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Taming The Beast.

How can local television news operations meet demands for high ratings while providing meaningful, responsible coverage?

That's the challenge that was explored by TV news professionals and members of the public at an AJR/Ford Foundation conference.

Executive producer Janice Gin and her troops at San Francisco's KGO-TV joke that they toil for "the beast"--their nickname for the local news operation and its constant, high-pressure demands. Reporter Angela Davis and her colleagues at Dallas' WFAA-TV call it "the monster."

Their metaphors conjure up the immense power and potential of local television news.

At its worst, it's a hulking, insatiable brute, lurching from one bloody feast to another, regurgitating a gruel of highway wrecks, yellow police tape and natural disasters between bouts of chest thumping. It breeds fear, leaving viewers huddled in their homes. It's loco news, practically begging for an appetite suppressant.

At its best, it's a benevolent force, examining community issues, exposing wrongdoing, identifying threats from oncoming storms and insidious diseases, paying tribute to a top high school marching band. It reflects and unifies and motivates those who watch.

Assessing the beast's general health and diagnosing its ailments were two aspects of "Public Attitudes Toward Local TV News," third in a series of four conferences on the larger topic of "Journalism and the Public Trust." All are being hosted by the American Journalism Review and funded by the Ford Foundation. But perhaps a more important function of the March 27 forum--at the Newseum's broadcast studio in Arlington, Virginia--was to pen a prescription for improvement.

In four hourlong discussions, panels of news professionals and members of the public considered local television news: what it emphasizes and excludes, the effort it requires, the forces that affect it, and what constitutes responsible coverage.

"Many critics and other journalists in print deplore local news.... But audiences seem to love it," moderator Robert MacNeil said in opening the day's discussions. Best known for his 20 years as co-host of "The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour," he earlier worked for local radio and television news operations in London, Ottawa and New York. He noted that surveys, such as a March 1998 Gallup Poll, show respondents trust local TV news more than any other source except CNN and public television, and that local TV news is a primary information source for an estimated 80 million Americans. (See "A Matter of Trust," July/August 1998.)

"So I approach this topic with real prejudice and real curiosity," MacNeil said, "to see if we can shed some light on this paradox."

Does the beast need restraining? Do its handlers, and maybe its audiences, need retraining? As the panel discussions underscore, a simplistic Rx just won't do.

PANEL 1

Where Is the Substance?

Shaping a newscast would be so much easier if viewers could congeal into a single, homogeneous mass. But, no, they bring disparate interests and distinctive tastes to the La-Z-Boy. While one person perks up at a stow on shady contracts for a publicly financed stadium, another mentally drifts until the weather forecast, and a third flips channels for sports scores. News to one means snooze or rechoose to others.

"You've got a lot of masters to serve," says Larry Rickel, president and CEO of the communications consulting firm Broadcast Image Group, in San Antonio, Texas. "The challenge in every newsroom is to try to identify what the people will care about"--a mission complicated by sex, age, income, ethnicity, geography and countless other factors.

Merely defining local news, never mind ranking topics of importance, is in itself a challenge. In Rickel's opinion, it's "news that's interesting to me personally and also that happens where I live. A story about a car seat recall is local news, even though the plant that makes the car seat is not in the town I live in. But it's still important to me and my family."

To Ann-Nora Hirami, a high school teacher in the Detroit suburb of Romeo local newscasts are bloated with crime, weather and sports coverage. "But substantive reporting of educational issues, things that in a small conservative town they want to know more about ... are sorely lacking." She complains that local television undercovered problems in Detroit public schools until they reached a crisis, with Republican Gov. John Engler this spring calling for the installation of a new, reform-minded school board for Michigan's largest city.

Bill Rust of Baltimore sounds a similar complaint. Editor of AdvoCasey, a new publication of the Annie E. Casey Foundation that promotes successful programs for disadvantaged children, he's keyed in to youth issues. He thinks local TV news effectively and dramatically "can cover a very tragic case of child abuse.... It does a less-good job of covering the whole child welfare system" and its systemic problems, such as social workers' mounting caseloads.

"But isn't a particularly brutal case of child abuse a way into the child welfare system?" MacNeil prods.

Yes, Rust says. "But if you just stop the coverage at this tragedy and have your moment of community outrage and then just leave it there, you've lost a great opportunity."

It's not for lack of trying, Elaine Higgins responds. The Emmy-winning managing editor of UPN 9 News/WWOR-TV in Secaucus, New Jersey, says her news team struggles with how to bring complex issues to the small screen.

