Why Sinclair Made Dozens of Local News Anchors Recite the Same Script
On local news stations across the United States last month, dozens of anchors gave the same speech to their combined millions of viewers.
It included a warning about fake news, a promise to report fairly and accurately and a request that viewers go to the station’s website and comment “if you believe our coverage is unfair.”
It may not have seemed strange until viewers began to notice that the newscasters from Seattle to Phoenix to Washington sounded very similar. Stitched-together videos on social media showed them eerily echoing the same lines:
“The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media.”
“Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias.”
“This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”
The script came from Sinclair Broadcast Group, the country’s largest broadcaster, which owns or operates 193 television stations.
Last week, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published a copy of the speech and reported that employees at a local news station there, KOMO, were unhappy about the script. CNN reported on it on March 7 and said Scott Livingston, the senior vice president of news for Sinclair, had read almost the exact same speech for a segment that was distributed to outlets a year ago.
A union that represents news anchors did not respond immediately to requests for comment on Sunday.
Dave Twedell of the International Cinematographers Guild, who is a business representative for photojournalists (but not anchors) at KOMO in Seattle and KATU in Portland, Ore., said Sinclair told journalists at those stations not to discuss the company with outside news media.
Although it is the country’s largest broadcaster, Sinclair is not a household name and viewers may be unaware of who owns their local news station. Critics have accused the company of using its stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda.
“We work very hard to be objective and fair and be in the middle,” Mr. Livingston told The New York Times last year. “I think maybe some other news organizations may be to the left of center, and we work very hard to be in the center.”
Sinclair regularly sends video segments to the stations it owns. These are referred to as “must-runs,” and they can include content like terrorism news updates, commentators speaking in support of President Trump or speeches from company executives like the one from Mr. Livingston last year.
But asking newscasters to present the material themselves is not something that Kirstin Pellizzaro, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, remembered from her experience as a producer at a Sinclair-owned news station in Kalamazoo, Mich., from 2014 to 2015.
The station had to air “must-run” segments that came from Sinclair, which is based outside of Baltimore. “Some of them were a little slanted, a little biased,” Ms. Pellizzaro said. “Packages of this nature can make journalists uncomfortable.”
Sinclair representatives did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday. But Mr. Livingston told The Baltimore Sun that the script was meant to demonstrate Sinclair’s “commitment to reporting facts,” adding that false stories “can result in dangerous consequences,” referring to the Pizzagate conspiracy as an example.
“We are focused on fact-based reporting,” Mr. Livingston continued. “That’s our commitment to our communities. That’s the goal of these announcements: to reiterate our commitment to reporting facts in a pursuit of truth.”
Ms. Pellizzaro said she can talk about Sinclair more freely now because she is working in academia, whereas journalists at stations owned by Sinclair might feel pressured not to bite the hand that feeds them.
“I hope people realize that the journalists are trying their best, and this shouldn’t reflect poorly on them,” she said. “They’re just under this corporate umbrella.”
Sinclair has been accused of using connections in the Trump administration to ease regulations on media consolidation. In an effort to expand its reach, the company is seeking approval from the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission for a $3.9 billion deal to buy Tribune Media.