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Golden Age of Newscasts is Now — on NPR

New research compares coverage of overseas news on Edward R. Murrow’s CBS and modern-day NPR, and finds public radio superior in numerous ways.
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Edward R. Murrow is, deservedly, a revered figure in broadcast news. His on-the-scene coverage of the Nazi bombing of London brought the terrifying realities of World War II to American listeners in a uniquely palpable way. Murrow not only personified the idea of a foreign broadcast correspondent: He essentially invented the role.

But how do his reports, and those of his CBS colleagues, hold up today? Iowa State University researcher Raluca Cozma addressed that question by comparing two sets of morning newscasts: One produced by CBS radio in the early 1940s, the other produced by NPR in the mid-2000s.

Cozma’s conclusion: The work of Murrow and his men remains impressive, but on most counts, NPR’s coverage was superior.

“NPR outshines the golden-age performance, suggesting that we should stop taking reverential trips down memory lane when assessing broadcast reporting,” she writes in the journal Journalism Studies. Specifically, Cozma found NPR coverage “matches or outshines the Murrow Boys’ performance” in terms of originality, diversity of subject matter and diversity of sources.

Cozma analyzed the content of two nationally broadcast news programs: CBS’s international news roundup, The World Today, from September 1940 to September 1942, and NPR’s Morning Edition from March 2004 to March 2006. Both sets of broadcasts were dominated by war coverage: World War II on CBS, and the second Iraq War on NPR.

Not surprisingly, the CBS stories tended to be shorter — 225 words, compared to 755 in the average NPR piece. (The World Today was a 15-minute newscast, while Morning Edition contains two hours of original material.)More telling are the two networks’ differences in approach.

“The golden-age correspondents, the results show, were more likely than today’s NPR reporters to cover political stories (almost 90 percent) and hard news (93 percent) and to draw on official sources and local media in the countries they covered, despite Murrow’s avowed preference for the stories of the common people,” Cozma writes. “In fact, only 4 percent of the CBS stories used average witnesses as sources.

“The Murrow Boys were as likely as the NPR correspondents to cover institutionally driven stories (one-third each). They covered more event-driven stories (63 percent versus 49 percent at NPR), but fewer reporter-driven stories (5 percent compared to 15 percent at NPR).

“The NPR correspondents use more sources overall, and give more voice to average people in particular,” she notes, adding that they also “cover a more diversified pool of stories and do more original foreign news gathering.”

Murrow strove to inform “both the truck driver and the professor,” two groups of professionals who presumably listen to different stations today. So it’s interesting to note that the mass-audience CBS broadcasts relied far more heavily on statements by official sources (who represented 45 percent of sources compared to 27 percent at NPR). In contrast, NPR paid far more attention to the voices of ordinary people (17 percent of sources, compared to only 4 percent on CBS).

None of this should be interpreted as criticism of Murrow. Cozma notes that the CBS team was working without any sort of precedent, and that the correspondents and producers were laboring under “technological constraints that do not exist today.”

Given the limitations they faced, these groundbreaking journalists did remarkable work. It’s just that the NPR team is doing even better.