"But we find that the audience tunes out," she laments. "It's a constant challenge for us to find a way to produce these types of stories" without boring unaffected or indifferent viewers in the fiercely competitive New York market.

"To say local news covers crime stories and leaves out stories of greater depth, I think, is a shallow interpretation and not true," Higgins adds passionately. She brings up viewers expectations and their impact on the hourlong 10 p.m. newscast, the station's only one except for afternoon updates.

Viewers, exposed to earlier reports from a variety of sources, "anticipate what the lead story is going to be.... At one time, we did not want to copy the newspapers," she says, mentioning the New York Daily News and the sensationalistic New York Post. "But we found out if we don't have the stories that those papers are leading with, people feel that we don't know what the news is."

The viewers Rickel encounters in focus groups and surveys don't necessarily object to crime stories, he says. "They tend to be much more critical of the volume of something as opposed to the specific nature. It's not so much a crime story, it's when you do three crime stories in a row." Or three courtroom stories.

Readily available syndicated material sometimes displaces community news, MacNeil points out. Many stations run "series of 20-second clips on disasters or crime that ... have no bearing whatsoever on the [lives] of the people in that community except to excite them," he says, mentioning footage of a New Zealander hanging from a helicopter.

Higgins says her station ran that clip and regularly includes others with no local angle. "In addition to doing local news, we try to give a picture of what's going on globally," she says, nodding when MacNeil compares it to Life Magazine's "Picture of the Week" for an earlier generation. "And if it's particularly compelling video, we might lead with it."

Getting attention is what it's all about. The competition isn't just with other newscasts, Rickel reminds. It's with print, radio and online information sources, with work and personal obligations, with in-the-flesh humans, all clamoring for time.

On the tube alone, "There may be a syndicated `Friends' on one [station], there may be `Jerry Springer' on another. Plus you have cable," Rickel says. "And it's not unusual ... that when the news is on, more than 60 percent of the people who are watching TV aren't even watching broadcast television."

"The remote control is our enemy," Higgins sighs.

To Rust, the more worrisome villain is corporate greed. "My concern is [that] what makes good television, such as these crime and disaster stories, is also fairly inexpensive to report compared to real enterprise journalism. Structural, financial pressures," he notes, "demand very high profit margins from local news operations."

"Is it cheaper to go and cover the latest shooting?" MacNeil asks. "Is crime cheap to report?"

"It's easy to respond to in a hurry, but covering crime stories can also uncover stories of great importance," Higgins says, reviving an earlier argument. Besides, four of the station's 17 reporters belong to an investigative unit. "They don't respond necessarily to local news of the day--homicides, fires, et cetera. They're looking for more issue-oriented programming."

To illustrate her point, Higgins has brought a tape of an "I-Team" expose of widespread corruption in the New York City Housing Authority. "A group of inspectors taking bribes, putting residents in city housing at risk and pocketing your tax dollars," the anchor intones. The video reveals city inspectors paid to overlook hazardous conditions--and a solid reporting effort by the I-Team.

Still, a couple of tactics prompt head-shaking from those in attendance. "Elements of it reminded me of the film `GoodFellas,'" says Steve Barkin, an associate professor at the University of Maryland College of Journalism. He objects to an ambush interview and a tight shot of hands "turning over money, [a re-enactment] which in another era would have been not an appropriate technique for nonfiction journalism."

But that era, "when there were only networks and only network standards," is long gone, MacNeil says. Syndicated shows such as "A Current Affair" and "America's Most Wanted," "which have no squeamishness at all about re-creations and trying to make things exciting," have changed the context for viewing news. The actions in the News 9 clip "are mild compared to the world in which local news exists now," he says.

Rickel says he supports visuals such as counting money, if they help people understand the information. Communication is the bottom line, he says. "If local news wasn't working, people wouldn't be watching."

PANEL 1

JOURNALISM PARTICIPANTS

Elaine Higgins Managing editor UPN 9 News/WWOR-TV Secaucus, New Jersey

Larry Rickel President and CEO Broadcast Image Group San Antonio, Texas

Bill Rust Freelance writer Baltimore

NONJOURNALISM PARTICIPANT

Ann-Nora Hirami Teacher Romeo High School Romeo, Michigan

PANEL 2

Judgment Calls

Paul Klite recognizes the difficult job TV news teams have filtering and editing "all the things that are happening not only locally, but all around the world." What he doesn't always understand are the judgments rendered.

"On balance," he says, "day after day, the news does seem out of whack to me."

Rocky Mountain Media Watch, the nonprofit citizen activist group he founded and leads, has surveyed local newscasts four times since 1995. Its dismal findings might make you want to pull the plug. Klite frets that "the same formula is at work" at stations across America: "a heavy dose of violence, a heavy dose of triviality, a tremendous amount of commercials ... and very little attention to a whole range of topics that affect our communities."

