|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Local TV news remains American journalism’s beloved but disrespected middle child.
The medium is at the same time among the most trusted sources of news for Americans and the most caricatured.1
The first view holds that local TV news is down to earth, deals with topics that are community-based and is aimed at what regular people care about.
The other view is that local TV news is the same everywhere and that it is all mayhem and emotion — that all one gets is crime news punctuated by traffic and weather.
Is one of these views more accurate than the other?
On May 11, looking at 24 newscasts across 8 stations in 3 cities ( Houston , Milwaukee and Bend, Ore.)2, we found that neither stereotype completely hits or misses the mark. There is just enough truth in both that the two sides keep on arguing.
Instead four traits stand out:
Viewers got a lot of local weather, traffic and crime. As for other news of the day — local or national — usually just three or four items received anything more than a brief anchor report with taped sound. That was true across markets.
On the other hand, local TV news is more likely than other media we studied to try to portray regular people from the community and how they feel about things, rather than just officials.
The reporting was straightforward and mostly strictly factual, with little of the journalist’s opinion thrown in.
As local newsrooms are stretched thinner by producing more hours, anchor people increasingly are these newscasts. Most stories were anchor “voice-overs” supplemented with taped sound and visuals, but without correspondents. There was surprisingly little in the way of live or packaged reports from correspondents — far less than on the networks.
Morning news is the newest form and the one still evolving, but as a rule, traffic and weather dominate it.
In other words, viewers got straight news from their local TV stations and it was certainly about the community, but the topics covered were somewhat limited. Whatever tendency already exists in local TV toward stories that are emotional and visual — such as crime — has probably been accentuated with the growing reliance on anchors. The few reporters are saved for those stories that are believed to be audience grabbers. It is left to the anchors to briefly handle the bulk of stories about such matters as budgets, government, infrastructure and civic institutions. The brevity of the coverage, in turn, creates a cycle in which viewers are less and less likely to look to local news as an authority on those subjects.
News of the Day: It’s Crimes and Accidents
For viewers looking for news that day about crime and accidents in the community, local TV was the way to go. More than 40% of the news time was spent on crime — most of it local incidents (although the double murder in Zion, Ill. — a national crime story that day — was covered as well). If we add in accidents (there was a metro rail crash in Houston the night before), the figure rises to 50%. That was close to double the percentage on local radio (24% crime, 3% accidents) or metro newspapers (26% crime and 2% accidents).
Crime and accidents also dominated all three time slots this day: 47% of morning news time, 52% of evening and 50% of late night.
KTRK, Houston 6 p.m. News Packages
In Houston , for instance, three of the five packages on KTRK’s May 11 evening newscast were crime-related. First came a KTRK “exclusive” about new DNA evidence that linked a local police officer to several rape incidents. Another package included the full-screen graphic lead-in “DEADLY ACCIDENT” and focused on a driver who ran a red light and was killed by a metro rail car the previous night. That was followed by a package about a girl who was held hostage and physically assaulted by her boyfriend, which was introduced with the full-screen graphic “GIRL TORTURED.” The two non-crime packages were a commentary on helping Nicaragua to help kids get back on their feet and a piece about a girl boxer with Olympic aspirations.
Milwaukee ’s local news was largely about crime and accidents as well, with a heavy focus this day on the local retrial of the convicted killer Ted Oswald as well as the murders in Zion , Ill. (close enough for Milwaukee stations to cover live with local reporters). View WDJT Evening News Video Clip (Get Quicktime® Plug-in)
In Bend , Ore. , though, with a population of 70,000, crime coverage was not as dominant. The station had stories on a “missing student” and a “methamphetamine bust,” but local shootings and car accidents were largely absent.
Beyond crime, what other kinds of local news would viewers hear about on May 11? Local issues such as a firefighters’ pay raise and plans for a new casino or a new police station made the air in the cities we examined, but were generally found in the middle of the newscast. They accounted for 14% of the news time, usually as anchor reads. Just 9% of all the news time was devoted to government, either local or national.
