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Media Watchdogs Gain Global Clout Through the Web

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Media Tenor has been tallying negative and positive media reports on the U.S. presidential race, while Your Media lets journalists blow the whistle on Big Media in Canada. We look at how the Web helps them get their message out.

The term "monitoring the media" has become so politicized in the United States that we instantly assume it has something to do with the obvious or ridiculous notion -- depending on your political orientation -- that there's a liberal media bias. But there are many other reasons to monitor the media, whether it's to track the way the media influences events or to track the treatment of journalists working at huge corporate behemoths.

While the Web has given numerous media watchdogs global reach, two groups in particular are using the Internet's reach and interactivity to bring international attention to issues that might have languished.

Media Tenor, based in Germany, has been doing non-partisan media monitoring since 1994, and is knee-deep in its second scientific analysis of coverage for the U.S. presidential election. And one of the largest media unions in Canada, TNG Canada, launched the Your Media site last month as a way to monitor giant media companies and provide a safe forum for journalists to discuss problems at those workplaces.

Media Tenor takes its media watching seriously, with more than 200 "coders" worldwide who watch newscasts and read stories; tally positive, negative and neutral statements; and create various line and bar graphs to show trends in coverage. Since January, the group has had free weekly reports on the presidential election, with tallies from the evening news programs on NBC, ABC and CBS. They will add coverage of CNN and Fox News, as well as the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, Time and Newsweek.

A recent report for the week of March 22-April 1 had a section headlined "CBS Maintains Firm Anti-Bush Stance" with far more negative statements made about Bush than on NBC or ABC. But CBS also had the most negative statements about Kerry during that week. One of Media Tenor's top-line conclusions for the week was that "Criticism of the Bush administration around the 9/11 investigations had a damning effect on President Bush's media image toward the end of March, but it improved in the last days of the month -- Bush even received better ratings than his Democratic opponent John Kerry."

CBS News spokeswoman Sandra Genelius had no comment on the work done by Media Tenor, but told me "the highest priority at CBS News is the fairness and accuracy of the reporting we put on the air, and that's what we spend our time and energy on."

Roland Schatz is co-founder of Media Tenor and its current editor-in-chief. He told me via e-mail that the group differentiates itself from other watchdogs by using scientific methods, doing continuous coverage for years at a time, and funding itself through commercial work for corporate clients.

"We code not only samples of the media we analyze, but every single edition that is published," Schatz said. "This enables us to draw a highly reliable picture of how good a job the media does, or of how successful social protagonists are in engaging the media agenda ?. Having started off as a non-profit organization, we soon found ourselves in the position of being dependent on the goodwill of donators -- which has led us to believe we can only really keep our independence by financing our own research interests through our own income. In this way, the research we do is about 30 percent client work -- financing our 70 percent of general research." 

While Media Tenor does have a quarterly print newsletter for $50 per year, its free Web site has brought a global readership of professors, journalists and students. In fact, the group has three sites: one in German, and two in English (with one of those focused on South Africa and the other on the U.S. and U.K.). The group plans to add a Weblog to the mix, with Schatz and some of its researchers including running commentary on trends in media coverage.

Gaining prominence through partnerships

With the rise of ideological journalism online (Salon) and on TV (Fox News), a non-partisan media watcher can play a valuable role as neutral observer, if it builds credibility and backs its theories with strong research. For the 2004 U.S. presidential race, Media Tenor currently has 10 media analysts who "code" the media, and three researchers analyzing the data -- and has plans to beef up staff. As you read through the reports online, you get a sense for how weekly news changes the negative and positive tenor of coverage at each outlet.

While Media Tenor's findings rely heavily on scientific research, it has worked with MediaChannel.org, a more liberal-leaning outfit that has attacked Bush regularly and works with AlterNet. Media Tenor took on the 2000 election as well, and came to a pretty stark conclusion about that historically tight race: The media gave more positive coverage to Bush than Gore, and helped sway the result.

"We monitored the media coverage of the 2000 elections, and the biggest finding of this analysis was about the immense role media played during the election, giving Bush the presidency," said Isadora Badi, communications coordinator for Media Tenor's U.S. office in New York. "We can say that without the media interference, the results would be different, for sure. The research of 2000 is still a brilliant case for studying the influence of media in politics, and we expect to bring an even broader discussion with this study in 2004."

Media Tenor's partnerships with American media watchdogs MediaChannel and the Center for Media and Public Affairs help bring its work to a broader audience -- including the book "Mediocracy 2000: Hail to the Thief" which was co-edited by Schatz and MediaChannel?s Danny Schechter.

