Grade the News Releases Annual Report Card

by Michael Stoll and John McManus on February 3, 2005

Newspapers used to scorn the “flash and trash” story selection of local television news. But a yearlong Grade the News analysis of the Bay Area’s eight most popular news outlets shows a decline in the significance of the top papers’ story choices, as they followed local stations in responding to the allure of sensational stories such as the Scott Peterson murder trial.

Television news still scored lower overall on our seven yardsticks of basic news quality. Many Bay Area TV news directors claim to buck the stereotype of local newscasts over-reliant on the visual and emotional, including violence, fires and minor accidents. Yet when it comes to picking stories that matter, a measure we call “newsworthiness,” the best any local station rated was a C.
This sample period, from mid-2003 to mid-2004, offered plenty of meaty stories — two statewide elections, foreign interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, profound changes in federal programs, a state budget crisis and a new governor who is both populist and conservative. But we often found that in our content analysis of more than 2,500 stories, dramatic items, affecting few people directly, made their way to the top of the news.

Newsworthiness fell at least half a grade for each of the three newspapers — the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times — from the last analysis. No paper scored better than a B on that measure; the year before they all earned a B+. With large and randomly selected samples, the difference is unlikely to be due to chance alone. The measure was enough to pull all three newspapers’ overall scores down half a grade, to B+ from A.

Boosted by the magnetism of Arnold Schwarzenegger, TV stations did raise the quality of their political coverage during the gubernatorial recall campaign.

Two San Francisco stations — KGO Channel 7, the ABC station; and KPIX Channel 5, the CBS station — boosted their overall quality to C+ from C, but the increase came partly from a change in measurement. This time we excluded the final sports and weather reports, two low-scoring story categories.
All media suffered in our grades by crowding out more important stories with news of the weird, the fluffy and the gruesome, epitomized by the now iconic images of Mr. Peterson and his late wife, Laci. In our previous study, the Peterson case was classified as crime news, but in this period coverage was more consistent with the attention accorded celebrities like Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson than with coverage of crime. So we began classifying it as celebrity news, which earns fewer points.

Grade the News’ report card is an effort to hold Bay Area newsrooms accountable to their readers and viewers. We evaluated all eight daily news providers once every 13 days to get a representative, statistically valid sample with equal numbers of fat Sunday and slim Monday editions. We used the results to compute a set of grades for each newsroom.
We analyzed the top stories of the day — those on the newspapers’ front and local news front pages, and those selected for evening newscasts during prime viewing hours. We believe this careful, empirical approach is a valuable new tool in distinguishing between public-interest and narrowly market-driven journalism. The idea is to help news consumers make informed choices, to change the marketplace by rewarding quality and discouraging schlock.
Grade the News issued the following report card:
San Francisco Chronicle – B+
San Jose Mercury News – B+
Contra Costa Times – B+
KTVU 2 – C+
KRON 4 – C
KPIX 5 – C+
ABC 7 – C+
NBC 11 – D+
Stanford graduate students Seeta Pena Gangadharan and Lise Marken, and volunteers Julie A. Varughese, Patrick Cain, Kate Cheney Davidson, Rajeev Poduval and Caroline Keough contributed to this analysis.

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