And just 4% of time was given to foreign affairs on May 11, such as a deadly day in Iraq , the worst anti-American protests in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, or the move by North Korea to extract fuel from its nuclear plants that could be used to make weapons.
Weather and Traffic
Up-to-the-minute reports on weather and traffic were a unifying component to the local television we saw on May 11. It was a rather typical day for weather patterns and traffic delays in each of the cities, and nearly a quarter of all the news time studied (22%) was spent there. That was more than double any other broadcast medium, including the other main draw for traffic and weather news, local news radio (where it accounted for only 9% of the news time).
The morning local-TV news hour, as people are choosing their dress for the day and their allotted minutes for commutes, devoted a full 30% of the time to weather and traffic. The two topics usually led the hour at 6:00 a.m. and were revisited four or five times in the hour. They were less prominent in the early evening and late news, but still consumed more than any other subject (17% evening and 13% late).
While local TV has always been a trusted place for such information, the degree to which it even outpaced the quantity on local news radio was notable. One reason may be that stations can now visualize both weather and traffic. Weather has maps, Doppler radar, and sophisticated graphics and traffic cams now provide current, live (if unstimulating) images of the streets we drive on. On radio, the weather reports are much briefer.
The Missing Reporter
For three years now the Project has reported on the declining role of the local TV reporter, often as a result of expanding workload but diminishing resources. Over five years of study, from 1998 to 2002, the percentage of stories presented by reporters dropped by almost a third, from 62% to 43%, while anchor coverage and feed stories (those coming from the parent network) increased.
The Day in the Life study reinforces those findings and shows how they play out. If the newscasts we saw on May 11 were any indicator, the reporter may have come even closer to vanishing. Only about a third (36%) of the stories came from reporters while 60% were anchor-tell stories (with no video at all) or anchor reads with some video or sound on tape. And that is not including sports, traffic or weather which also usually comes from an anchor or desk correspondent. In most 30-minute segments, there were just two or three packaged pieces and perhaps one live, on scene report.
Story Types in Local TV
What viewers learned about beyond headlines ran the gamut on May 11 — anything from the murders in Illinois , which got heavy play, to a Milwaukee boy who wore a male prom dress to his big high school dance. Consider the 10 p.m. news on Milwaukee ’s WISN. There were three reporter packages: a story on a pregnant woman ordered by a judge to be hospitalized for her drug addition, a piece on the confession of Jerry Hobbs in the murders of his daughter and her friend in Zion , Ill. , and a story about a newly discovered germ that eats the flesh of its victims. None of those stories, incidentally, were section-front news in the local newspaper the next day. The rest of WISN’s 10 p.m. broadcast was all anchor voiceovers, and all but one were under a minute.
It’s Not About Me
With much of the news coming from quick anchor reads, the news broadcasts on May 11 tended to be fact-oriented, with little evidence of journalist opinion. That stood out notably from cable news, and to a lesser extent from morning network news. On the local stations studied, just 1% of the stories (3 in all) contained opinion from the reporter.
That highlights what seems to be a fundamental difference in the three television platforms, and it has to do with their inherent appeal to viewers. Cable mostly centers on host or anchor personalities and views. Network news creates more connection to the news itself and the decision-makers. In local TV, the stories are written to emphasize an emotional attachment to everyday folks.
That sense is created in two ways. First, through the sound bites, which are often from local residents rather than decision-makers. And second, through the subject matter covered, which again often looks at everyday folks — the woman with 12 cats, neighbors’ reactions to a new homeless shelter in the neighborhood, the local track star who is also a singer. Another likely factor is the lack of reportage mentioned above. As stories are more and more frequently anchor reads, there is simply less time for analysis and opinion. In a sense, as resources become thinner, and stations program more hours of news, some of which are designed to be watched for just a few minutes (as in the morning), local TV is evolving toward more of a town crier approach, with little need or room for opinion but also with little depth.
Time Slot Differences
The three time slots for local news — morning, evening and late night — differ in what they offer viewers. The morning news segments stand out in particular as quite different from the other two. Here is a look at the day in local TV news, starting with morning shows.
