by Drake Bennett, Staff Writer - The Boston Globe, www.boston.com
In an October 14, 2007 article that appeared on the Boston Globe website, staff writer Drake Bennett reviews "We Interrupt This Newscast: How to Improve Local News and Win Ratings, Too." This book was authored in part by staff from the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Committee of Concerned Journalists.
Bennet draws connections between the the book's findings and how the local television news scene has evolved in Boston. The performance of the various local TV stations in Boston seems to mirror the book's contention that topical, high-quality broadcast journalism "sells" better than sensational, celebrity-driven coverage.
...[A] study published earlier this year - the most exhaustive ever conducted of local television news - suggests that the industry has severely underestimated its audience. In an unprecedented survey, a team of researchers under the auspices of the Project for Excellence in Journalism studied the minute-by-minute Nielsen ratings for newscasts from 154 local television stations over five years, more than 33,000 news stories in all.
What they found is that quality sells. The sensationalism of late-1990s WHDH, the study suggests, does bring good ratings. But well-done, substantive TV news proves just as popular - and often earns even better ratings.
Viewers, the study found, are perfectly willing to watch stories on education policy or tax debates - in many cases they'll tune in to those stories but flip away from a segment on a celebrity divorce or a deadly highway pileup. And they'll consistently reward in-depth reporting with higher ratings than more cursory stories, no matter what the topic.
The findings suggest that the shift to violence and voyeurism has left everyone worse off. Viewers, fed a diet of out-of-state car chase footage, are left knowing less about issues, like the schools, that actually affect them. And the TV stations, in clumsily catering to an audience they misunderstood, may actually be sabotaging their own ratings...
...The results...showed that most people in local TV journalism tended to be driven by what's frightening, recent, and visually assaulting. In explaining their priorities, TV producers and journalists said things like "People are always drawn to yellow tape and flashing lights" and "urgent stories are the attention grabbers...Urgent trumps important." Others repeated the familiar tabloid mantra, "if it bleeds, it leads."
But...[Marion] Just, [Tom] Rosenstiel, and their fellow researchers found that, while breaking news and crime and accident stories did draw and keep viewers, more substantial pieces did just as well, and often better, ratings-wise. By slim but statistically significant margins, stories on public policy beat out stories on celebrities, and stories about health issues did better than stories on crime. And giving the prize lead spot in a newscast to a story on economic issues turned out to be the best way to retain viewers from the previous program - a key ratings indicator.
In addition, the study found that what mattered more than topic was how it was treated. In their analysis of the ratings data, the researchers found a strong correlation between high ratings and high scores in a set of "good journalism" categories they had defined beforehand - attributes like original reporting, depth, expert sources, and diversity of viewpoints. Thoroughly reported, balanced, detailed stories with a true local hook, no matter what the topic, tended to beat everything else...
...The portrait that the study paints, in other words, is not just one of decline. The authors say that they hope their findings will show a way forward - providing ammunition for the industry's reformers and idealists at stations across the country...
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