Story Counting Does Not Reveal the News About the News
Joe Russin is a former assistant managing editor of the LA Times and former executive planning editor at KTLA Channel 5. His take on the Lear Center's study of LA local news is below. And below that, a reaction.
This latest study of local TV news, containing an exhaustive codification of thousands of news stories, reaches a familiar conclusion: there ain't much real news on the local TV news. But we already knew that. And there are other issues which limit the usefulness of this survey.
For one thing, the study may actually overstate the problem. Although news programs were coded around the clock, the results were squeezed into a theoretical "typical" half hour news show. Anyone in the business (and actually any frequent viewer), knows there is a difference between an 11 pm half hour news, an hour at 10 pm, an hour at 6 pm and the multi hour blocks of morning news. Show lengths and different audiences make for varying story lengths and different story selections. So while in aggregate there is meager coverage of areas deemed important in the study, coverage on some broadcasts may be richer. If the study's half hour is typical of anything, it is probably an 11pm late news, which everyone knows is basically a headline service--and for most viewers, a chance to catch up on late scores and tomorrow's weather.
But a greater problem is this: the story counting approach does not tell you much about story quality. And here the picture may be bleaker than the study suggests. Government stories are hard to cover in an appealing visual way, which is why government is so often ignored unless it offers a juicy scandal. And what is covered, more and more, are press conferences at which only cameramen are present. The speaker says what he wishes, often free of scrutiny from reporters (unless the paper sends someone.) The video and a press release are then dumped on a writer, who may or may not know anything about the subject. But prior knowledge, actually, is of little matter--possibly even a burden--because the writer's job is to quickly write and edit a :30 to :40 second story, including a short sound bite, and then get on to the next story.