Morning News: It’s Not the ‘Today Show’3
In the morning news hour on May 11, viewers in Houston and Milwaukee heard about a lot of different goings-on. In all, there were 275 different news items — an average of 39 for each hour segment — and that excludes traffic, weather, teases, promos, banter among the anchors and commercial time. For the vast majority of those items, what was heard was a quick anchor read with some video and perhaps sound on tape (which unlike packaged reports do not require anyone to actually leave the station but pulled from news services.)
Most of the “news” was crime or accidents from the night before. The hour devoted a little less of the total time to crime and accidents than the half-hour programs later in the day, but here they were perhaps even more prominent. Crime or accident news was the lead story following traffic and weather in every single newscast in the two cities.
On the 6:00 a.m. news on Houston ’s KHOU, for example, the entire first news segment, sandwiched between two traffic and weather reports, was eight crime or accident reports. The list:
All that came in the first 13 minutes of the program.
The lead live breaking-news item across all three Houston stations that morning (and even into the evening) was about the car that ran a red light the night before and crashed into a metro rail train. The scene had been completely cleared by morning, with no impact on the morning commute. All three stations, however, led with a reporter live at the site where the crash had occurred. Viewers mostly saw the same images of the crash that aired the night before —flashing lights, injured people on stretchers — and heard from the same transit official.
Interestingly, information concerning the topic with the widest public impact — the overall safety of the metro rail system — differed on each station. According to KTRK, metro rail had been “plagued” with so many wrecks that it “claims the worst first-year safety record of any rail service in the country.” But KPRC distinguished between accidents and fatal accidents: “This is the 80 th accident involving the light rail . . . but this is the first accident in which someone was killed.” KHOU’s live reporter offered perhaps the most nuanced picture: “Metro rail has been involved in 70 or so accidents since it opened. And we’re told that actually recently that number of incidents had dropped when it comes to trains and cars. In fact, it has been cut in half compared to this time last year.”
Milwaukee stations did not have the same kind of dramatic overnight news to offer, but found several overnight crime stories to lead their coverage. A double homicide, a daughter stabbed, the ongoing search for a missing man, a teen killed, and the murders in Zion , IL all topped the news this morning.
News of local government of civic issues, were mentioned only later in the program if at all. Viewers of Milwaukee ’s WDJT that hour would have heard briefly about a handful of items that related at all to local civic issues: election fraud discovered in Wisconsin , renter’s insurance, local jobs for youth and new housing for local inmates, new approval figures for the governor, and the renaming of the Marquette ’s sports teams. But all of these were anchor tell stories, sandwiched in the middle of the newscast and with less than three minutes of total airtime. WTMJ did stand out on this day, though, for a two-minute piece on the new bankruptcy law, complete with an interview (though even this appeared 27 minutes into the hour).
In Houston , the tax bill passed overnight by the Texas legislature, on the other hand, which would lead the Houston Chronicle the next morning and change residents’ property, education and other tax rates, was relegated to a 13-second anchor voice-over 30 minutes into the hour on KHOU and got similar treatment on KTRK. On KPRC, the tax overhaul still ran in the form of an anchor voice-over, but appeared earlier — eight and a half minutes in. Most of Houston ’s morning radio news programs, by comparison, reported the tax story at the top of the hour, and some made it their talk and call-in segments that day.
The few “packages” that did appear in the morning were normally softer, lifestyle pieces and were different from station to station. In Houston , besides the lead report on the metro rail crash, none of the packages were the same. KPRC ran two — work involved in the upkeep of a local Marriot hotel, sex offenders living in group homes — and two separate live reports on a teenager who stabbed his mother’s best friend. KHOU devoted packages to the strained relations between President Bush and Congress over Iraq , the winners of Survivor’s “Amazing Race,” and consumer advice on protecting against identity theft. KTRK ran just one package, on insects invading a city in Arizona .
Morning News Packages, May 11, 2005
Evening and Late Night News
The evening and late night newscasts in each city were thoroughly different from the morning.4 But they were nevertheless alike. Both half-hours tended to have more packaged reports and were even more locally focused than the morning.
