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Quality gap between newspapers and television newscasts widens in Bay Area, researchers find

Focusing on the Iraq war and California's budget crisis, the Bay Area's three largest newspapers achieved top scores during the first half of 2003 on seven basic yardsticks of sound journalism, a team of researchers at Stanford University has found. But even such compelling issues couldn't lift local television stations from mediocrity, they said.

From January to July, Grade the News, a watchdog group affiliated with Stanford's Graduate Program in Journalism, matched more than 2,200 stories in newscasts and newspapers to core news standards derived from the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. At least on those basics, they rated the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times in the same category as the Washington Post, which was used as a standard of excellence. All four papers rated an overall grade of "A."

By contrast, the team rated KTVU Channel 2, KRON Channel 4, KPIX Channel 5, KGO Channel 11 and KNTV Channel 11 from "C+" to "D+."

The study did not address fundamentally important but difficult-to-quantify measures of news quality, said John McManus, director of Grade the News. "We didn't rate the intelligence of writing or reporting, whether specific important stories, such as a robust debate on U.S. policy relative to Iraq, were underplayed or ignored, or the quality of photos or videography.

"We looked at the basic structure of news, such as the importance of the topics chosen, the level of context, the potential of a story for wide impact on local residents and fairness," McManus said. "We aren't saying local papers match the overall excellence of the Post, but that they did as well on those basics of journalism amenable to counting."

Compared to Grade the News' last analysis, in 2000, the new study found newspapers improving but television stagnating.

"The gap between the newspapers and television stations increased significantly from our last survey," McManus said. "Three years ago Channel 2 in Oakland competed with the best local newspapers. But not this time."

The researchers examined only the stories most likely to be read or seen -- those on the front and local news front pages of newspapers or the first 30 minutes of evening newscasts -- in order to minimize print's advantage in volume over television, said Michael Stoll, associate director of the project. "We also capped the number of sources we counted at levels compatible with the shorter length of newscast stories."

A different approach to news

Despite these adjustments, researchers found glaring differences between print and television:

  • The Bay Area is extraordinarily diverse in all sorts of ways, with multiple perspectives on any issue. Yet stories with only one named source -- or none at all -- comprised 35 percent of the airtime during the top half-hour of news at the stations sampled. Often the single source was a police officer. In contrast, stories taking only 9 percent of newspaper column space on the front pages had fewer than two sources.
  • Stories devoted to helping citizens keep track of government decisions were given nearly twice the emphasis in newspapers as in television -- 47 percent of newspaper column inches versus 25 percent of television airtime. "These weren't just 'meeting' stories," McManus said, "but those that tracked the impact on students and teachers of decisions by school boards, on bus riders by transportation authorities, and on doctors, patients and university students of cuts in state funding."
  • Television newsrooms relied heavily on "spot" news, apparently generated from listening to scanner radios for mayhem, fires and collisions, rather than setting their own news agendas or examining pressing public concerns. The study found that, on average, only 14 percent of airtime was devoted to issue stories initiated by the journalists themselves. In contrast, 46 percent of newspaper space was devoted to these "enterprise" or investigative reports.
  • Even elemental fairness -- getting both sides of controversies -- was inconsistent: No station rated above a C+ on that measure, with the exception of KGO Channel 7, which earned a B+. The newspapers averaged B+.

"Nevertheless, at every station there were also more than a few stories which scored at the top of our categories," McManus said. "Local television news is excellent when it commits the resources."

Television news directors respond

Several news directors questioned the validity of the analysis. Kevin Keeshan, news director at KGO Channel 7, said taking the first 30 minutes of the 6 p.m. newscast missed his station's investigative efforts and some in-depth reporting that appear in the second half of the show. "It would be a more realistic evaluation of what we do and it would have to improve our grades," he said. "I hit some of those [quality measures] harder in the second half-hour than the first."

Ed Chapuis, news director at KTVU Channel 2, agreed: "By eliminating the [second] half of KTVU's 10 o'clock newscast, you are excluding our award-winning 'Segment 2' reports, which are designed to provide depth and context on serious subjects."

"If we included the second half of these newscasts, we'd get that featured, longer story," McManus responded, "but the overall score might decline because we'd also be evaluating more sports and light features. However, we're open to changing our methodology."

The executive of the lowest scoring station rejected the whole idea of analyzing newspapers and newscasts together. "You can't compare a newspaper to a TV newscast," said Jim Sanders, vice president for news and operations at KNTV Channel 11 in San Jose. "It's like comparing the Celtics with the Red Sox."

Douglas Foster, who teaches at the University of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and has worked in both broadcast and print news, disagreed: "For so many years, local television journalists have been defending the value of their role in news. If you want to argue for the value of broadcast news, you have to hold it to similar standards." Foster serves on Grade the News' journalism advisory board, a sounding board of veteran Bay Area journalists. He took no part in the study.

Grade the News was launched in 2000 in an effort to help consumers of news evaluate the quality of the information they watch and read each day, doing for journalism what Consumer Reports does for cars and computers. It is funded by the Ford Foundation and the James L. and John S. Knight Foundation. The full report can be viewed online at


Core quality ratings of the Bay Area's most popular news media*

News Org. News-
Context Explan-
Enterprise Fairness Overall
Chronicle B+ A A A A A A A
KTVU C+ C C+ A C+ D D C+
Mercury B+ A A A A A B A
KPIX D+ D C+ A C D+ C+ C
CC Times B+ A B+ A A A A A
KGO D+ D D+ A C D+ B+ C

*Category explanations below

**Newsworthiness counts twice toward overall grade  

Analysis categories

Newsworthiness: Core topics such as crime, weather, government/politics, education, economics and health get more points than peripheral topics such as celebrity news, fender-benders and sports. Stories affecting many people score higher than those affecting just a few. Stories can score from 1 to 4 points, like a school grade, and are weighted by the proportion of the newscast or newspaper display pages they occupy. If 88 percent or more of the space goes to core topics affecting more than a few (more than 10,000 persons in a region of 7 million), the news organization rates an "A."

Context: Number of sources. Four sources, including documents and "declined comment," rate an "A." But only two independent expert sources also rate an "A." Stories are weighted by time or space, so longer stories count more toward grades than shorter ones.

Explanation: Stories about issues or thematic treatment of events have more explanatory power and receive more credit than stories focused only a particular event such as a fire or homicide. If 70 percent or more of the top stories concern issues (including meetings) or patterns of events, an "A" is assigned.

Local relevance: Stories about what happens in the Bay Area, or localized for the Bay Area, and stories affecting the whole state, rate more than stories from elsewhere. To allow for important news from Iraq and elsewhere, up to 35 percent of the news can be from afar without jeopardizing an "A."

Civic contribution: Stories about how government works, or protesting government power, at any level from school board to Washington are counted. Forty percent or more of the space or time devoted to top stories rates an "A."

Enterprise: Stories initiated by journalists seeking answers to pressing public questions rate more than stories initiated by press releases and conferences or listening to scanner radio reports of accidents and violent incidents. Investigative reporting merits special consideration and is weighted by a factor of 4. Forty percent or more of top story space or time devoted to enterprise or investigative reporting rates an "A."

Fairness: This applies only to locally produced stories that involve some type of controversy or accusation of wrongdoing. If the other side is offered an opportunity to speak (even if that opportunity is rejected), that counts as fair. Eighty-five percent of content rated fair earns an "A."

Overall grade: Because of its central importance, the newsworthiness index is counted twice toward the total. All others are counted once. The result is figured on a 4-point scale.


By John McManus

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