Researchers Find Quality Trumps Hype in Local News Coverage

Wellesley's Marion Just, political science professor, co-authors 'We Interrupt This Newscast: How To Improve Local News and Win Ratings, Too'

Sept. 21, 2007
Arlie Corday, 781-283-3321

WELLESLEY, Mass.— What do TV viewers want? Hyped story lines that emphasize danger, dirt, doom and gloom? Or real news, thoughtfully presented and truthfully researched?

Happily, it turns out to be the latter. Now, if only the authors of We Interrupt This Newscast: How To Improve Local News and Win Ratings, Too ( Cambridge University Press, 2007) can convince local news producers of that, TV has a better chance of informing and educating the public.

Marion JustThe book’s authors include Marion Just, (right) a professor of political science at Wellesley College, who also served as the academic advisor to the team of writers including Todd Belt (University of Hawaii, Hilo) and Tom Rosenstiel, Atiba Pertilla, Walter Dean and Dante Chinni (Project for Excellence in Journalism, Washington, D.C.)

“This is the largest study of local television news ever undertaken,” Just said. “The similarities among local newscasts are based on received wisdom. We hope we can change the prevailing view with hard facts.”

Just received the 2007 Murray Edelman Distinguished Career Award in Political Communication at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association Aug. 31 in Chicago.

In addition to teaching at Wellesley, she is also a research associate of the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She is a consultant to the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a member of the advisory board of the Reform Institute and the editorial board of the Harvard International Journal of Press Politics. She is the author of several books and many articles and chapters on politics and the media.

The writers of We Interrupt conducted a five-year analysis of local newscasts in 50 markets. They found that local newscasts are similar in all regions of the country and in both small and large markets. Crimes, accidents and disasters dominate the first half of most broadcasts; politics, education and business are sandwiched in the middle; and soft news provides the happy or surprising ending.

"We Interrupt This Newscast" book coverInterviews with more than 2,000 local TV journalists around the country show that these similarities in story placement arise from TV journalists’ ingrained beliefs about the kind of news the audience wants. News directors say they are picking the “urgent” stories over the “important” stories.

“Urgent stories are the attention grabbers, and you have to grab their attention,” as one TV journalist put it.

But t he truth is quite different, the authors found.

“Our analysis of newscast content correlated with ratings success shows — contrary to the conventional wisdom — that local TV news could do better by following the rules of good journalism — putting in the effort to get good stories, finding and balancing sources, seeking out experts, and making stories relevant to the local audience,” they report.

 The book describes a “magic formula” for audience success, regardless of the newscast’s time slot, market size, level of competition or network affiliation. It also offers specific advice to journalists and journalism students about how to pick stories that attract audiences, how to craft news on particular topics and how to change the newsroom culture.

A book for news junkies in general, it is of special interest to broadcasts journalists, journalism students and scholars of communication and media studies, political science and sociology.

The book calls for quite sweeping changes for local news, including ideas for reallocating funds by dropping one of the two highly paid news anchors in favor of two to four reporters for the same salary.

"In the end, the changes facing local TV news are immense, as they are for all of journalism," note the authors of We Interrupt This Newscast. "But they will represent an opportunity, not simply a threat. The winners will be those who are willing to abandon old thinking while embracing the enduring qualities that make journalism important in the first place."