March 26, 2005

All the News That’s Fed

Though presidents have always worked hard to get their message out, the Bush administration has pushed the envelope, especially with its aggressive use of the faux news segments called video news releases. But what is even more noteworthy is how easy it has been for the White House to get local TV news stations to run these video news releases. Why has that been the case?

A close look at some hard numbers about local television offers the answer and reveals much about the nature of the news business today.

From 1998 to 2002, the Project for Excellence in Journalism and researchers at Wellesley conducted surveys with local news directors and undertook a content analysis of local television programming at stations around the country. In 2001 and 2002, we asked local TV news directors whether they used video news releases from government or other third parties, and if so, whether they identified the source.

In both years, only slight majorities of news directors surveyed said they never ran video news releases (56 percent one year, closer to 60 percent the next). An additional 10 percent said although they used them, they always clearly labeled the source.

But that meant that a quarter to a third of news directors in our surveys showed video news releases and disclosed the source “occasionally,” “rarely” or “never.” Why would they do that when “press release journalism” has always been considered an insult?

Other evidence provides the answer. For several years, the audience for local news at the traditional times of 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. has been declining. Yet, the news directors reported, the companies that own these stations have generally continued to expect high earnings, usually profit margins in excess of 40 percent.

To meet those demands, most stations have added programming, usually without adding resources. In 2001, when asked “what was new at your station,” 29 percent of news directors said that they added programming. The percentage was highest for the stations in the smallest markets with the fewest resources; in those cities, nearly 40 percent of stations had added hours. And fully 71 percent of all stations reported budget cuts.

One news director wrote: “Adding a 5 p.m. newscast. Don’t have staff to make it a local show. Tough!”

In 2002, 55 percent of news directors cited greater burdens on their staff as their top concern. And stations were more likely to have cut their staffs than to have added to them. “Budget cuts; frozen positions, less money and more responsibilities,” one news director wrote.

We could see the effect on the air. From 1998 to 2002, a study of 33,911 television reports found, the percentage of “feed” material from third-party sources rose to 23 percent of all reports from 14 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of stories that included a local correspondent fell to 43 percent from 62 percent.

Local broadcasters are being asked to do more with less, and they have been forced to rely more on prepackaged news to take up the slack. So we don’t have to search far to discover why the Bush administration has succeeded so well in getting its news releases on the air. The public companies that own TV stations are so intent on increasing their stock price and pleasing their shareholders that they are squeezing the news out of the news business.

Marion Just is a professor of political science at Wellesley College. Tom Rosenstiel is the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington.