Local TV News Lacks Substance p.8

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By: MARK FITZGERALD

A WIDE-RANGING academic study is confirming what newspapers have long argued: Local television news essentially no longer covers critically important social issues such as education and race relations.
In what is believed to be the first nationwide content study of local TV news, eight journalism schools in television markets ranging from New York City to Eugene, Ore., studied the coverage of their local stations over a four-month period from the end of last year to this April.
What they found will not surprise faithful views of local newscasts: Stories about crime or criminal justice dominate the tube.
Nationally, an average 29.3% of local news time is devoted to either crime (20.2%) or criminal justice (9.1%). That’s almost twice as much time as is devoted to the second-most frequent topic, government and politics, which accounts for 15.3% of news time.
But the most important finding of the study is not so much what is being covered ? as what is not, says Patricia Dean, associate professor and chair of broadcast journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
“”What was surprising to me was what wasn’t being reported at all, education and race relations especially,”” Dean said. “”Especially when you look at the market they’re serving, where these are very big issues. It appears if you don’t have a teachers’ strike or a racial incident, there is no coverage at all.””
Nationally, education stories accounted for just 2% of news time, and race relations ? perhaps America’s most complex social problem ? was given a nearly invisible 1.2% of news air time.
In New York City ? home of the Rev. Al Sharpton, site of the Crown Heights race riot and the Howard Beach racially motivated beatings ? stories about race relations accounted for one-half of one percent on the random days studied by the academics.
In Los Angeles ? the city of Rodney King and O.J. Simpson ? race relations were on the air for just one-third of one percent of newscasts.
This first-ever portrait of local news has disturbing implications for democracy itself, argues Dean, who spent 20 years in Chicago television journalism before joining Northwestern.
“”We are the eyes and ears of the public and when we don’t do [serious news stories], then journalists are failing the public,”” she said. “”I do think there is a fallout for [society]. These topics start to fall off from the dialogue of democracy.””
The study is apparently the first hard data confirming a widely noticed trend: Crime, weather, natural disasters, leisure topics and health and medicine news is pushing out coverage of government and politics ? once the core coverage of local TV news.
In fact, the national averages understate how rare government and political news is becoming for the great majority of American TV viewers.
In the four largest markets surveyed, the coverage was way below the average: In New York, the topic accounted for 6.8% of news airtime; Los Angeles, 4.5%; Chicago, 12.5% and Miami, 8%.
And with the exception of Chicago at 6.8%, the four biggest markets gave heavy shares of airtime to crime-related stories: 27.2% in New York; 28.3% in Los Angeles and 21.7% in Miami.
Longtime Chicago local TV viewers would be forgiven for thinking the low number was a statistical anomaly.
Patricia Dean, for one, saw the transformation of the Chicago TV news market go from one that was noted for exceptional political and governmental coverage to one that has followed the national trend away from these stories.
“”In 1982, for the inauguration of then-Governor Jim Thompson, I took 30 people and three news trucks,”” Dean said.
That team put together a news package that included not just the ceremony, but discussion of upcoming legislation and an analysis of the Illinois political landscape, she said.
“”Now all that has disappeared,”” Dean added. “”And what disappears is not only the pomp and the speeches ? but issues of . . . what matters to Chicago. What some legislation will mean to voters. Basic questions of how their taxes will be spent.””
These days, Dean says, team coverage is a big feature of local TV news ? but it has the effect of crowding out important stories rather than spotlighting them.
“”An average snowstorm in Chicago might be worth one story. But it rarely is worth three or four stories with team coverage. That’s pushing a lot of news out. . . . There’s no time for it,”” Dean said.
This study is just in its preliminary stages and will be used to gather more data to bring to the TV news industry’s attention, Dean said.
“”We hope to present this data as a kind of wake-up call,”” she said.
The eight universities that form the Consortium on Local Television Surveys (COLTS) were established by the University of Miami under the direction of Joseph Angotti, the former NBC news senior vice president.
In addition to the University of Miami and Northwestern, the schools in COLTS are the University of Texas (which studied the Austin TV market); University of Oregon (Eugene); Ball State University (Indianapolis, Ind.); University of Southern California (Los Angeles); Columbia University (New York City) and Syracuse University (Syracuse, N.Y.).
?( ? Patricia Dean, associate professor and chair of broadcast journalism, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism) [ Caption]
?( Percent of Local TV News Time Devoted to
Education
Austin4.9
Chicago2.5
Indianapolis2.3
New York2.3
Syracuse2.3
Eugene1.0
Miami0.5
Los Angeles0.2
Crime
Indianapolis36.7
Los Angeles28.3
New York27.2
Miami21.7
Eugene18.0
Syracuse17.6
Chicago6.8
Austin5.7
( Percent of Local TV News Time Devoted to
National Average
20.2
National Average
2.0
Source: Consortium on Local Television News Survey) [Caption]

?(Percent of News Time Devoted to
Editorial Categories
Crime29.3
Government and Politics15.3
Calamities and Natural Disasters10.0
Arts and Leisure8.6
Health and Medicine6.9
Education2.0
Race Relations1.2
All other categories combined26.7
Source: Consortium on Local Television News Survey) [Caption]

?( E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com.)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 24, 1997)

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