Local News: If It Bleeds, It Shouldn't Lead

Years of sensational coverage haven't rescued TV news from ratings freefalls, and a new study suggests a quick application of quality might help patch things up.
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Scenes from the local evening news: a shrill breaking-news report from the scene of the crime; a fear-mongering story about the latest health or consumer scare; perhaps a news-you-can-use featurette that is neither newsy nor useful. For years, local news producers have led their stations in a race to the bottom, driven by the prevailing belief that "eyeball grabbers" and "soft news" are the only hope for local news in an era of declining TV audiences.

But a 2004 study* argues that they might want to rethink their approach. In "The Local News Story: Is Quality a Choice?" political science professors Todd L. Belt and Marion Just conclude that sensationalistic news does not lead to sensational ratings.

Belt, assistant professor at the University of Hawai'i, Hilo, and Just, a professor at Wellesley College and the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, argue that the prevailing worldview in the nation's newsrooms has it all backward: Good, solid journalism, not tawdry, tabloid-style content, keeps viewers tuned to their TVs.

Belt and Just's study used a monumental data set of nearly 34,000 news stories from 154 TV stations in 50 TV markets across the country. The stories were scored for their quality, which was determined by five criteria set by a team of news professionals and affirmed in a national survey of news directors: significance, journalistic enterprise (high expenditure of time and resources), balance, authoritativeness and community relevance. The authors then analyzed the relationship between newscast quality and Nielsen ratings, controlling for factors such as time slot, lead-in program, network affiliation and market size.

What Belt and Just found certainly goes against industry conventional wisdom.

"The data show quality journalism produces commercial success," they write. Newscasts that posted high scores on the quality index nabbed higher ratings than their mediocre counterparts. The finding held true for both the early and late evening news time slots. It also held for lead stories, suggesting that the old TV news mantra — "If it bleeds, it leads" — might be in need of revision.

Although local news viewership as a whole fell during the period covered by the study — 1998 to 2002 — the data nonetheless show that those stations that produced high-quality newscasts did better in hanging on to their audience.

One point that Belt and Just make is that it's not just the substance but also style of the news program that makes a difference. They tell the story of "The 10 O'Clock News with Carol Marin," a Chicago station's attempt at a substantive news program that lasted for only eight and a half months. While some saw the failure as proof that audiences didn't want quality news, Belt and Just posit that it was the presentation that was the problem. Belt and Just write, "The sets were dark, the graphics were bland and viewers were treated with large doses of 'talking heads.'"

"Some people called it PBS on CBS," Belt said, stressing, "how you tell the stories is important."

For the most part, presentation is not the issue with local news. "We did not find a problem with 'production values' of local news," Just said. "What we found lacking was in the area of journalism values — multiple sources, multiple points of view, balance of views, experts or data to back up assertions, focus on importance to the community."

In other words, how local newscasts tell their stories is already good enough — it's the content that needs to be improved.
The paper grew out of an earlier study that was part of a 2002 report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism on local TV news. (The findings from that report were expanded into a book published last year.) According to Just, the study was motivated by a desire to help improve local broadcast journalism. "The major point of the research is that the quality of material you put on the air is a choice," Just said. And as their study shows, "There is no reason to assume that you lose audience if you do good work."

Response to the study from news industry professionals has been generally positive. Tom Rosenstiel, the PEJ's director and a co-author of the book that emerged from the 2002 PEJ study, wrote in an e-mail that ABC news anchor Charles Gibson bought a copy of the book to give to every news director in the ABC family. Just said that she has heard from a couple of news professionals who say they are trying to implement the study's recommendations.

Indeed, a change may well be in order considering the ratings freefall in which TV news finds itself. Belt and Just note that years of tabloid TV have not discernibly helped local stations. "In spite of increasingly sensationalized story-telling and a focus on crime, local TV news viewership has declined along with television audiences in general," they write.

But the fact remains that little has changed. Just said a follow-up analysis of newscasts in 2005 showed "nothing grossly different than what we've seen before." It raises the question: If high-quality journalism does in fact correlate with commercial success, why do news directors continue to stick to their tired course?

The authors attribute it to the entrenched worldview and "received wisdom" in local TV newsrooms. Belt says that news directors are "trapped in this cycle of what they think they know." Just argues that "the real question is whether or not stations are willing to take the risk of doing something different."

Part of the problem is the steep cost associated with improving newscasts, along with the ever-accelerating push for profits that can end up squeezing news operations. "You need to train and retrain your reporters. You have to assign less stories," Belt said, citing moves that cost time and resources that many stations might be unwilling to spare. Given that, as Rosenstiel wrote in an e-mail, "the pressures [on newsrooms] we saw growing in the five years studied have continued to intensify," improving local news remains something of a tall order.

Still, Belt and Just's findings at least suggest the beginnings of a change for the better — namely, the unmistakable demand for higher quality.

"There's a hunger out there for better journalism," Belt said. Considering that local TV news continues to be the most popular source of public affairs information for Americans, Belt and Just's findings could have potentially important implications for the public discourse.

Just is optimistic about the prospects for improvement. Based on what she observed in the content analysis, Just noted, "We did see changes over time in the stations. Change can happen. It's not impossible." She added that the research has given her new ideas about how to improve the local TV news landscape. "One of the things we might want to think about is whether not-for-profit news is an alternative."

* An earlier version of this story misstated the presentation date of the paper written by Todd L. Belt and Marion Just. It was presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in September 2004.

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