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Production over coverage.

While the public is looking more and more to television news for local coverage, some local television news departments have veered off course from the mission stated in the Communications Act of 1934: serve "the public convenience, interest and necessity...."

Despite television's role as an entertainment medium to create a showplace for advertisers, the 10 percent to 15 percent of a week's broadcast time devoted to news remained fairly sacrosanct until the 1980s.

All stations sought the highest ratings, but most stories were held to high standards and coverage included a broad mix of breaking news and enterprise reporting.

But the fractionalization of the viewing audience by cable, the flattening of retail business growth and the deregulation of broadcasting have conspired to tilt the balance at some stations toward a heightened concern for ratings and a decreased concern for quality content.

In too many cities, local television news is characterized by a degradation of reporting and a marked narrowing of the local news agenda.

Certain formats and technologies have colluded to undercut quality. "Live at Five," pioneered by WNBC in the 1980s in New York City, replaced traditional news topics with a stream of celebrity interviews and lifestyle features, blurring the concept of local news content. Tabloid television significantly lowered the standards for good taste by focusing on the underside of society. And the extensive use of live remotes on local television news shifted the assignment desk's emphasis from news coverage to news production.

Television news looks great. News production keeps improving and the technology now allows for the transmission of live, compelling, breaking news. But these advancements have rarely been accompanied by an equally ambitious commitment to enterprise reporting.

Crime is a legitimate concern in most American cities, so the coverage of crime and crime-fighting certainly addresses viewers' interests. But often crime coverage has become an obsession.

Have news staffs been so reduced in the current battle to save dollars that they no longer can get the job done? Breaking news events are announced on the police radio. Enterprise journalism, however, requires planning, foresight, and some digging. Enterprise reporting also compels a news organization to determine its community's concerns and to produce stories addressing those concerns.

Besides the lack of enterprise reporting and a clear agenda, there are other criteria for evaluating local news:

1. Quality control. Does anyone fact-check copy before it goes on the air or critique weak stories after they are broadcast?

2. What are the standards for live remotes? Are live reports as well-edited and well-written as taped field reports? Are remotes given extra time, because they are live, without regard to their news value?

3. Are stations hyping the news? Are promos and teases promising much more than the stories deliver?

4. Do anchors know the city, its people, or the area's powerbrokers? Do they know enough to guide viewers through an election night or a major disaster?

5. Where do news-coverage dollars flow? Did local stations send a reporter to Waco to cover the Branch Davidian standoff? Is there really a local angle when stations pull stories off a satellite?

6. Do reporters report the news or spout speculation? Do reporters have enough time to research stories and ask questions? Are they telling viewers what apparently happened, rather than what they can confirm really happened?

7. Does the assignment editor know the community? Did the editor work the streets as a reporter? Does the editor understand local interests and local mores?

8. Are stations production-driven or news-driven? Are stations more concerned about how a story looks than what it says?

A few years ago that little old lady in the Wendy's commercial raised the relevant question: "Where's the beef?"

It's impressive to watch breaking news from just about anywhere, festooned with electronic graphics and video effects. But the fundamental issue is how broadcasters are filling the electronic bun.

If stations are not satisfying their viewers' growing appetite for local news, their credibility will decline, and their mission will go unfulfilled.

The public deserves better--and so do television journalists.
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Title Annotation:Bad News, assessment of local television news
Author:Steinle, Paul
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Money talks.
Next Article:No investigative reporting.

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