Anchors like Don Lemon, Joy Reid and Sean Hannity have long looked at Nielsen ratings as one of the primary measures of their performance on air. Soon, they may have another.
Magna, the large media-buying firm owned by Interpublic Group, has enlisted NewsGuard, a company that examines the veracity of news content and the ways in which it is produced, to grade news programing on TV for the parent company’s media clients, which include Johnson & Johnson, Grubhub and Merck, among others. NewsGuard, which relies upon journalists to determine whether a news outlet is accurate and transparent about the information it provides, will devise “nutrition labels” for more than 20 networks and more than 100 programs, says Allie Kalish, executive vice president and managing director of strategic investment and accountability at Magna.
“I think this is holding the networks to a new level,” says Kalish, in an interview. “It will get our news partners to start really thinking about the information they are pushing out to the world,” and might prod news outlets “to start being a little more responsible in how they are presenting the news, how they are presenting opinion.” NewsGuard, she says, will examine “the gamut,” and will keep tabs on everything from CBS News’ “60 Minutes” to NBC’s “Today” and “Dateline,” as well as cable-news networks and even C-SPAN.
The actual analyses for the shows aren’t ready yet, says Gordon Crovitz, co-CEO of NewsGuard, but “we’re hard at work on these, and these ratings will be done before the upfronts,” the industry’s annual advertising sales market.
Advertisers have long scrutinized digital news, choosing to keep their commercials and pitches away from stories that have “keywords” that connote controversy. The task is a tricky one, as certain terms can become charged and polarizing at a moment’s notice, depending on the hot topic at the center of the news cycle. But Magna’s new effort suggests that TV news, once a staid province that was formerly the domain of trusted figures like Walter Cronkite and Bernard Shaw, has in recent years become more unpredictable and precarious.
On cable, lines between straight-news reporting and opinion have become blurred. As anchors become more popular, their behavior on and off screen has become the subject of intense scrutiny. And some networks can’t even say with certainty which anchor or what sort of show they plan to use in some important time periods. MSNBC has yet to unveil its plans for its weekday 9 p.m. slot, where popular anchor Rachel Maddow is appearing with less frequency. CNN, in the midst of a transition in top executives, hasn’t articulated what it plans to do in the same period, which has not had a permanent anchor since the network and Chris Cuomo parted ways last year. Fox News Channel rotated hosts in shows like “Fox News Primetime” and “The Five” for months while it weighed talent decisions. And CBS News has yet to announce it has signed “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell to a new contract; her current one is believed to lapse in coming weeks.
There’s no guarantee Magna’s new offer will make a difference in how advertisers spend. Marketers need to generate millions of impressions among consumers to boost revenue, and as more TV viewers move to streaming, news programs attract the large live audiences Madison Avenue craves to meet its goals of spending efficiently.
“Our clients are going to do what they are going to do. They are going to buy who they want to buy, for whatever reason, and they are all valid reasons. We can only make recommendations on what we think is best,” says Kalish. But Magna wants to ensure “that our advertising does not fund any of the misinformation or disinformation, and spends toward partners that provide quality, factual information that enables people to make well-informed decisions.”
Yet Magna’s initiative comes at a moment when more mainstream news has come under intense scrutiny. Fox News faces two defamation lawsuits that have been allowed to proceed by the courts despite the company’s efforts to have them dismissed. The cases were filed by voting-technology companies Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems, and allege Fox News allowed false claims about their role in the 2020 presidential election to air repeatedly. Smartmatic is seeking $2.7 billion and Dominion Voting is seeking $1.6 billion. Fox News has said it will appeal the decision to let Smartmatic’s case move forward, and will defend itself against Dominion’s efforts. Sarah Palin, the former Republican candidate for U.S. Vice-President, in February lost a libel suit against The New York Times after failing to prove an editorial the newspaper published linking her political action committee to the 2011 shooting of former Arizona Rep. Gabby Giffords was done with preconceived malice. Even so, the editorial contained an error that was corrected within less than a day, and Palin’s legal team seized upon that to expose the news outlet’s internal processes.
In the weeks leading to the TV industry’s annual “upfront,” when TV networks and media buyers haggle over billions of ad dollars, many media companies declined to address the Magna initiative. WarnerMedia, owner of CNN, and NBCUniversal, owner of NBC News and MSNBC, declined to make ad-sales executives available for comment, as did Paramount Global, owner of CBS News, and Fox News Media, owner of Fox News Channel.
Disney wants advertisers to feel comfortable investing money in news programs, says Rita Ferro, president of Disney Advertising Sales, in an interview, citing research that shows “consumers expect brands to vet the news source before they choose to advertise with them.” She is not sure how advertisers may use the NewsGuard ratings in their early days of availability, but “given the size of news within our portfolio,” she says, Disney is interested in “anything we can do that helps elevate the value of news and news consumers.”
Madison Avenue spends millions of dollars each year on news programming. With midterm elections looming in the U.S., the months to come will be critical ones for the business of Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC. Fox News is seen taking in $905.7 million in ad revenue in 2022, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. That figure would mark an increase of 2.5% over 2021’s $883.8 million. CNN is projected to secure $793.8 million in advertising, a decrease of 2.6% from last year’s $815.1 million. And MSNBC is expected to nab $585.7 million, a 2% increase over 2021’s $573.9 million, according to Kagan.
