Each quarter, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) releases a report documenting the number of complaints that the agency receives. The numbers that they gather for "indecency" related complaints are increasingly drawing the most attention. Indeed, these numbers are mentioned frequently in news reports and are also cited by many lawmakers as the driving force underlying federal efforts to crack down on unseemly broadcast content.
But what do we know about these numbers and how they are gathered? Like most people, I've always just taken it for granted that most government statistics are accurate and can be trusted. I know there are flaws in some statistically gathering efforts (consider inflation or productivity numbers), but at least the government is doing it's best to accurately gauge those trends. And, so, I figured the same was true of FCC indecency data.
Sadly, however, that doesn't appear to be the case. Indeed, as my new paper "Examining the FCC's Complaint-Driven Broadcast Indecency Enforcement Process" shows, the FCC now measures indecency complaints differently than all other types of complaints and does so in a way that artificially inflates indecency tallies relative to other types of complaints.
This study reveals that the FCC now measures indecency complaints differently than all other types of complaints. In so doing, it permits a process whereby indecency complaints appear to be artificially inflated relative to other types of complaints.
How did this happen? In recent years the FCC has quietly and without major notice made two methodological changes to its tallying of broadcast indecency complaints, both changes urged upon the FCC by a single advocacy group -- the Parents Television Council -- targeting broadcast indecency:
* On July 1, 2003, the agency began tallying each computer-generated complaint sent to the FCC by any advocacy group as an individual complaint, rather than as one complaint as had been done previously. The advocacy group benefiting from that change had challenged the FCC to make the change by June 30th and boasted later that it was responsible for the FCC's redirection, citing reassurances of FCC commissioners.
* In the first quarter of 2004 -- the time when the Super Bowl incident with Janet Jackson occurred -- the FCC began counting complaints multiple times if the individual sent the complaint to more than one office within the FCC. This change, which had the capability of increasing by a factor of 5 or 6 or 7 the number of complaints recorded, was noted in a footnote of that quarter's FCC Quarterly Report. The footnote acknowledged that "[t]he reported counts may also include duplicate complaints or contacts..."
My study also documents the influence of the Parents Television Council on this process. For many years, the PTC has pressured the FCC to change their methodology to give greater weight to their computer-generated e-mail complaint campaigns. It appears their efforts paid off and now the PTC and other groups are essentially able to "stuff the ballot box" in terms of inflating indecency complaints at the FCC and potentially spurring increased regulatory
activism as a result.
I encourage you to read my study for more details. It is my hope that policy makers are willing to consider these flaws in the current complaint process before basing new laws and regulations on flawed data.