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News flash

New research concludes that the sensationalism sweeping local news is bad for ratings

FOR BOSTON TV news, there is before 1993, and there is after.

As befitted the city's Puritan heart and neo-Georgian style, the city's local newscasts had long been less flashy, and more issue-driven, than those in many other major markets. But in April of that year, a Miami-based media company called Sunbeam Television Corp. bought Boston's Channel 7 (WHDH), which trailed in the ratings. The stories got shorter, the graphics bolder, the theme music more insistent. Viewers saw less of the anchors, and more of on-scene correspondents. Many observers noted a decline in stories that dealt with policy and politics, and more that dealt with crime, car wrecks, and child stalkers. During the O.J. Simpson trial, the station sent three reporters to Los Angeles.

WHDH began a sharp climb up the ratings chart. By late 1995, its 11 p.m. newscast was more popular than that of WCVB, Boston's perennial news leader, and by 2000 its 6 p.m. newscast had nearly drawn even with 'CVB's. WCVB and WBZ scrambled to make up lost ground and, ultimately, adopted elements of their rival's winning formula.

The past two decades have seen a marked shift in local television news across the country, away from in-depth coverage and toward speed and spectacle. Broadcast news, envisioned in the early years of television as a means of enriching civic life, has - according to politicians, media watchdog groups, and many TV journalists themselves - degenerated into lowest-common-denominator entertainment. Yet many who work in the industry have grimly accepted this: The market has spoken.

But a study published earlier this year - the most exhaustive ever conducted of local television news - suggests that the industry has severely underestimated its audience. In an unprecedented survey, a team of researchers under the auspices of the Project for Excellence in Journalism studied the minute-by-minute Nielsen ratings for newscasts from 154 local television stations over five years, more than 33,000 news stories in all.

What they found is that quality sells. The sensationalism of late-1990s WHDH, the study suggests, does bring good ratings. But well-done, substantive TV news proves just as popular - and often earns even better ratings.

Viewers, the study found, are perfectly willing to watch stories on education policy or tax debates - in many cases they'll tune in to those stories but flip away from a segment on a celebrity divorce or a deadly highway pileup. And they'll consistently reward in-depth reporting with higher ratings than more cursory stories, no matter what the topic.

The findings suggest that the shift to violence and voyeurism has left everyone worse off. Viewers, fed a diet of out-of-state car chase footage, are left knowing less about issues, like the schools, that actually affect them. And the TV stations, in clumsily catering to an audience they misunderstood, may actually be sabotaging their own ratings.

"I think what governs most television news directors is the sense that they have no choice, that they have to use crime, accidents, and disaster to grab the interest of the viewer," says Marion Just, a political science professor at Wellesley College and one of the study's lead researchers. "But they do have a choice. They can do well and do good."

While the future of local news programming may not have generated as much public discussion as that of newspapers or network news, in a sense the stakes are higher. Despite gradually losing viewers in recent years, local TV news remains, in terms of numbers, the country's most important news source - a 2006 study commissioned by the Radio-Television News Directors Association found that 65 percent of Americans listed local TV as one of their most-relied-upon news sources, more than twice the number who listed local newspapers or national newscasts.

In indicting the news judgment of a large swath of the TV news industry, the study also touches on a broader phenomenon, one that has long intrigued business analysts and social scientists: How is it that an entire industry falls out of touch with the consumers on whom it depends?

Local television news has always had a trashy streak. According to Craig Allen, an associate professor of journalism at Arizona State University and author of a history of local television news, the first local TV news program in the country aired in New York City in 1948 on a station owned by The New York Daily News. The programming took its cue from the newspaper's tabloid sensibility.

The importance of speed and visuals increased in the 1970s, with the introduction of technology that allowed correspondents to broadcast live from the scene, and newscasts began to cast themselves as "action" and "eyewitness" news shows. Around the same time, a whole class of news consultants began offering their services to stations. Armed with polls and focus groups, these consultants pushed for snappier graphics, more live shots, and shorter stories.

"The consultants ever since then have been saying pretty much the same thing," says Allen. "You have this Joe Sixpack audience that is about 70 percent of the population and 95 percent of the newscast audience, and they want news you can use and news that hits at a gut level, things that are easy to grasp."

The Project for Excellence in Journalism study was envisioned as an attempt to test this set of beliefs. Tom Rosenstiel, the founder of the Project and one of the other leaders of the study, was expecting, based on his own experience as a journalist and media analyst, to find that crime and car accident stories were less effective than TV producers have come to assume.

