Scott D. Pierce: Which local TV news operation is least biased?

What is the least biased TV news source in Salt Lake City? That depends on what you see as bias.

The question came up in an email from a newcomer to Utah who described himself as “very much a news junkie, but I can’t figure out which SLC station would be my best choice for local news.”

He added: "I’m not looking for anyone to validate my opinions, but given Channel 2’s ownership (Sinclair = really gross) and KSL’s affiliation with the LDS, I don’t know which to select. Am I just being neurotic? Or are Channel 4 or FOX 13 ([Fox] Corp also = gross) better choices?”

There are a lot of different ways to answer this question. But let’s follow the thread that this reader began and look at ownership of the four commercial Salt Lake City-area TV stations that produce their own newscasts.

The reader correctly pointed out the questions that surround KUTV-Ch. 2 (owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group) and KSL-Ch. 5 (owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). There are good journalists at both stations, but both news operations have issues because of their ownership.

• I know that many of KUTV’s reporters/anchors chafe under the Sinclair ownership, and I have never noticed it affect their local coverage. But the Sinclair national content — which pushes a right-wing political agenda — has increased in frequency and placement on Ch. 2′s newscasts. And I’m troubled by the consistent failure to note that “our national correspondent” works directly for Sinclair.

• KSL just assumes you know who owns that station, and I have never seen it acknowledge the conflict when it covers the church. Or anything related to members of the church. And, clearly, the conflict is there.

(Full disclosure: KSL management has criticized me on occasion for failing to include a disclaimer that The Salt Lake Tribune had a newsgathering agreement with KUTV, and now has one with FOX 13. Yes, I’ve forgotten at times. No, I’ve never been told what to write by or about either station. And, by the way, KSL execs were mad at me when I criticized their station while I worked for the also-church-owned Deseret News.)

• KTVX-Ch. 4 is owned by Nexstar Media Group, which recently surpassed Sinclair as the largest station group in the country. Nexstar does not have a reputation for political activism; its PAC donates more to Republicans than Democrats, but it’s not a huge imbalance. Nexstar does have a reputation for being bottom-line oriented, and clearly doesn’t spend a huge amount on its news operation here.

• Again, The Tribune has a news-gathering agreement with FOX 13 ... although that in no way influences what I’m telling you here. (I often offer my opinion in my television columns, but this is fact.)

FOX 13 is a Fox affiliate; it is not owned by Fox Corp. It’s no different than the network affiliations of KUTV (CBS), KTVX (ABC) and KSL (NBC). Fox News Channel does not oversee news at Ch. 13. The only ties are occasional FNC reports in local newscasts (you’ll also see CNN-produced reports); national coverage of things like the State of the Union; and the “Fox News Sunday” show.

In 2013, FOX 13 was sold to Tribune Media (which is in no way associated with The Salt Lake Tribune). Just last month, Nexstar completed its purchase of Tribune Media and turned around and sold FOX 13 (because of FCC ownership rules) to the E.W. Scripps Company. Scripps has a good reputation for staying out of local news decisions — and hasn’t pushed a national, political agenda.

Of course, all four local stations are in business to make money, so the bottom line can (and does) dictate journalism decisions. But that’s the way the TV news ownership situation — and, perhaps, bias — stands in Salt Lake City today.