By Andrew Tyndall
One might think local and network news together would provide viewers with a full plate, a well-rounded hour of local, national and international news plus sports, weather and traffic.
As comprehensive as this hour of news is designed to be, the latest study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism reveals that its two components – the local half hour and the network half hour – are chalk and cheese.
Do not think of the two as doing the same job with two beats: one local, the other national and international. Instead think of two different approaches to television journalism.
Network news is more abstract: its stories are more likely to feature clashes of opinions (32 percent of stories versus 16 percent in local broadcasts), to cite expert sources (49 percent versus 19 percent) and to discuss societal trends (17 percent versus 2 percent).
Local news is more mundane: its stories cover everyday events like fender-benders (42 percent of stories versus 5 percent among network newscasts) more than monumental ones (2 percent versus 16 percent) and they quote the vox pop (14 percent versus 7 percent) almost as much as the expert.
The two beats, local and network, are worlds apart. The networks' national and international focus is brimming with big events and ideological clashes. In April 2001, during our study period, the networks were handed just the type of event their news operations are made to cover: the downing of a U.S. Navy EP-3 spy plane on the Chinese island of Hainan and the ensuing diplomatic tug-of-war to secure the crew's release. Defense and foreign affairs – along with that other great national abstraction The Economy – accounted for fully 39 percent of all network stories filed, compared with a mere 16 percent on the local broadcasts.
The two beats, however, are not the most important distinction. That difference is their formats.
Flowing from the expectation that they would be covering consequential, far-reaching and complicated stories, the networks set up a format in which a lone anchor serves as the symbolic commander of a cadre of correspondents. The traditional anchor's desk presides over the headquarters of a worldwide newsgathering operation, a sort of journalistic Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Starship News. While Dan or Peter or Tom may have his name attached to the title of his nightly newscast, the routine work is assigned to the correspondents who together file between six and seven edited packages each day complete with soundbites, graphics and visuals. Half of all the network news stories are longer than 120 seconds, as opposed to 19 percent for local newscasts.
If the network newscast looks patriarchal, the local news anchor team seems familial: usually four personalities – a his-and-hers anchor team plus sportscaster and weathercaster. Occasionally, news managers even think in terms of casting a family – the older husband, the younger wife, and then the children, one a jock, the other the trustworthy weather person.
The time devoted to news in a local half hour minus commercials, weather, sports, traffic, and chit-chat is shorter than 15 minutes, compared with almost 19 minutes at the networks. Despite the smaller news hole, the local story count is higher (14) than the network (11).
How can that many stories be crammed into that small a news hole? The local anchor couple shoulders the workload. They average eight read-only stories (lasting 45 seconds or less) between the two of them; the solo network anchor reads only four tidbits each night.
Granted the networks have more resources, time, expertise, and clout, all of which help them put together better stories that would score higher in this study. Still, the main reason the networks would do better is that their format features more reporter packages. It is easier to include the attributes of journalistic quality – such as a mix of points of view, experts and sources – in a correspondent package than in an anchor read-only story.
Thus the solo anchor versus the family circle format determines not only image, marketing and promotion, but journalistic quality itself.
The networks' advantage in resources is not irrelevant. If you eliminate the read-only stories and compare just the reporter packages (those stories 90 seconds or longer), the networks still do a better job. As an example, the networks were notably more likely to include three or more sources in such stories (56 percent network versus 45 percent local).
Both the networks and the locals rely heavily on the "day book" of prearranged events for these long packages (roughly four in ten stories for both). Only one package in five covers unexpected breaking news. Thus the networks are actually getting more into their long packages with basically similar assignment habits.
We have already noted that, overall, local news tends to focus more on events (as opposed to ideas, issues, policies, malfeasance, institutions or trends) than the network stories do (54 percent vs. 42 percent). The important difference, however, was not in the number of event-driven stories but in how consequential they were. Almost all the networks' event-driven stories (88 percent) were classified as monumental, unusual, or breaking news. Compare that to just 22 percent for local.
Since the purpose of examining the networks was to illuminate the journalistic options for local newscasters, this piece is not meant to be an analysis of the quality of the nightly newscasts themselves. ABC, CBS and NBC have problems. Each has precipitously cut its commitment to overseas coverage. All have devoted more time to commercials. They have begun picking stories based on demographic targeting rather than newsworthiness. And yet they still have been unable to devise a news agenda that attracts young viewers – or even to get the newscast programmed by the time viewers are home from work. We leave these and other issues to another day.
Still, the data show that the networks are more likely than their local counterparts to employ journalistic strategies that have engendered criticism: "gotcha!" journalism and lifestyle fluff.
One of the sample weeks chosen for this study included a prize example of the gotcha game, representing the last hurrah of the Washington press corps' fascination with Bill Clinton. The investigation of his pardons of the fugitive financier Marc Rich and others led the way as fully 11 percent of all network packages had an investigative tone (versus 2 percent for local). The numbers do not define the line where hard-nosed investigative journalism crosses over to mere "gotcha!" But my own sense of watching these stories is that they provided more fodder for scrutiny of that line than the local stations did.
Another example of questionable enterprise is the category "news series." These are the nightly non-news-related features run under titles such as ABC's A Closer Look or CBS's Eye on America or NBC's In-Depth and Life Line which, depending on one's taste, either round out the day's coverage to survey important underlying societal trends or pander to the self-serving pre-occupations of key demographic components of the viewing audience. Again, without drawing conclusions, 11 percent of the networks' packages ran under such formats whereas only 3 percent of the local broadcasts' did.
If the high-stakes, hard-driving, correspondent- dominated style of the networks leaves them open to charges of slickness and remove, the local newscasts offer a contrast. This study demonstrates that your local station's promotion of its familiar four-person anchor team goes beyond mere marketing. That format shapes the journalism itself. Compared with the networks' severe patriarchal product, local news may seem anti-intellectual and superficial. But that intimate local family circle delivers the reassuring rhythms of everyday life.
Andrew Tyndall is publisher of the Tyndall Report, a research service, and has been monitoring network news coverage since 1987.