There's been little change in the crime focus over the four years, Klite says, "even though [serious] crime levels across the U.S. have been falling" for most of the decade, according to FBI statistics.

Klite's conclusions are based on a methodology that falls shy of scientific. On a given night, volunteers around the country choose a newscast in their respective market, tape it and send the video to Media Watch's Denver headquarters. Each newscast is analyzed and its contents tallied in 26 categories.

Among the 102 newscasts surveyed in 52 markets on March 11, 1998, crime was the favorite topic, with 525 separate stories representing almost 27 percent of that night's airtime. (This level was lower than the record high of 33 percent registered in '97.) The next most popular topics, ranked by total airtime, were: disasters (12.2 percent), health (10.1), government (8.7), economics (8.5) and "soft" news (4.1). Issues such as arts and culture, civil rights, labor, AIDS and science barely made a blip.

"Each year," Klite says, the survey reaffirms that "`if it bleeds, it leads' is still the dominant maxim on local TV news all across the country."

"I think that might be a little bit of a blanket generalization," Angie Kucharski says in defense of the country's more than 2,000 local stations. She's been at five of them since earning a master's degree from Northwestern University in 1988, serving now as news director for Denver's KCNC. She left the same post in April at WBNS, the station's sister CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio.

Maybe the survey's classifications are misleading, Kucharski says. At a crash scene, the resulting report "may be the stow of the man who went in and saved somebody. Is that a violent stow? Not really; it's a story of heroics." In building a newscast, Kucharski adds, "We don't sit with a scoreboard and say, `OK, we have two crime stories today, we have two mayhem.'"

Other considerations arise at stoW conferences throughout the day, she says. "Is there anything we can do better to explain a story, to put some perspective on it? Are there any issues that we haven't followed up on?"

"A lot of time and thought goes into what we choose to cover, how much time we devote to it and where it plays in the newscast," insists Angela Davis, a Fort Worth-based reporter for WFAA in Dallas. "In my own newsroom, we cover ... a lot of stories that never make air, because through the selection process we realize this is not particularly significant, this is not unique, this isn't really going to affect anyone other than the three people who were involved in that crime."

MacNeil points out that a majority of American television viewers share the sentiments of Patrick Brannan, a business analyst in Potomac, Maryland: They are satisfied with their local news shows. "I watch the news; I don't necessarily find many flaws with it per se," says Brannan, of Phillips Publishing Inc.

So how does Klite explain such contentment with the operations he finds deficient?

The leader of Media Watch revs up. "I think the public has gotten used to it. Night after night, they become conditioned to it. We've all seen thousands of these fire stories and murder stories and rape stories," out of proportion to actual occurrences. "We become desensitized to the horror."

The cumulative effect is toxic, leaving viewers frightened and disenfranchised, Klite has said in an earlier conversation. "It's one part per billion more alienation."

An antidote would be more emphasis on community affairs, culture and the arts, and societal ills such as homelessness and AIDS, Klite suggests. Beyond that, "one element that seems to me to be lacking in the local TV news is wisdom."

Kucharski and Davis say their stations already provide solid coverage on some of those counts (each has specialized beats in at least government and education), but they face limits in time and resources.

In Kucharski's perfect world, she would "have so many good stories about the school board, about growth and development, that I'd prefer not to run commercials tonight." Here's the reality: Sometimes, she must shoehorn two hours' worth of developments into an hour--which in truth is 44 minutes, given the standard equation of four two-minute commercial breaks per half hour. Conversely, on slow days that newshole becomes a black hole.

"People don't realize the time constraints, all kinds of constraints that we deal with," adds Davis. "My deadlines are constant: They're at noon, they're at 5, they're at 6, they're at 10. Sure, I'd love to have a day to sit around, read the New York Times and do research and look at studies [before] I go to school board meetings. I don't have that luxury. I've got an hour on the ground to be there, to talk to people, to find out what's going on. And it takes a lot of skill to take information and break it down to a 30-second story."

MacNeil ventures that ratings--particularly during the ad-rate-setting "sweeps" months of February, May, July and November--bring additional pressures. Klite sees a prevalence of exposes then, some of them cloned and repackaged in multiple markets. "Last year," he says, "it was taking cameras into public bathrooms and looking for homosexual encounters."

But to Davis, "sweeps months are opportunities for reporters like myself to do in-depth pieces." In February, for instance, she did a feature on faith-based dieting that ran four minutes instead of the usual "minute-30."

