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Content Analysis

Content Analysis

Two questions stand out in considering the content of local news heading into 2005:

If, as some hope, local newsrooms are poised to get at least some additional resources, what does the content of local news tell us about how those resources might be put to use?

And how did local TV news do in covering the elections?

The Project did not conduct new content analysis of its own for local television this year, but there are three sources we can draw on for insight.

One is our sister group, the Committee of Concerned Journalists, which has had a training program inside local newsrooms since 2002. It includes surveys and small-group sessions with hundreds of local news professionals that offer clues into the thinking and concerns inside newsrooms. Second, Ken Goldstein at the University of Wisconsin, in consort with the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, conducted a major study of local TV coverage of political campaigns in 2004. And we can compare the findings of both those efforts with the five-year database on local TV news content compiled by the Project between 1998 and 2002.1

The Culture of Local TV News Content

Over the last decade, local TV newsrooms have had to contend with growing ownership consolidation and an expanding workload, often without expanding resources.2 The role of the local TV news reporter declined.3 The percentage of stories without reporters increased, as did the use of so-called feed material. There was even greater reliance on “daybook” stories (that is, stories about pre-scheduled events such as hearings, trials, and press conferences, usually kept in a file known as the daybook).4 Against this background, many newsrooms gradually converged on a style that might be called the “hook and hold” approach.

The approach, which is reinforced by the tendency of local TV news personnel to shuffle from market to market for career reasons, has led to a style of news that is predictable from one market to the next and even from one station to the next, and may defy even the desire of station managers and news executives to change. It has also caused some viewers to give up on local TV news altogether.5

One interesting sign is that newsroom consultants, who have frequently been blamed for homogenizing local TV news, are among those advancing the idea that the industry now needs to be willing to change its approach. “There has to be a total rethinking of what news departments are doing,” Dick Haynes, vice president of research at the consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates, suggested in a 2004 interview.6

The “Hook and Hold” Approach

The “hook and hold” approach is a mindset about what viewers want that imparts a surprisingly static, formulaic structure to most local newscasts.

The approach begins with a natural desire to hook viewers at the start. That is done by putting stories that are supposedly “live,” eye-catching and alarming at the top of the newscast. The thinking relies on traditional TV journalism priorities like immediacy, localism, danger, and the conventional belief that only highly visual images will retain viewers’ attention. The result is that the stories that lead newscasts turn out to be in a notably narrow range of topics, mostly incident-based, public-safety news – what used to be called “spot news,” made up of crime, accidents, fires and disasters.

The middle of such newscasts is filled largely with stories that journalists don’t want to leave out, but that are considered not good television. That’s a surprisingly large band of topics, everything from business to education to science and technology to news about government, social welfare, budgets and politics.

The third part of the “hook and hold” approach is based on “holding” viewers until the end of the newscast. That involves “teasing” some of the funniest or most unusual video, and promising further detail later in the show. “Soft news” is nearly always the material here – topics such as pop culture, human-interest features, and sometimes medical news. These “softer” stories are often promoted throughout the newscast to remind people not to leave.

This approach shows up quite clearly in an examination of the data collected by the Project for Excellence in Journalism during its local TV news study from 1998 to 2002. While “public safety” news accounted for 36% of stories over all, it constituted nearly two-thirds of the stories that led newscasts (61%), the stories given the most time and resources. And public safety news continued to make up the majority of stories until the fifth story in the newscast. (Indeed, 13% of all newscasts began with three crime stories in a row, back to back to back.)

“Public Safety” and “Soft” News During Local TV Newscasts
By placement within newscast
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Local TV News Project, 1998-2002

Trainers working for the Committee of Concerned Journalists have also seen ample evidence of “hook and hold”-style news in conducting more than 200 exercises at local news stations around the country, in markets large and small, with more than 1,000 local news professionals. These exercises ask newsroom staff members to “stack” a newscast using a selection of nine typical stories, including reports on events involving public safety, civic issues, and soft news. With exceptions so rare they can be counted on one hand, every group trained so far has followed the same approach and created nearly identical newscasts. Stories that have the potential for alarm – even when the journalists suspect the alarm will turn out to be unfounded – lead the newscast. Stories they know are important but not visual are given short shrift and buried in the middle. Amusing stories they think will get talked about the next day around the water cooler are held to the end.

