Opinion | Susan Knopf: Sinclair sins against journalistic ethics
If I were still working for WLFL-TV, the Sinclair Broadcasting station in Raleigh, North Carolina, today, I would be submitting my resignation. As a former television news director and general manager, it is difficult to accept what broadcasting giant Sinclair Broadcasting Group is doing. For several decades, company executive chairman David Smith has been steadily gobbling up smaller broadcasting groups. Depending on how you look at the company, they control over 200 television stations, many of which have local news operations.
Back when I was working in Raleigh in the late ’90s, we had a very tight knit group of Sinclair news directors focused on producing high quality local news in our respective cities or markets. I was fortunate to have a general manager who supported those efforts. After working at the station for close to three years, she called me into her office and told me, as a friend, to start looking for another job.
I followed her advice and in early 2001, became news director and general manager of News 12 New Jersey. Within six months, Sinclair Broadcasting shut down the news department at WLFL and fired everyone. I never imagined the company would eliminate important local programming. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed, but glad I dodged a bullet.
Today, Sinclair has been exposed for requiring its news departments and news directors to do some shocking things. John Micek wrote a column last week in the Summit Daily detailing how Sinclair news anchors in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, were forced to read corporate propaganda. Most of us have probably seen the coverage of the wall of video clips from dozens of Sinclair stations, showcasing each anchor in each market, reading identical material, word for word, with a clear conservative bent. The newscasters had to make a choice, stand by their professional ethics and lose their jobs or read what the company tells you to read. I’ve already told you I would turn in my resignation, but I won’t speak for others who may have responsibilities like families or bills to pay.
It would be one thing if the content was labeled “editorial” or “opinion.” But instead, it took on the appearance of news, which we all expect to be fair and unbiased. This is a clear violation of The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which I helped revise in the mid-1980s. The code clearly states, “Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived and disclose unavoidable conflicts.” You might think having news anchors read politically charged content is no real conflict. I would disagree, at the very least it could be perceived conflict of interest, which is still undesirable. But that’s not all there is.
Earlier this year, Sinclair sent out a memo to its top managers, including news directors, asking them to personally contribute to the company’s political action committee. I’m sorry folks, but that is a real conflict of interest for all those news managers. Giving money to a political organization taints their journalistic integrity. And believe it or not, there are a lot of news professionals in our country who hold their journalistic integrity very dear. For those of you who are looking down on the news media and its role in our democracy, I urge you to take a closer look at the Code of Ethics, which the majority of news people strive to follow — print or broadcast, reporter, photographer, producer, editor or news director.
When you finish, you might see a small glimmer of hope that our First Amendment rights to a free press will be preserved. And the only way to deal with these questions of ethical conduct on the part of a mega media company trying to control a conversation politically, is to shine the light on it.
Sinclair is currently trying to close a four-billion-dollar deal to purchase Tribune Broadcasting, which owns KDVR-TV, the Fox affiliate in Denver. But it looks like part of the deal will spin off five Fox Tribune stations, including Denver, and one CW station to 20th Century Fox Broadcasting.
As a news consumer, it’s good to know the source of your information. The following stations are owned by Sinclair: KUTV, the CBS station in Salt Lake City; KOMO-TV, the ABC affiliate in Seattle; KABB-TV, the Fox station in San Antonio; WJLA-TV, the ABC station in Washington, D.C.; and KSNV-TV, the NBC affiliate in Las Vegas. If you’d like to know if there’s a Sinclair station in your hometown, you can go on the Sinclair Broadcasting Group website at http://sbgi.net/tv-stations to see a full list. And for more information on journalistic ethics, go to: https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp
Jonathan Knopf is a full-time resident of Silverthorne and a broadcast news professional for the past 40 years.
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