The research consisted of two studies, one designed to measure industry attitudes, and the other to see how different shows fared. The first used exercises in which producers, correspondents, and news managers were given several possible stories and told to construct a newscast from them. The second compared the content of five years' worth of local news shows, from 1998 to 2002, with their ratings.

The results were published in the book "We Interrupt This Newscast: How to Improve Local News and Win Ratings, Too." They showed that most people in local TV journalism tended to be driven by what's frightening, recent, and visually assaulting. In explaining their priorities, TV producers and journalists said things like "People are always drawn to yellow tape and flashing lights" and "urgent stories are the attention grabbers. . . .Urgent trumps important." Others repeated the familiar tabloid mantra, "if it bleeds, it leads."

But the other half of the study suggested that this is not, in fact, how best to grab the audience. Just, Rosenstiel, and their fellow researchers found that, while breaking news and crime and accident stories did draw and keep viewers, more substantial pieces did just as well, and often better, ratings-wise. By slim but statistically significant margins, stories on public policy beat out stories on celebrities, and stories about health issues did better than stories on crime. And giving the prize lead spot in a newscast to a story on economic issues turned out to be the best way to retain viewers from the previous program - a key ratings indicator.

In addition, the study found that what mattered more than topic was how it was treated. In their analysis of the ratings data, the researchers found a strong correlation between high ratings and high scores in a set of "good journalism" categories they had defined beforehand - attributes like original reporting, depth, expert sources, and diversity of viewpoints. Thoroughly reported, balanced, detailed stories with a true local hook, no matter what the topic, tended to beat everything else.

According to Rosenstiel, the findings may be explained in part by the shrinking of the network TV news audience. "There are so may other ways to be entertained on television," says Rosenstiel. "People that turn to a local newscast are that hardy few that's actually looking for information."

The authors are careful to point out that they're not saying sensationalism doesn't work. Walter Dean, a 35-year broadcast news veteran and one of the study's coauthors, concedes that for a station that can't afford to give its correspondents the time and money to do good stories, relying on the police blotter may in fact be a cost-effective strategy, at least in the short run.

Still, the work has its critics. Adam Clayton Powell III, a longtime broadcast veteran and now a vice provost at the University of Southern California, said he agrees with most of the study's findings, but finds it hard to accept that "treatment trumps topic," as the study argued. Some subjects are simply more interesting to people than others, he said, no matter how many sources or how much journalistic work has gone into a story.

TV news consultants said there are broader problems with the study, particularly its reliance on ratings, without input from audience focus groups. Texas-based Audience Research and Development is one of the largest TV news consultants in the country. According to Jerry Gumbert, its president and CEO, the firm has interviewed tens of thousands of viewers about what they want to see in the news. And while Gumbert sees lots of variation from market to market, three things stand out: viewers care about weather, breaking news, and "big, unexpected events, like the bridge collapse in Minneapolis."

No matter how large and diverse a sample, he argues, it's a mistake to draw inferences about preferences without asking people why they're watching what they're watching.

"All Nielsen tells us is what happened," he says. "It does not tell us why."

Traditionally, economists have assumed that competition will winnow out those companies that fall out of touch with their audience. But business history offers many examples of industries that operated for years on a shared set of mistaken assumptions, whether 1960s-era Detroit automakers forecasting that people would always want big cars, or computer makers before the iMac assuming no one cared what a computer looked like.

With TV journalists as with everyone else, Just argues, it's easy to get cut off from one's consumers.

"It's a feedback problem," she argues. Despite its mandate to have its ear to the ground, journalism can be an insular world. While TV news shows live and die by ratings, she says, "Usually most of what you hear about why something was good is from your peers." And so everyone's expectations and preconceptions reinforce everyone else's.

In Boston, though, there are signs that the stations have found a way out of this cycle, to compete on quality instead of spectacle. In recent years, WCVB, the channel with a reputation as the city's most serious newscast, has pulled away from WHDH in the 6 p.m. slot, and even, two years ago, briefly took back the lead at 11 p.m. WHDH, meanwhile, has become something of a journalistic paragon, at least according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism study. The study gave WHDH an A for journalistic quality in 2002, up from a D+ three years before. (2002 is the last year for which the study gathered data.) In fact, WHDH, WCVB, and WBZ all earned an A that year.

The portrait that the study paints, in other words, is not just one of decline. The authors say that they hope their findings will show a way forward - providing ammunition for the industry's reformers and idealists at stations across the country.

"This study in my view is fantastic," says Coleen Marren, news director for Boston's WCVB. "It's important for everyone to be aware of why people actually watch local TV news."

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com.

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