These findings in the newscast data and the newsroom exercises explain some of the apparent homogeneity of broadcasts. They also offer clues to why critics believe some kinds of stories are ignored in local news, even though journalists feel they cover them adequately.

Interestingly, when this commonality of approach is discussed with news people during the trainings, they are not entirely aware of their actions. The tendency to lead with what is highly visual has become reflexive, but the effect of these priorities on newscast content tends to go unrecognized.

One effect of this emphasis on newscast leads is that stories at the top of the newscast get more time, effort and newsroom resources. They often merit “team coverage” and deployment of the station’s helicopter and microwave trucks to grab live footage.

They are also more complete. The average lead story runs 2 minutes, 18 seconds. And with more time, the lead stories are statistically more likely to provide a fuller range of sources and viewpoints and more authoritative sourcing. A story about a highway pileup, for example, might include comments from a policeman, a hospital spokesman, and a bystander.

Together, the first three stories in a typical 14-story newscast consume a total of five minutes, or 32% of the average newshole of 14 minutes and 20 seconds (that is, the amount of time devoted to news excluding commercials, anchor banter, lead-ins, and promotions, sports and weather).

How Story Length Changes During Newscasts
Average story length, in seconds
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Local TV News Project, 1998-2002

The second effect is that the broader range of public affairs news, which lacks dramatic visual elements such as flashing ambulance lights and yellow crime-scene tape, has little chance of breaking into the lineup before the fourth story, which is often the beginning of the second block of the newscast.

In the five years of the Project’s local TV news data, only after the sixth story in an average broadcast does “public affairs” news (politics, government affairs, social issues, business, etc.) surpass “public safety” news in quantity.

Public affairs topics are not absent from local TV news. In fact, they account for 30% of all stories. But the “hook and hold” approach means they are given short shrift in the coverage they receive, not only when they appear but for how long and in what kind of treatment.

Story Topics on Local TV News
By placement within newscast

Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Local TV News Project, 1998-2002

Going back to the construction of the average newscasts, if the first three stories take up five minutes, the next 11 stories must compete for the remaining nine minutes.

In practice, that means that stories about more complex issues, like politics and business, are dealt with in a more perfunctory matter. The obvious consequence of having less time for a story is that it must be told in shorthand. The local TV news data reveal that sourcing (the number of sources, their expertise, and the number of viewpoints) deteriorates dramatically as the newscast progresses and stories become shorter. After the first story, the frequency of stories with multiple sources drops steadily while the number of items based on a single source or passing references increases. Non-controversial sourcing (that is, sourcing that provides undisputed facts or information), a characteristic of soft news, skyrockets as the broadcast goes on.

Both CCJ training and PEJ data reveal that soft news is almost always pushed to the end of the newscast. And local news people are candid in training in acknowledging that that is largely because of the “teasibility.” The PEJ local TV news database shows that soft news was a lead story in only one out of ten newscasts. By the tenth story, however, “soft news” accounted for about a third (32%) of all stories, and the amount increased from there.

Such stories include classic “water cooler” fodder about the latest miracle diet, celebrity divorce, or heartwarming reunion. The very end of the newscast, the “kicker,” is often a story about a weird or amusing incident designed to leave viewers smiling or laughing.7

Why has the “hook and hold” approach become so predominant? There are a variety of reasons, from the nomadic life of local news people to an overwhelming desire to keep what TV people call their “lead-in” audience, those viewers inherited from earlier programs, often higher-rated entertainment programs, particularly in prime time.

Another factor, local-news professionals say, is the development of more refined ratings technology that allows TV newsrooms to track their viewership minute by minute. In earlier decades, the main hump to get over was convincing people to tune in to a newscast in the first place. The expectation was that once viewers decided to sample a broadcast they’d watch it the whole way through.