Broadcast news programs also draw big cash. ABC News’ “World News Tonight,” the most-watched of the three broadcast evening-news programs, captured $39.2 million in 2021, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, while the first two hours of NBC’s “Today” drew $299 million. If one combined all three networks’ evening news programs, morning news shows and various ancillary hours of “Today” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” the total ad spend placed against them last year would total nearly $1.55 billion, according to Kantar.
Still, hard news has for the past few years spurred hard decisions by advertisers. As audiences around the globe splinter around all kinds of niche entertainment and viewing behaviors, news has often been transformed into something less universal — agreed-upon facts — and decidedly more partisan. Over the years, some advertisers have cut their support of so-called “single opinion” programs that have become so popular in cable’s primetime. What’s more, some digital sites that purport to offer information instead disseminate propaganda, disinformation, or prurient violence. The issue of so-called “keyword blocking” or keeping commercials away from digital content that includes hot-button terms and words, has become more intense, prompting concern that advertisers may punish traditional news sites simply for doing their job and reporting on the biggest stories in the news cycle.
In 2019, a committee of the 4As, a trade group that represents ad and media agencies, set out a new position outlining that “content that includes hate speech, supports terrorism, or graphically depicts death or suicide does not have a place on any platform or content provider online under any circumstances; however, the content of news covering such sensitive subjects should be re-classified based on each brand’s risk tolerance.”
That’s quite a change from concerns in decades past. An advertiser’s biggest worry used to be having a commercial appear adjacent to coverage of a major airline crash or war coverage. That issue, by the way, remains an active one. Applebee’s in February found one of its commercials appearing alongside early scenes of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and protested. “It never should have aired, and we are disappointed in the actions of the network,” the restaurant chain said in a statement.
Setting up criteria around how advertisers spend on news needs to be done with great care, says Yale Cohen, executive vice president of global standards and activation at Publicis Media Exchange, a large media-investment unit of Publicis Groupe. “Trying to grade the news networks without examining why consumers are watching particular programs misses an element of whether the content is suitable or objectionable to the consumer who is watching it,” he says. “Pulling ads based on opinion or analysis content might result in eliminating all of our clients from elections and politics, and we are going into a politics-heavy year.” Both advertisers and networks, he says, need to operate with a “clear understanding that journalism entities are not changing content to accede to advertiser demands, and advertisers have similar ability to control what content they support.”
NewsGuard originally formed to examine online news, where a significant amount of advertising is purchased through so-called “programmatic” means, or according to the dictates of algorithmic software. It hires journalists — veterans such as former Chicago Tribune executive James Warren and veteran Reuters and The Week editor Eric Effron are among its list of staffers — to analyze news presentations and environments. The company has looked for whether specific sites disclose their ownership or offer biographical information about its content creators. “You don’t expect a television show” to offer such detail, says Steve Brill, NewsGuard’s co-CEO, “but there is other stuff you could apply and could modify a little bit, which is what we are doing.”
NewsGuard has since its launch in 2018 offered “nutrition labels” for more than 7,500 web sites. Investors include Publicis Group as well as individuals such as Nicholas Penniman IV, the former publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and former cable executive Leo Hindery. Crovitz was formerly the publisher of The Wall Street Journal while Brill founded CourtTV and The American Lawyer.
The alliance with Magna could take NewsGuard’s methodology to new venues — or so its executives hope. NewsGuard’s efforts will be exclusive to the Interpublic Group unit for the next several months, as advertisers hash out billions of dollars in advance ad commitments as part of the industry’s upfront, but Brill sees broader potential. “If it works — we think it will work — it has all kinds of applications across agencies, across the TV ratings companies, and stuff like that,” he says.
One reason for the heightened study of news outlets is that more of them have devoted hours to opinion programming, which rely less on newsgathering and more on analysis or even speculation. MSNBC, for example, is expanding its “Morning Joe” to a fourth hour on weekdays starting in April, and has removed some weekend news hours in favor of opinion hosts. Fox News Channel rearranged its early evening and primetime schedule so that it now features a five-hour opinion-program block on weekdays. And CNN has in recent years given its hosts more leeway to express opinion and “hot takes” in various segments, both in daytime and primetime. Observers are waiting to see what policies may emerge under the ownership of new corporate parent Discovery.
Some news divisions have taken pains to try and separate facts from conjecture. MSNBC in March of last year retitled many of its daytime news shows in a bid to make their distinction from its opinion programs more pronounced. The phrase “MSNBC Reports” appears on chyrons during the news shows. At Telemundo, like MSNBC part of NBCUniversal, executives have launched an effort to give older Spanish-speaking viewers training on how to spot misinformation, teaming up with Poynter Institute’s MediaWise. “In Spanish-speaking communities, information goes in family circles, where the abuela or tia is saying, ‘The election is rigged,’” says Gemma Garcia, senior vice president for digital news. “Sharing these tips with the whole family is really one of the most important things we can do.”
Traditional news outlets ought to do more to burnish their journalism credentials, says Susan Walker, a journalism professor at Boston University’s College of Communications who studies media literacy. She suggests ratings could be one way of doing that. Social media allows anyone with a keyboard or a camera to act like they are transmitting information, she says, which means news aficionados often encounter unverified accounts from people who may have partisan leanings or relay inaccurate details. Meanwhile, new kinds of advertising are made to look much like newspaper reports or TV-news programs.
If such trends continue, “ratings like these are going to become as important as Nielsen ratings were back in the day,” Walker says, adding: “I understand the call for ratings, and the need for them.”