Klite suggests that trivia too often preempts substance in local TV news. His survey includes a "fluff index" of promotional teases, chitchat between anchors, celebrity stories and "soft" news about, oh, a meatloaf contest or a lost cat. On average, Klite says, "about a quarter to a third as much time is spent with fluff as it is with news."

Lighthearted moments deserve a place in the newscast, Davis argues. WFAA's hourlong noon show devotes five minutes to entertainment, be it Gwyneth Paltrow's Oscar attire or a gardener's jumbo pumpkin. If it evokes pleasure, "I think that's fine to do, and I don't categorize that as fluff. Why does news have to be like getting a college degree? Why can't it just be interesting?"

Newscasts need to engage viewers through various means, Brannan agrees. Decision-makers in a newsroom "want people to watch their station.... They're not philanthropists; they're businesspeople."

Kucharski says surveys by Rocky Mountain Media Watch and other groups are helpful in that they provoke self-examination and discussion. For its next study, Klite's group will look at local television coverage in the three markets around Charleston, Illinois.

Davis suggests a future survey should focus on the top-rated newscast in each market "instead of randomly selecting stations.... We don't hear enough about the stations that do innovative things." But, she adds, feedback from viewers has a greater influence in the newsroom than any survey. "Once we get that information from viewers, it does register, and you think about it the next time you're out on a story."

PANEL 2

JOURNALISM PARTICIPANTS
Angela Davis
General assignment reporter
WFAA-TV
Dallas

Angie Kurcharski
News director
KCNC-TV
Denver

NONJOURNALISM PARTICIPANTS

Patrick Brannan
Business analyst
Phillips Publishing Inc.
Potomac, Maryland

Paul Klite
Executive director
Rocky Mountain Media Watch
Denver


PANEL 3

The Ratings Game

Ratings. Competition. Money. The all-powerful trinity affects almost every significant decision in every newsroom.

Each morning at Los Angeles' KCBS, for instance, staffers pore over the previous day's ratings report from Nielsen Media Research to learn who watched what in a sprawling market of 15 million potential viewers. "It's really a nightly report card," says Linda Alvarez, who anchors the news hour starting at 4:30 p.m. "We will watch how the viewers responded every 15 minutes, we will see whether a particular stow held the audience or not. And if it didn't, then we will change the format the next day."

The same ritual takes place at KPTV, a UPN affiliate in Portland, Oregon. News Director John Sears says that when he came to the station in 1977, ratings results came in monthly; the impact of a newscast change couldn't be gauged for weeks. During that time, viewers could slip away or a newscaster's enthusiasm flag. But in 1990, when local broadcasters chipped in with Nielsen to meter the Portland market for overnight ratings, "that changed things for us dramatically. We could come in the very next morning ... and see that in our third quarter we died. Was it stow content? Was it commercial content?" KPTV and its competitors suddenly could get a timely readout of viewer interest and a guidepost for fine-tuning.

Certainly that's useful, the University of Maryland's Barkin acknowledges. But the former TV news reporter worries that ratings can interfere with news judgment and that a clinically designed newscast sublimates journalism to marketing. "Can you have too much market research?" he asks. "Can you know too much about your audience?"

The panel falls silent.

"No, I don't think so," volleys Sears, the chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "All information is relevant."

Basic journalism values must anchor coverage, Alvarez says. "You have to start with wanting to do a good newscast that is presenting information that you believe is needed."

And you have to exercise some skepticism regarding the results of any poll or ratings service, adds Patricia Diaz Dennis, a former Federal Communications Commission member and now an executive with the San Antonio-based telecommunications firm SBC Communications Inc. Alluding to the diaries kept by Nielsen households, Dennis notes that the way a question is formulated "determines the answer you're going to get.... People answer the way they wish to be perceived, not necessarily the way they actually are."

Alvarez and Sears both say their stations skew elements of a newscast based on demographics. The 4:30 p.m. newscast "certainly has more stories that would be family oriented," the Los Angeles anchor says, noting an emphasis on consumer, health and medical news. During five-and-a-half hours of daily news programming, KCBS targets various niche audiences. But nearly every newscast contains at least one report on entertainment, the area's dominant industry.

The need to simultaneously reach a broad spectrum of viewers requires creativity. For example, Sears rhetorically asks, how do you interest a demographically desirable young adult in a story on prostate cancer, which targets men 45 and older?

MacNeil suggests as an angle, "Has your dad got cancer?"

Exactly.

"The idea is everybody has a dad," Sears says. "That's how you bring those people into your program and pique their curiosity. It's a critically important issue for men that particular age and [for] their children for long-term health."