The task now is no longer that simple. Instead, with the ability to track audience minute by minute, many newsrooms see their biggest competition as the remote control; their priority is to keep material flowing at a pace rapid enough that viewers won’t feel any temptation to change the channel. One reason why credits at the end of primetime shows have shrunk in recent years is to create a “seamless” experience that will discourage viewers from changing the channel, whether between two sitcoms or between the end of “ER” and the local news.8

Graphed on a chart, the “hook and hold” reveals itself as an X. One leg represents the hook–“hard” public-safety or other “live, local and late-breaking” stories of the kind that usually lead broadcasts but disappear as a news program progresses. The other leg represents the hold– soft, “teasible” water-cooler stories that viewers will sit through the broadcast to see.

It’s a vicious circle: if a story isn’t live, local and late-breaking, it won’t make the first block. And since first-block stories are awarded the most time and resources, less breathless topics like government or transportation or business news get short shrift.

The desire to hook and hold an audience, however, isn’t the only reason the X-factor has become so popular.

Less Expensive News

The kind of stories the “hook and hold” approach emphasizes are easy to find and easy to promote. For newsrooms, that has created an economic incentive that trumps more traditional journalistic values like significance and relevance. The result is a predisposition to cover events that can be reported with less effort.

For example, two-thirds of all local stories in our five-year study of local TV are initially broadcast to newsrooms on police and fire scanners, triggered by information from press releases, meeting agendas or daybook events that are literally dropped in the laps of assignment editors, or picked up from other local news outlets.

And as local stations cover more stories that are easy to find and report, they are also airing significantly more content that requires no local newsgathering whatsoever. This so-called feed material, from outside sources such as a network, affiliate cooperative, or independent syndicator, accounts for almost a quarter of all stories on local news programs.

Third-Party Footage on Local TV News
1998 to 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Local TV News Project, 1998-2002

Not only is feed material relatively cheap and plentiful, it complements the “hook and hold” approach. Newscast producers monitor the daily satellite feeds, cherry-picking eye-catching video that is highly “teasible” or can be used to fill in the blanks in the “hook and hold” template. If a producer wants to end the newscast on a light note and has no local “happy news,” he or she simply pulls some feed footage of a newborn Panda cub at a faraway zoo.

Except for a relatively small core of stories that exhibit the highest levels of reportorial effort, stations have opted for efficiency over quality. Coverage of stories that were more labor-intensive for newsrooms declined between 1998 and 2002. The use of material requiring less manpower increased.

The Disappearing Reporter

Newsroom dependence on the “hook and hold” template to structure newscasts coincides with another trend – the disappearing local TV reporter.

Over the five years of the Project’s study, the percentage of stories typically presented by reporters dropped by about a third, from 62% of the total in 1998 to 43% in 2002. At the same time, all other content, including feed stories, daybook news covered without a reporter, and anchor “tell” stories with no tape footage, increased from 38% to 57%.

Stories with On-Air Reporters
1998 to 2002
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ Local TV News Project, 1998-2002

For many topics, the PEJ five-year study found that a reporter’s appearance in a story is a predictor of quality. For example, a story about a pre-arranged event in which a reporter appears, whether it is to ask a question in a short interview clip or narrate a longer reporter package, is significantly more likely than a story about a pre-arranged event that doesn’t feature a reporter to contain a mix of opinions about a subject rather than just one point of view, PEJ data show.9 That is true whether the story is about crime, politics or social issues. The content analysis this year of network and cable TV reporting finds a similar connection between packages and the depth of reporting. (See Cable/Content Analysis and Network/Content Analysis.)

The decline in reporter appearances could indicate newsrooms are depending more on photographers assigned to an event to ask questions and take notes in addition to making pictures. It could also mean reporters are doing more assignments every day, writing anchor voiceovers for some stories and appearing on camera in others. In fact, both things may be happening simultaneously. One clue may be found in the annual news director surveys conducted as part of the study. Over five years, the number of stories covered by the average local TV reporter increased from 1.4 in 1998 to 1.8 in 2002, an increase of 28%.

