The University of Southern California's prestigious Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is conducting a study on behalf of the Federal Communications Commission to determine whether there are barriers to participation in the communications industry that limit the generation of the news and information the public needs.
The research has raised eyebrows among some in the newspaper industry who question what the FCC is doing poking around newspapers when its mandate always has been to regulate the public airways.
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Given that freedom of the press is protected by the Constitution and with good reason, we share that concern, and some caution should be exercised by the FCC in its engagement in that area.
That said, we would ask our press brethren to guard against reflexive hysteria. This is not, as far as we can tell, an assault on the press or on our necessary freedoms.
The FCC research still is broadcast focused, and the thrust of the multimedia study isn't to add regulation but to determine what barriers ought to be removed. To us, that sounds like the potential for more freedom, not less.
It's just that this study is asking broader questions that go beyond the broadcast industry, but frankly, they're questions that desperately need to be explored in the 21st century.
So much of the nation's freedoms are founded on information and aggressive journalism. A democracy is healthy only if its citizens are informed and engaged. But the institutions that historically have provided that information and journalism are undergoing cataclysmic change. That's true of the print press, of radio, of television and even of the relatively new digital venues.
Change is pervasive in all these areas, and the implications of that change on the public welfare can be good or bad, exhilarating or troubling.
On the one hand, the sources of news and information are more fragmented than ever before. On the other hand, the control of the marketplace for this news and information in many ways is more centralized.
On the one hand, the number of people circulating news has proliferated to include the masses. On the other hand, staffing levels of skilled journalists have been sharply reduced in newsrooms at all levels and across all platforms.
On the one hand, we all are inundated from every direction with more bits of information that we can digest. On the other hand, our news diet these days consists of large helpings of misinformation, of unchallenged government-packaged information, of journalistic candy.
What is the critical information the citizenry needs to meet its obligations in a democracy? And how well and how widely are citizens being exposed to it?
Seems to us, this is a topic of research those of us in the news industry ought to welcome, not condemn.