On story about budget cuts at USF, has WTSP 10 News crossed the line from reporting to advocacy? Yes, say station execs

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With hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars at stake, not to mention the thousands of faculty and students impacted, the debate over proposed budget cuts to the University of South Florida is one of the biggest stories coming out of the 2012 legislative session.  Naturally, the ramifications of the story are of particular interest to those in Tampa Bay, where USF is one of the region’s leading economic generators.

It’s no wonder then that the local media — newspapers, blogs, and radio and television stations — have, in the words of former New York Times editor Howell Raines,  ‘flooded the zone’ by dispatching extra reporters, offering “special coverage”, etc.

One local media outlet, television station WTSP 10 News, has been especially, um, forceful in their coverage, deliberately blurring the line dividing reporting from advocacy.

After news broke that USF would be on the disproportionate end of legislative budget cuts, 10 News sprung into action, producing a story headlined “#SaveUSF pleads 10 News campaign as Senate weighs massive budget cuts.”

It’s obvious from that headline, the text of the report and subsequent coverage that 10 News was taking an advocacy side for the university.

Just as interesting, executives at 10 News are proud of the position they have taken.

“There are stories (such as the USF budget cuts) that you have a gut reaction to or situations that don’t pass the smell test,” says Peter Roghaar, WTSP’s News Director.

The problem with that, says Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member for broadcasting and online at The Poynter Institute’s, is whether the station is “open to any other explanation.”

“Will those who disagree be treated fairly?” asks Tompkins.

Roghaar argues that what WTSP is doing is nothing new.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” writes Roghar in an email to me. “Two well-known examples would be Woodward and Bernstein and the Washington Post taking a stand in their reporting of the Watergate scandal or Edward Murrow taking a stand for migrant workers with his “Harvest of Shame” documentary.”

Taking an advocacy position may not be new to journalism, but is it new to 10 News?

What started my inquiry into this matter was an email from a reader who wrote:

“I was watching WTSP’s coverage Wednesday night of the USF budget controversy, and one item really caught my attention. They mentioned that someone from Facebook asked why they were taking such a proactive advocacy stand on this topic, and they (Preston Rudie and Reginald Roundtree) mentioned on air that this is a new effort from their corporate parent company, Gannett, to take stands on certain local issues of the day.”

Roghaar dismisses any suggestion that the advocacy coverage was a top-down corporate initiative or a ratings ploy. “Any decisions on what stories to cover, questions to ask, “stands to take”, etc are made on the local level by 10 News management.”

Finally, I think it’s important to note that I completely agree with the stand 10 News has taken, regardless of its journalistic implications and that the station has done a particularly commendable job following this story long before it came to a head on Tuesday.

That said, it’s hard to disagree with Poynter’s Tomkins, who said, as a viewer, he appreciates 10 News coverage of the issue, but that “one of the best things that any journalist can do for a community is to simply find answers and report them.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.