A number of citizens and representatives of citizens’ groups challenged the local broadcast media at a public hearing last night organized by the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) at the Wealthy Theatre. Speakers repeatedly described the local broadcast media’s failure to cover issues of great importance to the Grand Rapids community—a failure to provide substantive election coverage, reporting on issues of class, gender, and race in a way that perpetuates stereotypes, a failure to provide substantive educational programming, and a failure to provide adequate international new coverage.
The public hearing was taped by GRTV and will be submitted to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for review as part of the licensing process. Because the airwaves used by broadcasters are owned by the public, the FCC grants reviews of broadcasters’ licenses every eight years and can deny a renewal in the event that stations fail to serve the “public interest,” convenience,” or “necessity.” The terms are fairly vague and the FCC has never explained how they define them, yet by any reasonable definition of the terms the local broadcast media has failed the public miserably.
Most of the thirty-four people speaking drew heavily on data compiled by GRIID in reports released over the past five years, as well as their own experiences dealing with the media. Citizens talked about how the media consistently displays their race as criminal, how positive activities in the neighborhood are ignored in favor of crime reporting, and how neighborhood issues are rarely reported. Local citizens groups also described how local broadcasters are often indifferent to their issues. These groups, many of whom struggle for media attention as a way to reach a large number of constituents despite limited budgets, outlined how the media either fails to cover their issues entirely or provides inadequate or erroneous coverage. For example, Amy Piddington, representing the Kent County Sexual Assault Prevention Team, detailed how the local media continues to report on sexual assault in a sensationalized manner that emphasizes assault by strangers rather than acquaintances while Kym Spring Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund described how the media rarely reports on water pollution and pollution issues in general.
One of the areas which drew the most attention was the local media’s failure to cover local elections. Citizens described how they rarely knew who the candidates on the ballot were, let alone their stances on important issues. Citizens described how the media provides “horse race” coverage in national elections focusing on the contest and polling data rather than issues, how many local elections are ignored entirely, and how the elected bodies such as the Grand Rapids Public School Board are only focused on during the election and are ignored in between terms unless there is “controversy.”
Following the nearly two hours of citizen testimony, representatives of WOOD TV 8 and WZZM 13 (WXMI 17 was absent), were allowed to respond to the comments made during the hearing. Both WOOD TV 8’s News Director Patti McGettigan and WZZM 13’s Catherine Behrendt provided brief defenses of their news broadcasts, which they described as “products,” and explained the difficulty they would have in providing the type of coverage speakers at the hearing expected. McGettigan described how WOOD TV 8 serves fourteen counties and simply cannot cover all the local elections and cannot cover “the library commission in every little town,” while WZZM 13 said that their station has responded to similar criticism in the past by instituting quarterly “13 Cares Forums” to receive public feedback on the news, adding the “Healing the Racial Divide” segment to look at race, and adding the “Truth Test” for evaluating political ads as part of their broadcast to “separate the hooey from the truth.” Representatives of both stations emphasized the importance of their online presence and explained how the websites allow them to provide supplementary coverage that they cannot do during the broadcast. Of course, neither station addressed the fact that many Grand Rapids residents do not have access to the internet.
For those who missed the hearing, comments can be sent to the FCC until September 30. GRIID has a number of sample letters available on their license renewal website and is encouraging people to send them to the FCC.