Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New USC Study: What's Wrong With TV News?

You don't have to look much further than this new comprehensive study of the Los Angeles TV news market (the nation's second largest) to figure out why TV newscasts are so vacuous.

It's an analysis of the local newscasts on 8 L.A. stations, over 14 days last summer -- that's 11,253 news stories in 980 half-hour programs -- conducted by the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

It's called, "Local TV News in the Los Angeles Media Market: Are Stations Serving the Public Interest?" And you can pretty much guess the answer to that rhetorical question before you even dive in.

(NOTE: A content analysis of the Los Angeles Times on those same days was also performed, and frankly the beleaguered newspaper didn't fare much better -- but that's another story for another day.)

Here's what the USC team found:

A composite half-hour of LA local TV news contains 8:25 of ads; 2:10 of teasers (“stay with us – there’s a story you won’t want to miss”); 3:36 of sports and weather; and 15:44 for everything else. So besides sports and weather, only about half of a half-hour of news is news.

How much of that 15:44 is about events that happened in the Los Angeles media market? Local news takes up 8:17; non-local news gets 7:27.
Considering that, as we recently noted, a new Pew study showed that local TV newscasts are the primary information source for 78% of Americans, you'd hope that at least those 15 minutes would be chockablock with important topics, right? Keep dreaming.

What kind of stories led the news at the top of the half-hour?

The most common topic by far was crime. One out of three broadcasts led with it. Nearly half of those were about murder, robbery, assault, kidnapping, property crime, traffic crime and other common crime. A fourth of the crime leads were about celebrity crime. And nearly a fourth of the crime leads were about crimes that didn’t take place in the Los Angeles media market.

When the broadcasts didn’t begin with crime, what did lead the news?

Nearly two out of 10 broadcasts led with sports/weather or traffic. One out of 10 led with a story about the Los Angeles area wildfires, which occurred during the sample period.

How often did stories about Los Angeles-area government lead the news?

Two-and-a-half percent of the time. One out of a hundred leads was about the unfolding budget crisis.

Did other stories about Los Angeles local issues lead the news?

Yes, stories focused not on government, but on people dealing with local issues, led the news, but only about 6 times out of 100. In addition, stories about water main breaks led the news 5% of the time.

Besides ads, teasers, and sports/weather, what topics got the most of the 15:44 left?

Crime, at 2:50. The next-highest amount of time (2:26) was taken up by soft news, oddball news, human interest stories, contests, make-overs, world record attempts, fashion, travel, cooking, animals going wild, weddings etc. After that came entertainment, at 2:02. These three topics took up 7:18.

How was the remaining time divided?

There were four main topics fighting for the remaining time. Each got about the same amount of attention.

* Business/Economy stories took 1:20. Business/Economy stories about the Los Angeles area took up 29 seconds of that.

* Catastrophe stories took 1:19, of which 1:05 was about the wildfires, and most of the rest about water main breaks.

* Stories about people in the Los Angeles area dealing with local civic issues like transportation, community health, the environment, education and taxes, activism, fundraisers, vigils, changes in services provided by local organizations, etc. took up 1:16.

* Stories about government actions on topics like education, health care and law enforcement took up an additional 1:12. The majority of this time (0:49) was devoted to government actions taking place at the federal level or in other states. Coverage of Los Angeles-area government took up just 0:22. Of that, news about the budget averaged 7 seconds; law enforcement and legal issues, 5 seconds; education, 3 seconds.

The remaining portion of the half-hour (3:19) was spread across international coverage (including war coverage and U.S. foreign policy), health-related stories, traffic reports, science and technology, and unintentional injuries, such as car crashes.
So now you know why all those people-on-the-street that Jay Leno encounters are so ill-informed about ... well, everything.

Depressed yet? Relax, this will cheer you up:

Read the full USC study here.

Read the Norman Lear Centertainment blog here.

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