Here’s What a Regurgitated Press Release Sounds Like
Shame on National Public Radio for broadcasting as “news” RIAA’s press release announcing that it would reinvigorate lawsuits against law students and, perhaps, colleges and universities because of allegedly illegal trading of digital music.
Wendy Kaufman, a veteran who has been reporting for NPR for quite some time, violates several core journalistic principles in presenting this “story.” First, Kaufman uses a sole source for the “story.” Even in today’s news environment — where bloggers routinely eschew sourcing, and even established newspapers present confidentially- and single-sourced stories with alarming frequency — a sole source story is lazy at best, contemptuously unprofessional at worst.
Second, the source Kaufman quotes twice in her reportage — RIAA president Cary Sherman — is a highly interested party whose primary purposes for being interviewed are to disseminate a message concerning prospective organizational actions, and framing that message as news in an attempt to legitimize a broader commercial initiative by a consortium of private businesses. In other words, Sherman is a lobbyist who has “an ax to grind.” One of the first rules of journalism is a reporter never present as news the sole, exclusive opinion of a party with an ax to grind. Worse than contemptuously unprofessional, doing this slides toward unethical. Kaufman has enough experience to know better.
Third, Kaufman presents no reportage that challenges or disputes the story’s central contention: that there is a correlation between the music industry’s economic health and college students’ music trading activity. For a moment, let’s put aside salient factors such as (1) in this most recent threatened litigation campaign, the RIAA is alleging infringing behavior without proof; (2) the RIAA does not have the names of students it claims are illegally trading music files; (3) and that the RIAA is asking universities to send threatening letters to students based upon a set of IP addresses. (To her credit, Kaufman reported points two and three.)
Recently, Copycense readers were informed of a comprehensive study published in the Journal of Political Economy that empirically dismisses the correlation between so-called file trading and music company sales.
We repeat the paper’s core conclusion:
[T]he estimated effect of file sharing on sales is not statistically distinguishable from zero. … On the basis of all specifications presented in this paper, even our least precise results, we can reject the hypothesis that file sharing cost the industry more than 24.1 million albums annually (3 percent of sales and less than one-third of the observed decline in 2002).
Additionally, we recall that National Public Radio contributing correspondent Rick Karr has reported a number of stories (both for NPR and as a contributor to the PBS television show NOW) in recent years that calls into question the same correlation that the JPE article conclusively dispelled when it was published in mid-February.
Why, then, did Kaufman and NPR editors fail to present such information as a counter to the RIAA’s position?
But don’t assume we’re right. We ask that you compare Kaufman’s RIAA report with Brian Naylor’s report on the proposed Sirius-XM Satellite merger, which immediately followed Kaufman’s report on the March 1 edition of NPR’s Morning Edition show. We believe that after you compare the two reports, you’ll also conclude that Kaufman’s report is seriously flawed.
This begs the question: after all this time — with so much compelling data, evidence, and scholarship that indisputably rejects the entertainment industry’s attempts to correlate allegedly illegal trading of music files and reduced album sales — why does the press continue to perpetuate this framed issue?
Wendy Kaufman. Music Industry Takes Anti-Piracy Effort to Campus. National Public Radio. March 1, 2007.
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