Two patterns emerged. The first is that most of these newscasts demonstrated what we have come to call the “hook and hold” approach to local TV news. The phrase refers to the habit of opening the newscast with visuals that are meant to be alarming and eye-grabbing— flashing lights and yellow police tape — to get to the broadcast’s lead story, then repeatedly teasing viewers with the promise of another report, held till the end to try and keep people from changing channels. In the middle, stations carry the brief anchor-read stories that they apparently feel need to be covered but that aren’t “good TV” — legislative activities, budget news, etc. The item at the end, teased throughout the broadcast, is usually a funny or unusual piece of video, such as a married couple who say it was Elvis that brought them together. (For a more detailed discussion of this approach please see the 2005 Annual Report ). On May 11, “hook and hold” was evident in both the evening and late newscasts, except that the middle of the newscast didn’t cover much in the way of government and other local issues. It was more crime and some national wire stories.
KPRC’s 6 p.m. newscast in Houston, for instance, hooked viewers in with the live, breaking news that the Houston Crime Lab had been re-accredited, followed by a live report from the scene of the metro rail crash that occurred 20 hours earlier (with the same eye-grabbing visuals as in the morning newscasts), and a then bike accident. The middle of the newscast included voice-overs about child murder, teacher alcoholics, the evacuation in D.C., the Iraq car bombs and local crimes. Teased throughout was the final package—a girl boxer with dreams of going to the Olympics.
Not every station followed the pattern exactly, however. KTVZ’s 6 p.m. newscast in Houston used the “hook and hold” but offered more serious news in between. It drew viewers in with a graphically displayed “Missing Student” story in the middle aired correspondent packages about two local pieces of legislation — an education bill and a gun bill — with some of the most in-depth reporting we saw that day.
In Milwaukee, WITI’s 10:00 p.m. newscast represented still another variation on the theme—the traditional “hold” but a much more serious lead story than the normal “hook.” It was a new state law that would restrict the purchase of some over-the-counter cold medicines. Even here, though, the anchor still tried to give viewers some sense of alarm in the lead in: “If the governor signs this bill you’ll need an ID to buy some over-the-counter drugs,” the anchor began. “Meaning, it will be easier to vote than to cure your cold.”
As for the “hold” teased throughout this newscast? There were actually two: An outer-space elevator and a new game — Robodog soccer.
A second finding for May 11 was that most the stations packaged different stories in the evening than they did on the late news following prime time. While cable news stands out for repeating its news items and even its packages across the day, local TV seems more concerned with giving viewers something different each newscast. Commonly, something that was an anchor read on one of the newscasts was a package on the other, and vice versa. Consider the 6 and 10 p.m. broadcasts on WISN in Milwaukee . At 6 p.m. the Zion murder case, the local Oswald trial, the Marquette nickname, and a boy’s prom dress were packaged reports. At 10, all of those except for the Zion murders were anchor reads with sound, while a pregnant drug addict and a flesh-eating germ became packages.
WISN Milwaukee: Story Rundown May 11, 2005
Finally, the late-night newscasts, with an extra five minutes in their newshole compared with the evening programs, didn’t devote that time to hard news coverage. They were more apt to close the newscast with a soft feature piece. In the final segments of the eight newscasts, viewers got reports on fortune cookies, a feature on an ice cream customer, a couple who believes their marriage centered around Elvis, local White House aides, King Tut, Robodog soccer and sports scores.
Market by Market
And what about the stereotype that local news is the same in every city — that in a consultant-driven medium there is no longer any sense of place?
The Day in the Life study suggests there is something to that complaint, but we found some small differences. Across the three cities, the look and feel of all the newscasts were strikingly similar. From the images themselves — the news desks and anchors as well as the video clips — it would be hard to discern which of the three cities you were watching. All the newscasts had a two-person anchor team, almost always a man and a woman, one black, the other white, and almost always seated side by side. Only one station, WITI in Milwaukee , veered from having the anchors perched at the news table throughout. On that station they moved around, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting.
