CHANGES IN LOCAL TV NEWS CONTENT: Checking the Critics
Television critics in trade press articles recently have been heaping
abuse on U.S. local television news. The critics say local TV news
in recent years has grown superficial and sensational, pre-occupied
with pacing personality, and shocking video. The claims frequently
amount to little more than "argument by anecdote," accounts of
individual news stories either overplayed (crime, violence, disasters)
or underplayed (public affairs). Another variation is to point to a
particular news station and its curious news choices.
These critical analyses point to various causes: the pressure for
ratings, the use of consultants, the emphasis on appearance over
substance, or the subtle influence of tabloid programs (A Current
Affair, American Agenda, Hard Copy, Inside Edition, etc.) shifting
Frequently the critics assert local television news never was
particularly good, and simply has grown worse. Such claims are
ubiquitous but are they accurate? Few researchers have talked the
massive task of sampling the content of the more than 200 TV markets
in the U.S.
This study is a follow-up to one such effort (Harmon, 1988), an
analysis of newscasts from 1986 and 1987 randomly selected from the
files of a leading news consultant, Audience Research and Development
(ARD). This study will examine 1992-93 newscasts, again using ARD
files, to create a profile of U.S. local TV news content and note any
changes in the interim. The ARD samples, containing both clients and
competitors of clients, represent a good cross-section of local TV
newscasts by region, network affiliation, market size, and early v.
late and weekday v. weekend newscasts.
Levine (1993) created one of the laundry list articles about abuses
in local TV news (and threw in a few network examples for good
measure). The article listed staged stories, a dog fight in Colorado,
underage beer drinking in Minnesota; an overstated story, a
much-hyped New York City shark alert that belatedly mentions the large
sharks feed only on plants and very small animals; and dubious
"investigative" reports on topless maid services, underwear, and the
stimulative merits of pornographic videos.
American Journalism Review (Rieder, 1993) devoted ten pages of a
cover story to ten prominent media analysts to answer the question
"Why Is Local TV News So Bad?" Some highlights of the answers:
Howard Rosenberg, TV critic for the Los Angeles Times: "Local news--in Los
Angeles, at least--is mostly an extension of the entertainment
that surround it. If I want nightly triple features of
coverage of grisly, blood-spattered offenses that feeds our paranoia
crime--I know where to find it. Local news." He also complained that
stations "gratuitously go live solely to impress viewers."
David Bartlett, president of the Radio-Television News Directors
Association: "Even if coverage of crime and violence could be shown to
encourage more of the same, and there is no credible evidence that it
would the public really prefer to be kept in the dark? . . . Local
television news is, in fact, among our society's most democratic
institutions. Millions of viewers vote their preferences every night."
Phyllis Kaniss, assistant dean, Annenberg School for Communications,
University of Pennsylvania: "It has become the dirty little secret of
local television news that certain kinds of stories--those concerning
politics and government--are being quietly edged out of newscast
Her tally of the 1991 Philadelphia mayor's race found the daily total
early/late evening coverage for each station ran from 26 seconds to a
little over a minute; three out of every four stories dealing with
horserace or personal attacks instead of issues.
Jamie Malanowski, senior features editor for Us magazine: "It's only when
the world stops cooperating and ceases to deliver attention-getting
material that local news feels obliged to fall back into reporting the
tiresome, complicated, and often not very illuminating activities of
officials and neighborhood residents, spiced up by thinly imagined
features, like canned interviews with actors or the theatricalized
adventures of overheated consumer protectors."
Patricia Stevens, first female TV news director in the U.S., says the
talented folks can't use their talent in the "rush for 15-second voice
overs and cosmetic live shots." Local TV newscasts, she argues, take their
clues from tabloids because many reporters don't have a clue how to
investigate a story--and yet must fill more air time with fewer people.
Paul Steinle, former president of United Press International and the
Financial News Network: "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."
Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media reporter, says the "Hard Copy"
approach to news has now spread to local stations across the country,
the latest quick fix for anemic ratings.
Kurtz (1993) also conducted a five-day (weekday) sampling of June
1993 late evening newscasts from five stations known to have been
stressing tabloid news. He defined and coded tabloid as "stories
involving crime, sex, disasters, or public fears." The tally:
WSVN WWOR KCBS WBBM WRC
Miami N.Y. L.A. Chicago Wash., D.C.