Though the book and MediaChannel's general tone is anti-Bush, the work of Media Tenor on the whole remains grounded in research data. Badi told me via e-mail that the group's data is coded to have no personal influence from the people working on it.

"I understand it may sound we're adding our opinions in our reports, but the base of our work is to research without any personal views," she said. "If media is giving more favorable coverage to one candidate or another, our role is to show the results to society and allow journalists, researchers and voters to draw their own conclusions. If our results show Bush is being benefited by media, liberal sources will find this data useful to their purposes, and vice versa. If MediaChannel is eager to show them, we're glad in having our research used."

MediaChannel executive director Timothy Karr told me via e-mail that they worked with Media Tenor in 2000 as well as now in 2004 because of the group's neutrality.

"We worked with them during the 2000 elections and chose to go with them this year because of their rigorous methodology and political neutrality," Karr said. "While oft-cited in Europe and South Africa press, Media Tenor's media monitoring gets little attention in the States. They deserve more focus from U.S. media given the sketchy backgrounds of the other groups that have laid claim to unbiased analysis."

Taking on Big Media

While Media Tenor has a long history in watching media, Your Media's backers have a long history in antagonizing media owners. TNG Canada includes local unions that date back to the 1890s. Your Media has ambitions to be a clearinghouse of information on the largest media companies in Canada, with current sections on CanWest, Hollinger and Irving. There are subsections covering executive comments ("Bosspeak") as well as censorship and conflicts of interest ("The Perils"). Plus, an enMasse section exhorts people to join e-mail campaigns to warn the government about media concentration.

Arnold Amber is director of the union, and also is a TV producer for CBC's "Inside Media" show. We talked about the recent launch of Your Media in March and the ambitions of the project. While the union has spent 50,000 Canadian dollars on the site so far, with a full-time Webmaster, Amber laughed when I asked what the site's annual budget was. "We don't know," he said, adding that "things could change radically as the weeks go by."

Amber said that five or six large companies control all the newspapers in Canada, and they do a poor job of reporting on themselves. The site was created with the help of at least 10 union members who volunteered their labor and do not get bylines or published credit on the site. There's also a whistleblower forum for complaints that offers protection -- and validation -- of identities of journalists at these big companies. So far, there have been few takers in the forum, and just a few thousand visitors to the site.

Still, Amber is hopeful that the site can create a buzz that will bring it wider media attention, including at the very media outlets he is watching. The Web has given the union a worldwide platform for grievances as well. "[The Net] does give us an uncensored route to getting stories out about the media," Amber said. "It doesn't have to go through any particular publisher's scrutiny. It is accessible to anyone who gets on the Net. It's cheap, and it's interactive. When you put these things together it was really a smart idea."

The timing for the site is also good politically, as the Canadian Senate is doing a review of media ownership. An interim report by the Senate committee came to no conclusions, but did include testimony by TNG Canada and its concerns about media ownership and concentration.

Geoffrey Elliot, vice president for corporate affairs at CanWest, had no comment about Your Media, and wouldn't speak on the record for this story. The Senate interim report showed that CanWest and Quebecor owned newspapers with nearly 50 percent of total circulation in the country, with CanWest having 100 percent market share in English-speaking Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon and Vancouver.

"CanWest Global, which has yet to appear before the Committee, figured in much of the anecdotal evidence for diminished diversity," the report said. "Several witnesses emphasized editorial policies in the CanWest Global newspapers, especially the attempt to have a national editorial policy, and the dominance of CanWest Global in the Vancouver market, where the company publishes the two daily newspapers and owns the most popular local television station."

While there has been a lot of chatter about media concentration on both sides of the North American border, Your Media has the potential to bring more attention to the issue, especially if prominent journalists use the forum to detail ways that chains might lower journalistic integrity. That's reason enough to continue to watch the watchers -- online.

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Related Links
AlterNet
CBC's "Inside Media"
Center for Media and Public Affairs
Interim Report on the Canadian News Media
Media Tenor
Media Tenor Weekly Report for April 2 (Acrobat reader required)
MediaChannel.org
TNG Canada
Your Media
Your Media's enMasse
Your Media: CanWest Bosspeak
Your Media: CanWest Perils
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Arnold Amber, director of TNG Canada's Your Media: '[The Net] does give us an uncensored route to getting stories out about the media.'

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Roland Schatz, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Media Tenor: 'We can only really keep our independence by financing our own research interests through our own income.'

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