The video clips of sirens, frenzied gunshot scenes and even many of the softer feature pieces had little to identify them with a particular city. Nor did the graphic tags like “The Big Story,” “Deadly Accident,” “Breaking News,” and “Local First.”
What about traffic and weather? The names of the cities finally give the location away, but the other images, from the live traffic cams to the five-day forecast graphic, were universal in their look.
The biggest stylistic difference in the three cities was in the availability and use of live reporters. Houston , the biggest market in the mix, clearly had more correspondents available to report live. The newscasts there tended to have two or three stories with reporters live on the scene, with a cut to a package each had prepared earlier.
In Milwaukee, two of the newscasts had a reporter live in Zion, Ill., reporting on the double murders, but the other “live” comments were all in-studio. In Bend , the lone evening news program had one reporter live on scene for a story, while the other evening packages were from the anchors themselves, suggesting the effects of an even slimmer staff on a smaller market. And at 11 p.m. , three of the four packages came from the station’s NBC parent.
Among the stories themselves, however, the choice was not so strictly homogenized from station to station. In Houston, for instance, viewers at 6 p.m. were met with the same lead story on each station — breaking news on the Houston Crime Lab’s re-accreditation, which had been announced “moments” before — but after that the three stations diverged.
Houston, TX Evening Newscasts: Packaged Reports May 11, by station
In Milwaukee, the channels were more similar in their top news picks at 6 p.m. All four stations aired packages on Zion, the renaming of the Marquette sports team and the Oswald trial. The one station that led with something different was WITI, which ran a package on an announcement by the state commerce department that it would step up inspections of gas stations for possible fraud in the octane levels they claimed. The correspondent treated the development as a rather critical consumer matter, but in the end, viewers were left wondering why it was all that important. After interviewing the state commerce secretary and explaining policies in other states, the reporter closed by noting that the Wisconsin official “says so far they haven’t found any incidents of gasoline fraud.”
Milwaukee 6 P.M. Packages, May 11, by Station
In Bend , there is just one local news station, KTVZ, an NBC affiliate. The morning news show did not air that day because of local power outages, but the evening and late night shows give us a sense of the small cities’ resources and news offerings on the 11th. There were four packages in the 6 p.m. newscast — two on local legislative issues (education and gun control), a package on internet pornography and one about a singing track star.
In a sign of the small size of the station’s staff, two of the four packages at 6 were reported by the anchors. And as noted, three of the four 11 p.m. packages were feeds from NBC. The other package was a rerun of the one at 6 p.m. on a local gun bill.
KTVZ, Bend, OR 6 P.M. Packages, May 11, 2005
1. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Public More critical of Press but Goodwill Persists: Online Newspaper Readership Countering Print Losses,” June 26, 2005. The survey found that 79% of Americans said they had a favorable view of local TV news, higher than for nearly any other medium surveyed.
2. For the local sample we selected three markets, one large, one medium and one small. To select the markets, the list of 210 markets was first divided into thirds based on population. (Each group representing roughly one-third of the population according to Nielsen Media Research). While ensuring geographical diversity, one market was then randomly selected from each group. The markets selected were Houston, TX (large), Milwaukee, WI (medium) and Bend, OR (small). For radio news, we selected, if they existed, 1 all-news station, 1 news talk station (looking for a diversity of affiliation and ownership), 1 local NPR station if it airs local news programming beyond top-of-the hour wrap-ups. If there was no all-news station, we selected a second news-talk station, that is either Clear Channel or unaffiliated. In some instances, it is hard to determine the exact nature of a station from Arbitron or BIA listings as the category types do not always clearly reflect programming. We tired to be as thorough as possible in examining the multitude of radio stations within each market. For a full list of stations and hours captured, please see the Methodology.
4. For every station except WDJT, Milwaukee, the evening newscast studied was 6:00 to 6:30 p.m. On WDJT, the 5:00 to 5:30 program was captured. The late night newscast in all cases except KTVZ in Bend was the 10:00 to 10:35 newscast. In Bend, the only late local newscast aired from 11:00 to 11:30.