Competition exerts additional pressure, and Alvarez, whose station ranks third of seven in the L.A. market, feels it keenly. "Anytime there's a breaking story, whether it be a car chase or a fire or a rescue of some kind ... the helicopters are out, and we're doing it live."

In the heat of battle, MacNeil worries, journalism ethics can falter. He brings up the widely reported case of an April 1998 freeway chase ending in suicide to illustrate how live coverage ratchets up the stakes.

"We went on the air live with it. So did everybody else," says Alvarez, who has brought a clip showing her on the KCBS newsroom Robocam while the station's helicopter reporters weighed in from on high. They and viewers watched as Daniel Jones stopped his pickup truck on a freeway overpass, brandished a gun and jumped out ablaze when his truck exploded in flames.

"I remember covering this, thinking, `Oh my God, I hope that our cameras pull out [for a wide shot].' Well, they did," Alvarez says. Other stations zoomed in, as Jones appeared to kneel. "Well, it turned out that's when he shot himself."

MacNeil says the incident underscores "the perils as well as the excitement and the journalistic opportunity of being live"--and the potential for a ratings bonanza. Alvarez says stations that stayed with closer shots had higher ratings than hers.

"They had viewership that day, but they also got beaten up by the public and by the media critics," Sears says. "There is a public backlash to some of those decisions."

With ratings fluctuations affecting revenue, MacNeil wonders whether newsroom resources are touched in direct proportion. If ratings drop a half-point from the previous year, he asks, "does it come down to ... you've got to drop a couple of reporters?" Sears says he hasn't had such conversations in his eight years as KPTV's news director. At KCBS, Alvarez isn't privy to budget discussions, but "we all know in the newsroom that the budget is tight. There's no overtime; people are getting cut.... And we just added another half hour of news."

Producing the news is expensive, MacNeil allows, but less so than entertainment programming. It's also lucrative, which is why so many stations have expanded their local newsholes. Incredulous, he cites a New York Times Magazine cover story that presents operating profit margins of 40 to 50 percent as the norm.

"I'd like to know which stations he was talking about," Sears says with a laugh. (Michael Winerip, whose report on local TV news ran January 11, 1998, drew that range from select broadcasters' 10-K statements and interviews with industry experts. John Morton, a media analyst and AJR columnist, puts the average at a more conservative 25 to 30 percent.)

The point is, "having a channel is wildly remunerative," Barkin says. And conglomerates that buy and sell stations as if they were trading pork bellies--a result of communications industry deregulation dating to the Reagan era--expect a high rate of return for their stockholders.

To boost the bottom line, Alvarez says some stations--including her own--"might think of creative ways within the newscast to make more money." In her newscast, KCBS this spring introduced a daily entertainment segment sponsored by Blockbuster, which is credited by an offscreen announcer at the segment's start. She's been assured the station retains total editorial control, "but yet the sponsor is there. So we're walking the fine line."

An audience member asks about nontraditional advertising insinuating itself into the news. "Do you have any fears," the young man asks, about "the whole newscast [as] one big commercial?"

Alvarez points out that the entire newscast is commercially sponsored. And Sears, whose newscasts identify sponsors of their weather and sports segments, adds, "We're always sensitive to ... the perception that content is driven by advertisers."

PANEL 3

JOURNALISM PARTICIPANTS
Linda Alvarez
Anchor
KCBS-TV
Los Angeles

Steve Barkin
Associate professor
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland

John Sears
News director
KPTV
Portland, Oregon

NONJOURNALISM PARTICIPANT

Patricia Diaz Dennis
Sr. vice president
SBC Communications Inc.
San Antonio, Texas


PANEL 4

Doing the Right, Thing

Echoing Aretha Franklin, Janice Gin says the soul of responsible coverage is R-E-S-P-E-C-T. "It's coverage that respects the viewer's intelligence ... and also respects the person you're interviewing," the executive producer for San Francisco's KGO explains. Ultimately, "you have a much more meaningful story on the air."

David Noble, president and CEO of Security First Network Bank in Atlanta, suggests journalistic responsibility means abiding by "certain rules of engagement that you specify and live by," from providing depth and balance to determining whether hidden microphones are permissible.

Joyce E. Hobson, a civilian contract specialist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, says it's about fairness, "not just depicting one group in the media."

It's "coverage that reflects significant events of the day, that treats a range of topics both heavy and light, that reflects the diversity of the community and that does not resort overly to ... Hollywoodish techniques to present those stories," says Noel Holston, a TV and radio columnist for Minneapolis' Star Tribune.

