom. On several occasions when I was producing, the sales department influenced the content in my show.
I was once told by the news director not to use viewer comments on a reporter story that was critical of a controversial theme park—one of our biggest advertisers—after a complaint was made to our sales department.
Granted the reporter made a careless decision; in his story he didn’t say the park refused to comment. But regardless, the theme park’s staff made no attempt to dispute his use of facts—they just went straight to sales demanding the story be pulled from further broadcasts—and the sales department made it happen.
Another time I was told by my boss not to send a reporter or camera to a consumer show because organizers didn’t buy any advertising—it was a show we’d covered every year since I’d started at the station. It wasn’t an earth-shattering event—but again, the sales department was calling the shots and it was infuriating. However, having just bought a new house, I wasn’t prepared to walk over it—real life got in the way of my scruples.
You may not hear a lot of people talk about these kinds of factors when it comes to decision-making in a newsroom and I’m not particularly proud of my actions—but I can assure you, I’m not the only producer to cave in a similar situation, and the influence of the sales department is often more subtle. Before professionals question the veracity of citizen journalists’ work and new types of sources, they should consider the fact they might be living in a glass house.
In today’s news environment there is constant pressure to spit out stories and be the first to break news and boost ratings—or in other words, gain advertisers. As one journalist said, “I think the sort of obsession with scoops and beating the competition has been an enormously destructive force in journalism”; something clearly visible in mistaken reports, like Gordon Lightfoot dying.
The quest for ratings isn’t just a concern for private broadcasters. At CBC each show is given a letter grade—the higher the ratings the higher the grade, and the more resources allocated. Battle of the Blades, for example, is an “A”. One person working further down the food chain told me although her department’s work was editorially important they didn’t get as much support because “there’s not as many eyeballs at the end.”
Case in point, Battle of the Blades getting 5 minutes of airtime on The National. I was there the night a reporter did a full story on the reality-skating-show, which was followed by a live interview with contestant Tie Domi. What stories didn’t make it to air to make room for that cross-promotion?
Despite that questionable editorial choice, no one I spoke with at CBC shared a story of experiencing direct interference from the sales department, and some thought it didn’t happen anywhere until I shared my examples. Their ignorance supported my perception that publicly funded journalism works outside the box many private broadcasters are forced into—it’s central to ensuring stories aimed at invigorating public discourse, not attracting advertisers.
And that’s why CBC’s news content must be editorially sound—otherwise it’s an easy target for critics who claim public money doesn’t equate to more meaningful news.