Percent of tabloid stories 74 60 58 51 46
Most consecutive tabloid
stories at top of broadcast 22 7 4 5 6
Stories involving murder,
shooting, kidnapping or
suicide 28 11 15 6 16
Stories involving disasters,
accidents, illness or product
tampering 39 20 19 15 5
Bash (1993) collected criticism that the growth of live coverage was
leading to distorted news values and factual errors stemming largely
from crime coverage. Marcy Burdick, chairwoman of the Radio and
Television News Directors Association admits "live" can distort story
value. She said, "The times I have been disappointed are when a
station shows up at a scene and circumstances dictate that it is not a
lead story, but they don't have the courage to abandon the live
shot." Smith (1984) found a similar ambivalence about expanded live
capacity, microwave and satellite, in a survey of television news
Certainly one should expect more live remotes than the 2.2 percent
Harmon (1988) reported in his 1986-87 national content analysis.
Other analyses in the late 1980s echoed that surprisingly low number.
A survey by Lacy et. al. (1988) found that three out of every four
commercial stations had satellite downlinks (useful for news feeds),
but only half had their own satellite news gathering equipment.
Bernstein et. al. found only 40 stories out of 3,029 analyzed in his
sample involved satellite news gathering gear. The number of live
remotes should increase in the 1990s as stations add live satellite
capacity to microwave links. Big stories such as the Gulf War and the
L.A. riots may be prompting such a change. Carson (1992) is typical
of the trade press describing routine use of helicopter live remotes
in telling the story of the riots.
One of the most thorough critical analyses of local TV news came in
Jacob's book Changing Channels. Jacobs explains the "Local, Local"
concept of stressing local news gathering while at the same time
extending one's reach, even to the point of sending one's news anchors
to national and international events. He reviews the role of
consultants in stressing fast-paced visuals. He notes the importance
of satellite technology as a new toy to be used extensively to justify
Not all the criticisms of local TV news can be answered easily or
directly through content analysis. However, if these observations,
suggestions, and inferences are correct, then the following hypotheses
should prove to be true when one compares the 1992-93 newscasts to
H1 More visual stories; fewer non-visual (reader) stories;
H2 Higher story count; shorter story lengths;
H3 More violent crime, disaster/accident and fewer
H4 More local stories, fewer national/international stories;
H5 More live shots
The journalism trade press certainly also has been asserting that
the push for ratings success drives local television news toward
fast-paced newscasts dominated by the sensational and the visual. If
these assertions are correct, then highly-rated newscasts should be
leading the way in the above-noted trends. Thus, we can look at the
same hypotheses using rank within the market, newscast rating, and
newscast share. Highly rated newscasts (measured by rank, rating, and
share) should be more likely than lowly ranked newscasts to have:
H6 More visual stories; fewer non-visual (reader) stories;
H7 Shorter story lengths;
H8 More violent crime, disaster/accident stories;
H9 More local stories, fewer national/international stories;
H10 More live shots
Asserting a claim regarding market size is a bit more problematic.
Certainly the trade press articles would lead one to believe that
large market newsrooms are leading the way in the hypothesized trends.
However, that may be a function of leading newspapers with media
critics being located in large markets. Academic investigations of
market-driven differences in local TV news content have led to mixed
Carroll (1989) found that major market stations place more emphasis
than smaller stations on fire, crimes, and accidents, but also do more
local government and politics stories. That may lead one to think
that large- market stations, compared to smaller ones, are doing more
local stories. However, Bernstein et. al. analyzed ten days of
newscasts in three markets (six Michigan, eight Oregon stations).