Responsibility encompasses all those things, plus accountability, says Tom Koby, who in June 1998 stepped down as the police chief of Boulder, Colorado. He had been in the maw of "the beast"--Gin's term--since his department was called in to investigate the December 1996 death of a 6-year-old beauty queen named JonBenet Ramsey. Worn down by 18 months of incessant media scrutiny, including allegations that police mishandled the case, Koby quit. He's doing volunteer work while considering whether to return to law enforcement.

MacNeil sympathized. "On a stow like JonBenet, you can't have a development for every newscast, every news cycle."

Koby says he found it impossible to balance "the integrity of the investigation and the media hunger for more. I spoke with the media. I said, `I could give you everything that I've got, and it wouldn't be enough. You'd want something else tomorrow.' And they acknowledged that was true."

Koby's experience has led him to conclude that, while many individual journalists are accurate and evenhanded, "the media today [are] the bully on the block." Outside a courtroom, there's little recourse for correcting a false impression, he says. "There's nowhere to go to air your grievances with local TV or others."

MacNeil, playing the provocateur, asks whether it's possible for local TV to meet the panelists' definitions of responsibility while satisfying ratings and profits expectations. "It's absolutely possible," Holston says. A case in point is the Twin Cities' KARE, a Gannett-owned station whose half-hour newscast dominates the 10 p.m. time slot and provides thorough coverage of news and community developments, he says. "If anything, they err on the side of being a little bit too touchy-feely."

Viewers in his market have low tolerance for sleaze, Holston adds, remembering another station's misguided "sweeps" investigation using hidden cameras to expose a topless maid service. That story "died in the ratings," he says. But when KSTP again turned on the hidden cameras--this time to document bias by department store employees treating minority customers like potential criminals--"they not only got good ratings, but they won a Peabody." KSTP collected the George Foster Peabody Award, broadcast journalism's highest honor, in 1992.

Hobson considers herself a big fan of local TV news, especially Dayton's WDTN/Channel 2. "I think that overall, they do a good job," she says. Yet she worries that a preponderance of crime coverage distorts reality and discourages some people from taking full advantage of public life. When a friend as in the market for a house, Hobson tried to encourage her to take a class on home ownership that I took in the inner city. It was the best $25 I had spent.... But she wouldn't go because the class was in downtown Dayton."

MacNeil asks Koby, a 29-year veteran of law enforcement, whether he thinks local TV news exaggerates the amount of crime. Yes, Koby says. "It is overdone, it is sensationalized. It is driven, I think, by the fact that it is such an easy video-imaging thing."

He contends the news media suffer from an identity crisis and a crumbling ethical foundation. "I think there are some great people in local news ... who are frustrated by what they feel is compromising their integrity and their ability ... pressures to produce when there's really nothing to produce, which means they've got to get real creative."

"I think any time you turn on the tube, you can see the worst and the best of journalism," L.A. anchor Alvarez later responds from the audience. In her view, local television news has a complex persona, not an identity crisis. "Are we a business? Are we a profession? Are we a service? Are we entertainment? I think we're all of those, and I think our biggest challenge is to try to balance all of those things and provide responsible, respectful and relevant information to our viewers."

Ethics haven't been forgotten, Gin adds. They're embraced by many individuals and stated as policy by journalism associations. She says the Radio-Television News Directors Association plans to update its code of ethics, last revised in 1987. The Society of Professional Journalists has had a published code of ethics since 1926.

MacNeil leads the discussion toward the obligations of station owners and managers. Do they provide resources sufficient for the task? "Technology is allowing us to do so much more and to do it faster, but it seems the staffing really isn't keeping up with that," WFAA's Davis says from the audience.

"Are business expectations of television helping to dumb it down or prevent it from doing a responsible job?" MacNeil asks.

"I don't think so," says banker Noble. With changes in technology and government regulation spurring developments such as digital television, which enables a single station to simultaneously offer several programs, "you do have more opportunities to fill different types of content. So you can choose to go after a broad market ... but you can also go after more specialized content as well and make money doing all of that."

But the targeted content found on cable, in specialty publications and in online services isn't available to everyone, Gin points out, so it's incumbent upon local stations to "meet the needs of the broadest range of audience." After all, this is broadcast TV.

MacNeil revisits the issue of local TV news and its multiple functions. He quotes again from Winerip's New York Times Magazine piece: "There's a school of thought about local TV news that it's most enjoyable if it's not taken seriously, that like professional wrestling the only people who believe it deserve to."

Critic Holston laughs but calls the observation "not fair, really." In every city in which he's watched television, he's seen something thoughtful, useful or affecting--just as he's seen the polar opposite.

