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From AJR,   November 1998  issue

In Local TV NewsWe Trust, But Why?   

Local newscasts give too much emphasis to crime and trivia.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     

Local television news may not be as bad as many of its critics believe, but it is probably not as good as the public thinks.

In a Gallup Poll published in the July/August issue of AJR, the public cited local TV news and public television as more trustworthy than any other news sources except CNN. While the statistics may hearten those who work in local TV news, they don't justify the emphasis on crime and light features that seems to dominate many local newscasts across the country.

"I don't think the content is necessarily the primary reason there is trust," says Marty Haag, senior vice president for news in the broadcast division of the Belo Corp., which owns stations in 17 cities. "I think the trust accrues to the anchor people more than anything else. There is an immediate feeling that these are people who live in my area. They are seen almost as family."

P.J. Bednarski, editor of the trade publication Electronic Media, agrees. "In almost every city in the country, there is an anchorman or anchorwoman who has been there for 15 to 20 years that people lock on to and say, 'That person is telling me the truth.' Compare that to a local newspaper, where the readers don't know who wrote the story on page one," adds the former TV critic for four newspapers, including USA Today. "They've probably read past the byline. But a TV anchor or reporter is in their living room night after night."

Not only are local television newscasts trusted, they also are a prime source of news for the public. The March Gallup Poll ranked local television a close second to the nightly network newscasts as an information source; local newspapers came in third. Local television also is perceived as less biased than national cable, radio and network newscasts, and fairer and more impartial than newspapers, the poll found. Local newspapers are trusted less than network and local news broadcasts.

Much of the criticism of local TV news comes from those same local newspapers. "The people beating the drums of criticism are typically the direct competitors of local television, such as the newspapers," says John Sears, news director at KPTV in Portland, Oregon, and chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "It's nothing new."

Bednarski admits the print media have a journalistic bias against TV news, especially the local version. "They see television news as a regurgitation of facts or stories they've first seen or first read about in print," Bednarski says. "Crimes that make the first five minutes of television news in most cities are usually noted in briefs of two or three paragraphs in newspapers. And how many abandoned warehouse fires does one have to watch 'live' on a newscast? What's lacking most in local TV news is depth."

Sears maintains that local TV news is "much better than local TV critics would suggest to their readers." But others say there often is too much emphasis on crime and trivia. News is "often about things that don't touch readers' lives," says Ed Fouhy, a onetime local and network news executive.

Fouhy founded and until recently ran the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which works with print and electronic journalists around the country. From that vantage point, he's watched local newscasts coast to coast and has been disheartened. "Too much of local news is recycled material that gets fed down the pipe and doesn't have anything to do with the local community," says Fouhy, now heading the Pew Center on the States. The nonprofit institution, launched in July, encourages innovative state government policy.

"Far too many owners have been willing to cut resources to the point that they find it difficult to attract and retain first-rate journalists," Fouhy says, "because the salaries aren't good enough... The tip-off usually is how much time a station devotes to covering crime, which is the easiest story to cover." Those over-emphasizing it, he says, "have a staff that is too inexperienced to cover the more substantial news."

Fouhy says many stations still "maintain very high standards and merit that trust" from the public. But, he adds, "this bond of trust has been severely tested over the last decade, particularly as the enormous competitive pressures have driven a kind of mad, competitive race" for ratings.

Belo's Haag believes polls such as Gallup's place a greater responsibility on local stations to deliver more important news to their viewers. "Even as people say they trust local news, they still complain about local news--and we hear about it all the time," he says. "In a newshole of 11 or 13 minutes, aren't you left with the responsibility to tell the viewer more of what happened in the world than three murders, two fires and five car crashes?"