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Does Ownership Matter in Local Television News?


In the age of synergy, do the vast resources of large, diversified corporations lead to higher quality journalism? Or do local owners tied to community tend to make for better, more informed newscasts?

For five years, the Project for Excellence in Journalism has conducted the largest examination ever undertaken of local television news in the United States to deconstruct what local TV news offers citizens and examine what kind of content viewers preferred.

In light of the FCC proposed rulemaking to change limits on media ownership, the Project, a research institute affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, decided to review and re-categorize the data to determine whether ownership type has any bearing on newscast characteristics, ratings or quality. The analysis is not a commentary on the quality of specific stations or companies, but is meant to examine the tendencies of ownership structures.

The findings-an analysis of 172 distinct news programs, some 23,000 stories, over five years-suggest that ownership type did make a difference.

Among the findings:

  • Smaller station groups overall tended to produce higher quality newscasts than stations owned by larger companies-by a significant margin.
  • Network affiliated stations tended to produce higher quality newscasts than network owned and operated stations-also by a large margin.
  • Stations with cross-ownership-in which the parent company also owns a newspaper in the same market-tended to produce higher quality newscasts.
  • Local ownership offered little protection against newscasts being very poor, and did not produce superior quality.

The study, executed in collaboration with Princeton Survey Research Associates, was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The data show stations owned by big companies were capable of high quality. However, for reasons that are impossible to determine from the numbers, these stations didn’t tend to produce high quality when most viewers were watching.

Ownership type made no apparent difference in terms of the diversity of people depicted in the news, one of the characteristics of newscasts the FCC has expressed interest in. Ownership type also made little difference when it came to the range of topics a station covered. In general, there is striking uniformity across the country in what local television stations define as news.

Taken together, the findings suggest the question of media ownership is more complex than some advocates on both sides of the deregulatory debate imagine. Some of the arguments favoring large companies are unsupported by the data-even contradicted. On the other hand, some of the arguments for the merits of local control appear similarly difficult to prove. And some of the arguments for synergy, in particular cross-ownership, are reinforced by the findings.

But overall the data strongly suggest regulatory changes that encourage heavy concentration of ownership in local television by a few large corporations will erode the quality of news Americans receive.

The Study Background

These conclusions are based on a study of local television news around the country that began in 1998. Over the past five years, the Project has studied newscasts in 50 different markets of all sizes in all regions of the country, or roughly a quarter of all the stations that do news in the country. The research analyzed how newscasts were put together, examining them broadcast-by-broadcast, story-by-story, assigning them quality grades, and then correlating the results to audience data from Nielsen Media Research.

This data was not originally intended to explore the question of ownership. But when the FCC asked for research to enlighten the public discussion about ownership limitations, the Project recognized it had an enormous and unique body of data that could inform the debate.

Moreover, this was data without an agenda, collected across a broad swath of television markets to understand what Americans receive from local television news.

To re-sort the data, we grouped stations into five different ownership categories-size of station group, network owned and operated versus affiliate, cross-ownership versus independent, locally headquartered versus out-of-town ownership, and publicly-traded versus privately-held ownership. Within these broad categories, most of the subgroups analyzed contained at least 50 stations. The smallest (with the exception of cross-ownership outlined below) contained 18.

How Do We Define Quality?

The Project did not define what constituted good or bad quality in local television news. To develop that criteria, rather, five years ago we assembled a Design Team of 14 respected local television news professionals-managers, reporters, anchors, producers and station group heads-from a diverse cross section of companies and regions around the country.

Through survey questionnaires and long-form open-ended discussion, they determined that a local television newscast should: 1) cover the whole community 2) be significant and informative 3) demonstrate enterprise and courage 4) be fair, balanced and accurate 5) be authoritative 6) be highly local.

To examine the validity of these criteria, PSRA conducted four separate focus groups in two cities, Tucson and Atlanta, for the Project. The focus groups demonstrated that respondents not only recognized the differences between high and low scoring newscasts in the study, but they preferred the high scoring ones to the low scoring ones and articulated as their reasons the same criteria the news professionals had identified. Subsequently, a national survey of local television news directors conducted by the Project’s academic partners at Wellesley College and included in the 1999 report confirmed the same criteria as the design team for quality news broadcasts.

A team of academics and professional content analysts devised a methodology for measuring these qualities. This methodology effectively deconstructs each newscast by counting such basics as how many topics are covered (cover the community), how many sources and points of view each story contains (balance and accuracy), who the sources are (authoritativeness), how much effort was demonstrated in reporting the story (enterprise), the degree to which stories are made locally relevant (localism), and the degree to which stories touched on underlying themes, issues or trends (significance and informativeness). A more comprehensive explanation of the criteria of quality and the entire study methodology is enclosed in Appendix III.

To pick the stations, the study divided the TV markets in the country into four quartiles by population and randomly selected markets within each quartile. To account for differences in time zones and markets, the study examined the most-watched half-hour timeslot in each city, one sweeps week and one non-sweeps week of weekday broadcasts for each station. Once all the stories were coded for a newscast, the daily scores were then averaged into a station grade of “A” through “F.”

The study’s main findings were published each year in the Columbia Journalism Review. In brief, they found a discernible diversity of quality in local television news. The study also found that, overall, the highest quality TV news stations-those receiving “A” grades-were more likely to enjoy positive ratings trends than any other grade. Over the five years, 16% of stations studied received “A” grades.

The Ownership Analysis

In re-sorting the data to address the FCC’s proposals, we grouped owners into categories by:

  • Size of ownership
  • Network owned-and-operated stations (O&O’s) versus independently owned affiliates
  • Stations in cross-ownership situations
  • Publicly versus privately owned companies
  • Stations located in the hometown of their corporate headquarters versus those with out-of-town owners.

We also looked for examples of duopolies-TV markets in which a company owned more than one station-and stations in which the ownership had changed during the time of our study. In addition, we examined each ownership type by timeslot and for diversity of sources.

It should be noted that the original study examined some stations more than once to maintain a sample that divided the country equally each year by population. To study ownership, we eliminated duplicated broadcasts, using only the most recent year’s data.2 This resulted in a sample of 172 different newscasts.

1 This update is designed to provide readers a more complete understanding of the methodology in the Project’s five-year study of local television news. In addition, it includes supplemental analysis, in response to questions raised about the effect of including some stations in the data more than once if they were studied in multiple dayparts. This new analysis, on page 5, reinforces the original findings. In re-examining the data, Princeton Survey Research Associates also discovered a miscalculation in its original weighting of some stations and has corrected it for this report. There is no material change in the findings as a result. In the two instances in which specific numbers changed more than 3 percentage points, it is noted in a footnote. PSRA regrets its miscalculation.

2 If the same station was studied more than once but at different newscast timeslots, both were included in this study of ownership.

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