"To say that it's trivial or that we should dismiss it out of hand [is] just dumb," he says. "It's there, it's important to people.... It can be worthy of serious consideration often."

Davis, rising in the audience, strongly agrees. "We have to feed the monster," she says, "but that doesn't mean we have to feed it junk food."
PANEL 4

JOURNALISM PARTICIPANTS

Janice Gin
Executive producer
KGO-TV
San Francisco

Noel Holston
Columnist
Star Tribune
Minneapolis

NONJOURNALISM PARTICIPANTS

Joyce Hobson
Contract specialist
Wright-Patterson AFB
Dayton, Ohio

Tom Koby
Ex-police chief
Boulder Police Dept.
Boulder, Colorado

David Noble
President and CEO
Security First Network
Atlanta

MODERATOR

Robert MacNeil
Partner
MacNeil-Lehrer Productions
New York


"Journalism and the Public Trust: Public Attitudes Toward Local TV News" was the third of four conferences being funded by a Ford Foundation grant to open the dialogue between the press and the citizenry. AJR brought together seven representatives of the public and 10 of the media for a day of discussion in March at the Newseum's broadcast studio in Arlington, Virginia. The moderator was former "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour" co-host Robert MacNeil. The first conference was held in February 1998.

RELATED ARTICLE: Models of Excellence

Strong community coverage is an attainable goal for local television.

In its 1998 report, "Not in the Public Interest," the citizen activist group Rocky Mountain Media Watch identified four local stations that are models of "quality, intelligence and creativity." Their selection was based on an analysis of 102 newscasts from a single day: March 11, 1998.

AJR briefly summarizes what the stations do well:

KTVU, SAN FRANCISCO

The top-rated TV station in the country's fifth largest market is--surprise!--an affiliate of Fox Broadcasting. Its hourlong "10 O'Clock News" focusing on the Bay Area is intentionally anachronistic, "similar to what it was 20 years ago," says Fred Zehnder, who retired as news director May 28 after 21 years in the job.

Stories average two-and-a-half minutes. Each evening a special report called "Segment 2" runs five to seven minutes.

The emphasis is on issues, from politics to consumer news to trends. Crime coverage is held to a minimum.

"We don't do a lot of fluff stories, and we never do tie-ins to entertainment programs" because that "blurs the line between news and entertainment," says Zehnder, 65.

The station produces five hours of news each weekday, beginning at 5:30 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m. It also does one-hour newscasts at 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with an additional hour at 5 p.m. Sunday.

The newsroom has roughly 70 full-time and 20 part-time staffers. Quality journalists beget quality coverage, Zehnder says, noting that many have been with Cox-owned KTVU "15, 20 years and more" and thoroughly know the Bay Area.

NEW ENGLAND CABLE NEWS, NEWTON, MASSACHUSETTS

Since its launch in March 1992, the 24-hour channel's mission has been "to provide an agenda of news stories thai is more diverse, more focused on genuine issues ... and thai eschews violence and sensationalism and crime," says President Philip S. Balboni.

NECN and its 150 or so employees produce 10 hours of original programming daily. Weeknights at 7, "NewsNight," its half-hour "Nightline"-style news analysis program, focuses on single subjects of regional and sometimes national interest. The channel also offers the half-hour "Susan Wornick Consumer Show" at 9 a.m. weekdays, the half-hour sports spotlight "One Game at a Time" at 11 nightly, weekly half hours for "Phantom Gourmet" restaurant reviews and "CEO Corner," and the monthly "Jay Carr Screening Room" with the Boston Globe movie critic.

The station cultivates in-depth journalism. In February, it profiled 20 contemporary New Englanders--among them attorney Alan Dershowitz, slugger Ted Williams and women's homeless shelter founder Kip Tiernan--in 10-minutes-plus biographies running in the "Prime Time New England" newscasts at 9 and 10. And Vice President of News Charles Kravetz implemented "enterprise months," allowing each of the 12 or 13 reporters "a month to work exclusively on long-form stories."

In 1998, the joint venture of the Hearst Corp. and Media One became the first local or regional cable news channel to win a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award for "Look For Me Here: 299 Days in the Life of Nora Lenihan," its documentary on a 40-year-old woman and her final months before dying of breast cancer.

In March, the Associated Press Broadcasters in Southern New England named NECN the "news station of the year" in the Boston market, the nation's sixth largest.

KVUE, AUSTIN TEXAS

When Channel 24 began sending out newsroom representatives to community forums several years ago, "one of the recurring themes was that coverage had become sensational and wasn't responsible enough," News Director Cathy McFeaters recalls. "We felt as the news [and ratings] leader in the market, we had a responsibility to head things off before we got too bad."

The result was The Crime Project, introduced in January 1996. Any crime story appearing in a KVUE newscast must meet at least one of these criteria: The subject poses an immediate threat to public safety or a risk to children; it's a "take-action" piece, linked to pending legislative action or a referendum, or a case in which authorities could use viewers' help in locating a missing person or a suspect; it offers crime prevention information; it has potential for "significant" community impact.

The last condition is "the trickiest one," McFeaters says. Using it, for instance, KVUE turned down footage recounting a gunman's lethal shooting spree April 15 at the Mormon Church's Family History Library in Salt Lake City, deciding it did not serve viewers. While "every once in a while we err on the side of caution and don't put on a story we should have," McFeaters concedes, "there is discussion and thought to what we put on the air.... It's not automatic, robotic, reactive reporting."

Because The Crime Project's six-week trial included February, a sweeps month, McFeaters says cynics suspected a ratings ploy. "But we were already in first place," she laughs. "We've never had a situation where we could say The Crime Project has necessarily helped our ratings, but it hasn't hurt. Where it has helped is in our public image."

KVUE, which is being acquired by A.H. Belo Corp., began the project as a Gannett station. McFeaters' conversations with newsroom managers in the Gannett chain and beyond have convinced her that the tide is turning against salacious local TV news.

KTCA, ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA

It's unusual for a PBS station to have its own nightly newscast, but "NewsNight Minnesota" has been part of the Twin Cities' TVscape since April 1994. KTCA pushes back prime-time PBS programming by one hour to deliver "NewsNight" at 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. (On Fridays, it's supplanted by "Almanac," an hourlong blend of humor, local history and public affairs.)

Bill Hanley, executive vice president of content, says the typical newscast runs 30 minutes: the first six-plus minutes for headline news, maybe five minutes on public affairs, a 20-second graphic on Minnesota history, then at least six minutes for an in-depth report or debate. A live music finale, begun last year to aid the arts community, offers jug bands, head bangers, opera singers, classical violinists--you name it.

Crime is covered solely as an issue. Weather gets maybe 20 seconds. Sports stories rarely surface except in connection with, say, stadium financing or academic cheating by athletes, although "if the Vikings won the Super Bowl, I suppose we'd mention it," Hanley says.

Each night brings a special emphasis: stories about communities on Monday, business and technology on Tuesday, families and learning on Wednesday, media and arts on Thursday. But "we'd skip those in order to do a more pressing story if we had to," he says.

"NewsNight Minnesota" and its seven-member editorial staff have the option to expand to a full hour; they've done so several times for public forums since Gov. Jesse Ventura's election, Hanley says. As part of a civic journalism initiative, the station partners with Minneapolis' Star Tribune to explore topics such as teen drinking. A Web site (www.ktca.org) with streaming video and archives provides news on demand.

--Carol Guensburg

RELATED ARTICLE: Doing It Better

To strengthen local newscasts and operations, panelists suggest:

KEEP THE FOCUS LOCAL

"Don't worry about national scandals. Your local viewers are getting that from other sources," says Bill Rust, AdvoCasey editor. "Second, focus [more] on quality journalism and less on return on investment.... Be creative about using this new digital television," which offers the potential for "multiplexing" or offering several options at once. "But let's use digital channels for local coverage and not another channel for pro wrestling."

EXPAND SPECIALIZED COVERAGE

Steve Barkin, an associate professor leaching broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland, applauds the emergence of specialized medical and consumer reporting in the last 15 years. Other topics, from politics to economics, are ripe for similar treatment. He proposes "tinkering with the paradigm," perhaps regularly dedicating three 10-minute segments out of a three-hour news block, to single issues.

TAKE CHANCES

Most newscasts are indistinguishable, from pacing to music cues to anchors in suits sitting behind identical desks, Noel Holston observes. The radio-TV columnist for Minneapolis' Star Tribune says stations, especially those with lagging ratings, could try a new format. "Make it something almost like a magazine, with top stories at the beginning. But don't feel bound to the presentational traditions."

RAISE DISCRIMINATING VIEWERS

Paul Klite, who heads the nonprofit activist group Rocky Mountain Media Watch, recommends teaching viewers to be more choosy and vocal. "My hope is that we could teach people to be critical viewers," he says, perhaps by following Canada's example and manndating media literacy classes in high school.

Carol Guensburg is AJR's assistant editor.3
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Title Annotation:journalism ethics
Author:GUENSBURG, CAROL
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Panel Discussion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Words:7037
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