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Sinclair’s mandated TV promos: A question of journalism ethics

FILE - In this Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2004, file photo, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc.'s headquarters stands in Hunt Valley, Md. President Trump is jumping to the defense of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is under fire following the rapid spread of a video showing anchors at its stations across the country reading a script criticizing "fake" news stories. Trump tweeted Monday, April 2, 2018, that it was funny to watch "Fake News Networks" criticizing Sinclair for being biased. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File)

WASHINGTON — Over the last few days, hundreds of local TV anchors across the country read the exact same script, as required by their employer. Now, the company’s encroachment on journalistic ethics has come under fire.

Over the weekend, a composite video of TV journalists at Sinclair Broadcast Group stations across the country reading the ownership-mandated script went viral.

“I think there’s definitely ethical components to this in that journalists are supposed to be independent thinkers,” said media writer Erik Wemple with The Washington Post.

A compilation video by Deadspin of TV anchors from multiple markets reading the same message has been widely shared. The message: “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

It is never mentioned in the Maryland-based company’s message — which criticizes the spread of fake news — that the anchor team or trusted reporter is required to read it. Without that transparency, Sinclair’s message could be construed by viewers as a thoughtful message from their trusted news personalities and not a company line, media critics have argued.

“When you start walking that line or advocating for one voice or another voice, I don’t know where to put you … I just want to know where you’re coming from so I know how to process that,” said Al Tompkins, senior faculty of broadcast and online at the Poynter Institute, of the viewer’s impression.

Tompkins doesn’t take issue with the message itself; he’s concerned about how it was not made clear that journalists were required to deliver this scripted message.

“It’s the blurring of the editorial lines between reporting and commentary that they’re asking the anchors to do that I think is highly problematic,” Tompkins told WTOP.

Responding to criticism, Scott Livingston, senior vice president of news at Sinclair, told The Baltimore Sun in an email, “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.”

He added, “That’s the goal of these announcements: to reiterate our commitment to reporting facts in a pursuit of truth.”


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