December 12, 2005

EXTRA! EXTRA!

The Quality of Knowledge

New tabloid breed is more than screaming headlines but could they be blueprint to the future?

The Quality of Knowledge

If the tabloids offer a broader though less local news agenda, what is it that readers get and what are they missing?

The trade off might be described as knowing a little about a lot of things, or a lot about a few.

To assess what one might learn, the Project examined a series of elements within each story. These included the number of sources used in the report, the range of viewpoints or perspectives offered in controversial stories, the presence of background information, and thoughts about the significance of the event further down the road.

By most measures the tabloids fall far behind in what their stories convey. It might be hard, indeed, for a citizen to form an opinion, change an opinion, or decide how to take action based on the information the tabs provide.

This is evident first in how many sources are cited in stories. Nearly a quarter (24%) of the commuter tabloid stories cited no sources at all. Readers simply must trust the paper, or the wire service, that such sources exist. Another third of the commuter tab stories offered just one source. Meanwhile, only 10% cited four or more sources.

(The Examiner resembled the other tabloids in this rather than representing a middle ground. Roughly a quarter offered no source, another quarter offered just one source, and less than two in ten, 18%, cited four sources or more.)

Number of Sources
#
Youth-Tabloids
The Examiner
Broad-sheets
Total
0
24%
24%
7%
19%
1
32
25
9
23
2
23
21
9
18
3
10
11
11
11
4+
10
18
64
29

Sourcing in the broadsheets was much deeper. Less than one in ten section-front stories (7%) cited no sources. The majority of stories in the broadsheet, 65%, had four or more sources.

In short, for those who want to know where information is coming from, or want many sources to help inform their thinking, the commuter tabloids may not suffice. Neither may the Examiner.

Tabloid stories did, however, usually provide some background on events. These stories offered more than disconnected factoids and the coders reported, impressionistically, that they could understand the basics of the events reported. Quantitatively, indeed, the tabloids were about as likely to include necessary background even in their shorter form as were the broadsheets. Some 80% of the tabloid stories included some background information, versus 96% for broadsheets. The Examiner was similar, 92%.

But when it came to offering an idea of what the event might mean in the long run, its future impact, the tabloids fell further behind. A slight majority of the stories (57%) offered no sense of what might happen next or the effect of events. This was also true of 58% of stories in the Examiner. Broadsheet readers, on the other hand, can normally expect to get some sense of this: 75% of stories suggested something about the future impact of the events described.

And what about getting multiple sides to a story? Relying on just the commuter tabloids won’t give you much help here, especially compared with what one can gain from the full broadsheet report. To begin with, the vast majority of the tabloid stories (75%) do not introduce that there might be a controversy. They offer just the basic facts—this is what happened. Yet even in stories that did involve some sense of conflict or disagreement, fully 74% contained all or mostly one side of the story. Just 26% offered two or more points of view.

Range of Viewpoints For Stories With a Conflict (n=736)
Views
Youth-Tabloids
The Examiner
Broad-sheets
Total
All of 1
36%
49%
11%
27%
Mostly 1
38
28
49
41
2 or more
26
22
41
32

In the broadsheets roughly half of all the section-front stories (52%) introduced no conflict or sense that there could be multiple viewpoints. But in those stories that did involve some dispute, four-in-ten of these stories explored two or more points of view. Just 11% offered only one side of the story. The rest (49%) offered different perspectives but a preponderance of one opinion.

One result of the brevity in tabloids was a lack of opinion that seeps in from the journalist. To measure this more fairly we removed columns, which are often read for the views they offer. Looking just at news stories, the tabloids and broadsheets were on par with each other. Roughly two-in-ten news stories had at least one opinion from the journalist (19% for tabloids and 21% for broadsheets). Broadsheets, in fact, showed a greater inclination toward including two or more statements of opinion—8% for broadsheets versus 3% for tabloids.