The Outlook for Content

Ownership consolidation, declining audiences, and a troubled economic model all created incentives for newsrooms to thin out their newscasts and structure them with a ratings-focused approach. But regulatory pressure may exert an influence that will push newsrooms in an entirely different direction.

Television stations are given an exclusive license to broadcast over a defined portion of the publicly owned spectrum, and in turn are expected to operate in “the public interest.” But the term has never been codified precisely. Stations have argued that they meet their public-interest obligations by forgoing a significant amount of advertising revenue in order to broadcast things like public service announcements, disaster alerts, telethons, and more. A survey of TV and radio stations by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) valued local TV stations’ community service contribution at roughly $2.9 billion.10

In early 2004, however, Chairman Michael Powell of the Federal Communications Commission hinted that he took a skeptical view of those activities: “I don’t think there’s anything special about a broadcaster sponsoring a walk for breast cancer…. I don’t think you should go out and have complete garbage on TV and then buy your way out by sponsoring events in the community.”11 In the fall, the FCC issued a decision requiring stations broadcasting multiple digital signals to devote at least three hours a week to children’s programming for each channel they transmit, one of the first content-based mandates in several years. Its actions led many to suspect the FCC might move toward more regulation of content, though the outlook on this front is unclear in light of Powell’s resignation in early 2005.

The debate over the extent to which the FCC can regulate television content was highlighted in 2004 by both the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident and the agency’s ultimately failed attempt to rewrite media ownership rules. (See Ownership.) In hopes of avoiding on-air profanity, the networks instituted tape-delay policies during live events such as NASCAR races and awards shows. On the local level, the FCC has proposed that TV stations keep 90-day archives of their programming to facilitate indecency investigations.12 Such requirements, some critics worry, could have a chilling effect on television content.

Footnotes

1. The local TV news study included a content analysis of more than 2,400 newscasts in 50 markets. The entire database, the largest that we know of, included close to 34,000 stories.

2. In each year from 1996 to 2000, on average 107 TV stations changed hands. See Broadcasting & Cable Yearbook.

3. A 2001 survey conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that “Fifty-seven percent [of local TV newsrooms] had to produce the same or more news despite layoffs, budget freezes or budget cuts.” See Marion Just, Rosalind Levine, and Todd Belt, “Thinner, cheaper, longer,” Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2001.

4. See Tom Rosenstiel and Marion Just, “Five ways to build viewership,” Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2002.

5. In a NewsLab survey, 25% of people who did not watch local TV news gave as one of their reasons “Local news is always the same stuff.” Deborah Potter and Walter Gantz, “Bringing viewers back to local TV: What could reverse the ratings slide?” NewsLab.org. Online: http://www.newslab.org/research/bringback.htm.

6. “The shape of things to come,” Broadcasting & Cable, January 5, 2004.

7. See “Kickers,” On the Media, September 3, 2004. On line: http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/transcripts_090304_kickers.html.

8. Bill Carter, “NBC cancels the pause between shows,” The New York Times, October 3, 1994.

9. In daybook stories with a reporter, 26% provided a mix of opinions; in daybook stories without a reporter present, only 10% provided a mix of opinions.

10. National Association of Broadcasters, A National Report on Local Broadcasters’ Community Service, June 14, 2004, p. 7. This figure includes a projected $1.7 billion in advertising revenue lost in favor of broadcasting public service announcements; $1.1 billion raised through charitable drives sponsored by TV stations, and $158 million raised by television and radio stations in response to natural disasters.

11. “Powell’s agenda for ’04,” Broadcasting & Cable, January 26, 2004.

12. Jon Hart and Ken Salomon, “Proposed FCC rule on indecency could hinge on election outcome,” The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2004.

13. See Martin Kaplan, Ken Goldstein, and Matthew Hale, “Local News Coverage of the 2004 campaigns: An Analysis of Nightly Broadcasts in 11 Markets,” Lear Center Local News Archive, February 15, 2005. Online: http://www.localnewsarchive.org/pdf/LCLNAFinal2004.pdf.