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News You Can Lose: Why Great Newscasts Fail

Move over Flesh Feast and Mortal Combat 4, make way for the meanest, baddest bloodmonger on the monitor: Local TV News.

That’s right. Local TV news is more violent than ever, according to a five-year study published in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR). It’s enough to make a news director pig-biting mad.

OK, that was the written equivalent of sound-bite journalism: Get the reader’s attention, summarize the story in five seconds, or kiss them good-bye. Journalism 101: The conundrum with the sound bite is that A) it diminishes complexities and erases nuance, and B) it works.

First of all, news directors who get pig-biting mad over a little criticism aren’t long for this world. In reality, most of them took the study with a grain of salt.

As for the results of the study, which measured the quality of local TV news and was conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), it did indeed demonstrate an increase in crime stories after 9/11. Subsequent coverage of the study in the November/December issue of the CJR, entitled “On The Road To Irrelevance,” led with the assertion that larger issues were neglected in favor of police scanner chasing. Yet the post-9/11 increase in crime reporting was only 1%. The overall findings of the survey were so diverse and sometimes contradictory that the hook was a 1% increase in crime coverage. That’s not to slam PEJ, which at least tried to quantify trends in local news, but it does suggest that the exercise is a little like measuring steam with a yardstick. (The sound-bite treatment also obscures a subtler contention that fiscal pressure à la the FCC on broadcast stations is having a deleterious effect on news.)

Thus, a more accurate headline for the CJR story might read: “The Road To Irrelevance Study Is Paved With Intentions.” And, if not for the sound-bite mentality, we might have led this story with “News Directors Shrug At Ambiguous Study.” But we openly admit our financial obligation to spellbind.

So?

Regarding the study, 1,200 hours of news consisting of 33,000 stories from 50 markets were analyzed over a five-year period, so accordingly, let’s reduce the findings to the following bites:
*Quality decreased as reporter workloads increased. (Naughty)
*The number of local angles on national stories decreased. (Naughty)
*The number of investigative stories decreased. (Naughty)
*The number of satellite-fed, voiced-over stories increased. (Naughty)
*Longer stories (five seconds longer, on average) held more viewers. (Nice)

Now let’s consider that each station was evaluated on two weeks’ worth of newscasts—a total of 10 hours each year. It then becomes apparent that those findings could have skewed quite differently based on the sample period.

“To do it on the basis of subject matter and length of stories is one way to measure quality, but I think you have to look at the overall mix,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the 3,000-member Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). “One of the Denver stations that was penalized for not having more investigative reporting simply didn’t have any on that week.”

The Denver station in question would be KMGH. The Front Range ABC affiliate got the only failing grade out of 53 English-language stations. Out of six quality criteria, KMGH received its lowest score in enterprise, aka investigative, reporting. This struck KMGH News Director Byron Grandy as odd, since the station took home six regional Emmy Awards for reporting, including two for the work of Investigative Reporter John Ferrugia.

“When I do thousands of hours of news a year, and they chose to look at five hours, that in itself is a pretty small sample,” he said.

KMGH is stronger in the earlier evening newscasts, and that’s where Grandy allocates the most resources, he said. The study analyzed his 10 p.m. newscast.

Atiba Pertilla, a research assistant at PEJ who helped compile the study, said the broader goal of the survey was to help TV stations. We asked if it did. Most responses fell somewhere between those of Tim Geraghty, vice president and news director at WTVJ (graded B) in Miami, and David Strickland, news director of KTRK (B) in Houston.

Geraghty: “We found it useful in several ways. It’s a reaffirmation that we provide a quality newscast in South Florida. [It’s] always nice to be reaffirmed by our peers that we’re doing a good newscast.”

Strickland: “It was not all that useful for us. It targeted two weeks out of 52 and paints with a broad brush what several academics believe, but doesn’t take into account audience make-up, genders, ethnic make-up, etc. To me it was an article beating up local news.”

The Report Card

In all, 12 stations received an A; 22 a B; 12 a C; six a D; and the one (KMGH) an F. While the majority of the news directors with whom we spoke said they appreciated the feedback of the survey, none indicated they would make major changes based on the results. Several pointed out the irony of a study that panned sound-bite journalism with sound bites.

WLTX, the CBS affiliate in Columbia, SC, got a grade of B, but was hand-slapped for having “40 percent canned events with no reporter,” according to the survey sound bite.

Rich O’Dell, WLTX general manager, said, “Two of our main reporters went to Los Angeles...right before the survey started. These things happen. That’s why there were 40% ‘canned’ stories.”

Dan Weiser, news director at KCRA, in Sacramento, was pleased that his station got an A, but baffled by his “sharply-down” ratings trend score. He said his evening numbers are up over last year. But he wasn’t scored on 2002 numbers—just 2002 newscasts. Stations were given a ratings-trend score on the basis of Nielsen books from February 1999 through November 2001.

Oddly, 11 out of the 12 stations that got a grade of A were flat or down in the ratings-trend. Uh-oh, another conundrum: quality versus ratings.

“They don’t factor in that a publicly owned station has to be commercially successful,” said Mike Devlin, news director at KHOU in Houston (graded B). “When America’s Funniest Home Videos gets twice the rating of a senate debate...that speaks to the public appetite. I wish they would at least question the appetite of the public. There’s a reason stations put on mother-daughter breast implants during sweeps...I’m not saying we shouldn’t be held accountable, but the public should be held accountable too.”

Devlin is actually onto that subtler contention—that fiscal pressure is having a deleterious effect on news. And he’s right that it wasn’t taken into account in the grading process. But it was an undercurrent in the CJR’s coverage of the survey:

“Budget cuts are killing quality...”

“...stations putting more of their budget toward staff and less toward equipment had better ratings trends.”

“Stations that invest their money in more people do better.”

Tom Rosenstiel, director of PEJ, has this to say: “Audiences are shrinking because technological change has created a proliferation of outlets and an oversupply of information. This results in lower revenues. But Wall Street, investor expectations, and anticipated FCC deregulation all have combined to persuade companies that they need to maintain and even grow profit margins despite the shrinking audience.

“Stations have reacted by either cutting costs, adding programs or both. The product has gotten thinner. In short, the TV industry is acting in a way that further alienates [the] audience. But since the ownership rules are about to change drastically, stations aren’t really thinking long term.

“Those forces are in place and are realities regardless of the type of owner. Different companies can react to them within a range, but the range is limited by public ownership and investor demand.”

Since we all know that Wall Street is Darwin’s petri dish, that leaves the FCC. As the federal agency charged with assuring the diversity and quality of the information on the public airwaves, is the FCC concerned that the forced expenditures of DTV are having a harmful effect on the quality of local news?

“I am not aware of any evidence that DTV costs affect spending on news\programs,” said an FCC source. “Broadcasters have known about the transition for years and so these expenditures are not unexpected.”

The source went on to say that newscast quality will be scrutinized in the FCC’s Biennial Review of Media Ownership Rules. “So the question of which stations do a better job with the quality and quantity of news is definitely a consideration in our review.”

Fortunately for the C-graded and below stations, PEJ is compiling a book from the study, which will surely shed more light on the geographic and temporal factors affecting news. In the meantime, we suggest that in the name of job security, news directors keep a running record of news content.

Deborah D. McAdams is a contributing editor. She can be reached at: dmcadams@uemedia.com.