Local TV Content, A Day in the Life
Annual Report 2006
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
Topics in Local TV, Percent of all time
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
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
Percent of all news
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.