They found large-market stations devoted less time to local news than
smaller market stations, but all stations they found to be straying
from localism toward more international/national stories. This may be
a function of "news hole" expanding beyond local news gathering
resources; producers might be tempted to "fill" with stories off
satellite news feeds. This point fits nicely with the McManus (1989)
finding that few stations do much of any "high initiative" stories,
though he notes large market stations do a little of the high
initiative stories, compared to almost none for medium and small
Atwater (1984) found that larger markets offered more "product
differentiation" than smaller market, as measured by different
stories. He conceded, however, this difference is expressed mostly in
the soft news stories toward the end of the newscast. Harmon (1989)
countered that individual stories may differ slightly (health feature
on heart disease v. health feature on AIDS) especially in larger
markets with bigger "news holes," but the overall mix of story forms
and topics remained remarkably stable across all market sizes in his
1986-87 national sampling of newscasts. A. Powers (1988), in turn,
argues for a growing "product differentiation" based on the growing
number and form of news programs in each market. Certainly the growth
of independent and Fox affiliate newscasts (most in large markets)
give reason to re-examine the question. Therefore, we should examine
if large market newscasts more likely than small markets newscasts to
H11 More visual stories; fewer non-visual (reader) stories;
H12 Shorter story lengths;
H13 More violent crime, disaster/accident stories;
H14 More local stories, fewer national/international stories;
H15 More live shots
Furthermore, those same trends should be evident when one compares
Fox and Independent newscasts to the traditional affiliates:
The Fox and Independent newscasts should have:
H16 More visual stories; fewer non-visual (reader) stories;
H17 Shorter story lengths;
H18 More violent crime, disaster/accident stories;
H19 More local stories, fewer national/international stories;
H20 More live shots
If the "filling or killing" time conclusion is correct, then one also
should expect differences comparing hour-long to half-hour newscasts.
Specifically, the hour newscasts should have:
H21 longer packages
H22 More national/international stories, fewer local;
H23 More satellite feed material
These hypotheses will be tested using a random sample of 50 local
television newscasts dubbed from the files of Audience Research and
Development, a leading television news consulting firm, plus an
additional ten newscasts taped off the air (KTVT, Dallas; WWOR, N.Y.;
WGN, Chicago; KAMC, Lubbock; WWCP, Johnstown; WTAE, Pittsburgh; WTAJ,
Altoona; WCMH, Columbus; WUAB, Cleveland; and WCPO, Cincinnati).
The 60 sampled newscasts were from 1992 and the first five months of
1993. It included both ARD clients and competitors of clients. The
researcher traveled to Dallas to dub from the ARD files, randomly
selecting within certain categories to assure the sample was
stratified by: network affiliation, market size, weekday v. weekend
newscasts, early v. late newscasts, ARD clients and non-clients. The
resulting sample is described in Appendix A. The researcher also kept
track of newscast rank in its time slot (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.),
rating, share, and HUT (households using television at the time of the
broadcast) as reflected in the ratings book immediately preceding the
newscast. The researcher, at press time, was unable to get ratings
data for three of the newscasts
The individual news story was the unit of analysis. The 896 stories
in the sample were coded by: station, city, month, year, market rank,
early v. late newscast (early before 8 p.m. local time, late after
that time), half or hour long newscast, ARD client or not, deadline
(occurring within the past 24 hours or previewing within the next 24
hours) or non-deadline, network affiliation, newscast rank, rating,
share, and HUT level.
The stories also were coded by region, news block, total running time
in seconds, race and gender of anchor and reporter (when a "package"
story), form (reader, voice-over, package, live remote, etc.),
location of story, apparent source of video, plus the presence or
absence of: natural sound, a reporter stand-up, or that reporter
stooping or turning, handling and object or pointing. Other
categories kept track of: number of first person (I, we, our) and
second person (you) references, the principal actor, story topic, the
number and length of sound bites and whether from knowns (elected or
appointed officials or celebrities) or unknowns. The coding sheet is
Appendix B. The researcher served as principal coder, assisted by
two graduate students. Most of the codings (story time, story form,
station, gender of anchor, time of sound bite, etc.) were prima facie
observations. A set of coding guidelines, Appendix C, helped with
analysis. Volunteer graduate and undergraduate students assisted the
principal coder in a minor portion of data entry. The principal
coder also checked for data entry errors or omissions. The resulting
data were analyzed using the Statview statistical program.
If sensationalism is defined as crime and disaster/accident stories,
then local TV news was more sensational in 1992-93 compared to
1986-87, specifically 35.714% of stories compared to 29.135%.
However, this expansion of sensational stories did not, as predicted,
come at the expense of politics and government stories which actually
increased. Instead, economic stories took the biggest dip from
1986-87 to 1992-93, dropping from 13.21% to 8.482%. Local TV also had
more national and international stories, 35.379% to 32.592%, and local
TV news used more live remotes, 5.246% of stories compared to 2.222%.
Thus, hypotheses three, four, and five generally were supported
(Table 1). However, the percentage of visual stories did not differ
substantially between time periods 80.022% in 1992-93 compared to
79.75% in 1986-87. The story count did not vary all that much, an
average of 14.9 in 1992-93, compared to 13.9 in 1986-87, almost all
attributed to slightly more hour newscasts in the more recent sample.
Thus, hypotheses one and two were not supported.
Higher newscast rank in the market (eg. 1st, 2nd) correlated with
more local stories (Table 2), more live remotes (Table 3) and more
initiative--locally shot video instead of satellite feeds , readers,
file video, or paid services such as movie reviews and syndicated
health reporters like Dr. Red Duke (Table 4). Higher ratings also
correlated with proportionally more local stories and stories with
higher initiative (Tables 5 and 6). Higher share of viewing also
correlated with more local stories and more initiative (Tables 7 and
8). Thus, hypotheses six, seven, and eight were not supported, but
hypotheses nine and ten were supported at statistically significant
levels. Statistical significance also was strong for "initiative," as
defined earlier, as one marker separating newscast ratings successes
from newscast ratings failures.
Large markets (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc.) did differ from
smaller markets (Lubbock, Terre Haute, Paducah, etc.) in two areas:
fewer visual stories in the larger markets--contrary to
prediction--and more sensational stories (Tables 9 and 10). Thus, the
exact opposite of hypothesis eleven proved to be true. Large market
stations actually did more non-visual stories compared to smaller
markets. Large and small markets did not differ on story lengths or
use of live remotes. Thus, hypotheses twelve and fifteen did not
prove to be true. The data showed some tendency toward more local
stories in larger markets, but at levels just shy of a .05 standard of
statistical significance for hypothesis fourteen.
Hypothesis eleven, predicting more sensational stories in larger
markets, achieved statistical significance in the expected direction.
Market size or rank also connected at statistically significant
levels with sound bites in two ways. As market rank increased (moving
from larger to smaller markets), the number of bites went down and
the length of the bites went up (Tables 11 and 12). Looking at the
results another way, as one moves to larger markets one sees more
sound bites of shorter length.
Regarding network affiliation, Fox stations outpaced other affiliates
in sensational stories (Table 13), partially supporting hypothesis
eighteen. Independent stations, however, generally did not engage in
as much sensationalism. Independents stations, perhaps reflecting a
larger news hole to be filled with relatively scant resources, did
more national/international stories than the network affiliates (Table
14), partially supporting hypothesis nineteen. It is also true that
independents sometimes are picked up and distributed to distant cable
viewers, making the greater national/international focus reasonable.
ABC affiliates were significantly higher than others by doing more
live remotes. NBC affiliates and Independent stations also used more
low initiative stories. NBC stations also had longer sound bites
(Tables 15, 16, 17). Hypotheses 16, 17, and 20--predicting more
visuals, shoter stories, and more live remotes for the Fox and
Independent stations--were not reflected in the data.
Hour newscasts, compared to half-hour newscasts, had longer stories
overall (Table 18) and longer packages (Table 19), and fewer local
stories (Table 20). This lends some support to the "killing time"
observation and supports hypotheses 21 and 22. The expectation in
hypothesis 23, greater use of low initiative stories, did not achieve
This research generally clarifies and confirms some of the criticisms
of local television news. The data indicate more sensational
stories, with Fox affiliates leading the way. As these enter newscast
rundowns, however, the big losers are not political stories but
economic ones. The use of live satellite remotes is up. However,
passive news process (reliance on satellite feeds, file video, and
paid services instead of field news gathering) can be detected, and
grows more substantial as one goes into smaller markets, or watches
the product of lower-rated stations, independent stations and/or hour
The conflicting findings over "product differentiation" or
market-based differences can only be answered by splitting some fine
hairs. Local TV news in 1986-87 was a remarkably uniform product. It
still is so if one looks at form, topics, or location. However,
some subtle but significant differences can be found. More local
stories and more locally shot material are the markers of stations
beating the competition. More and shorter sound bites tend to be
associated with large-market stations. The new Fox affiliates are
pushing the police beat: heavy on voice-overs and violent crime
stories. Hour long newscasts show some evidence of "news hole" effect
on content. It appears producers are letting stories go longer in
this format, plus using national and international stories to help
fill the remaining time.
Several logical avenues for additional research on this topic are
evident. If sound bite size is a "marker" of a large market, could
there be others like shot composition or use of natural sound or ease
of word choice? A case study could explore news product
differentiation in a market with a new Fox affiliate. Experimental
research could address whether the items noted here as associated with
ratings success have some sort of causal link to audience approval.
Generalizations about local television news are difficult, but
national content analyses should continue simply because of the clues
they provide to this significant national news source and how it is
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