By William Fisher
In the Middle East, television media channels are becoming as ubiquitous as hubbly-bubblies. Once populated only by government-owned and controlled outlets, the Middle East landscape is now crowded with 24-hour satellite channels like Al Jazeera, Al Aribiya, Al Hurra, CNN, the BBC, and various country-specific satellite stations (many still controlled by governments). The area’s hunger for news is also beginning to be fed by online news via the Internet, where most of the world’s newspapers – and an exponentially growing number of ‘blogs’, or web logs – are available.
And so it is in the United States. In America, which has more than 1,500 daily newspapers as well as countless weeklies and radio stations, television is still the public’s prime source of news. The architecture of the US television news business, however, is in at least two respects, different from that of the Middle East. First, there are no government-controlled stations. A US Government agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), regulates the airwaves, but does not own any of them. Second, America has the phenomenon of ‘local stations’, unknown in most of the Middle East. Most local stations are affiliated with one of the big US networks, like CBS, NBC, or ABC, and use the major networks for their national and international content.
But their uniqueness is that they broadcast content specific to a city or town or region. The analog in the Middle East would be a TV station located in, and dedicated to, broadcasting information from and about, say, Cairo, or Beirut, or Jeddah. Local television in the US broadcasts music, entertainment, calendars of events, talk shows, news, and advertising, relating exclusively to the community in which they’re located.
Broadcast TV stations in the US, including local stations, don’t pay the government for use of the airwaves; the airwaves belong to ‘the public’. But in exchange for this highly profitable access to viewers – and their advertisers’ access to customers – the FCC is mandated to demand full, fair and responsible coverage of local news.
Local news becomes particularly important in elections years, and not only Presidential elections years. On an American election day in any year, voters in thousands of communities cast ballots for town councils, county commissioners, school board members, judges, sheriffs, state legislators, US congress, and much more.
Local television stations are supposed to present the issues and the candidates as part of their public responsibility. But there is mounting evidence that they are failing to live up to that responsibility, and increasing criticism of the FCC for not monitoring these stations and what they’re broadcasting.
In this US election year, much is being written and spoken about how poorly informed the US electorate is. If that’s true, one reason is ‘local TV news’. Viewers are unlikely to become political pundits by watching it.
Here are some of the findings of a local TV news study of the 2002 election reported last month by the Norman Lear Center, a research and public policy center at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California:
Almost six out of ten top-rated local news broadcasts contained no campaign coverage whatsoever.
Most of the local campaign stories that did air were broadcast during the last two weeks of the campaign.
Nearly half the local political stories were about horserace or strategy, and not about issues.
The average local campaign story lasted less than 90 seconds.
Fewer than three out of ten local campaign stories that aired included candidates speaking, and when they did speak, the average candidate sound bite was 12 seconds long.
Campaign ads outnumbered campaign stories by nearly four to one.
The Lear Center collected top-rated early- and late-evening half-hours of news from a scientific sample of 122 stations in the top 50 U.S. markets. It analyzed more than 10,000 news broadcasts that aired during the last seven weeks of the 2002 campaign.
These findings are supported by many others, including a five-year study of local television by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. That study found:
The No. 1 topic on local television news is crime. Over the study’s five years, 24 percent of all stories were about crime - ranging from a high of 26 percent in 2002 to a low of 19 percent in 2000. Crime stories led the local newscasts. The 2,400 newscasts studied found that 39 percent were crime stories, while 13 percent were about disasters or severe weather, and 9 percent were about a fairly routine fire or accident, for a total of 61 percent.
The No. 2 top stories are about accidents, bizarre events, fires and catastrophes, accounting for 12 percent. Taken together, crime, fire accidents and disasters made up 36 percent of all stories.
The next most popular topics are human-interest stories and politics, which each accounted for 10 percent of stories. But of the political stories, most dealt with state races and relatively few were about local politics.
The tragedy of 9/11 did force local TV stations to become more international – but just a bit. Over the first four years of the study, foreign affairs and defense amounted to just four percent of stories. This year, coverage of those topics rose to nine percent – during the heaviest fighting of the Afghanistan war. Reporting on politics, government and public policy (nine percent) did not increase, despite the political dimension of the war on terrorism.
Nor did homeland security get much attention either. Issues such as airport baggage checks and the threat of bioterrorism accounted for just one percent of the stories. There was as much coverage of missing children as there was of local homeland defense.
According to Martin Kaplan, director of the Lear Center, back in 1998, the Gore Commission proposed voluntary standards for local TV news. “After years of deliberation, it urged stations to air at least five minutes of candidate-centered discourse a night on each night in the month before the election. How well did it work? In the 2000 election, we studied 74 stations in 58 markets. Rather than five minutes of candidate discourse a night, the average station ran 74 seconds.”
Kaplan urged the FCC to adopt “explicit standards of performance” for local news stations, which “promise to fulfill a public interest obligation in order to get their license”. Then, he said, “we need a way to know if stations actually meet those obligations, and a way to link stations’ performance on the public interest obligation with the renewal of their licenses.”
Industry sources report that more and more people who are watching television are now watching things other than local news. Yet even with a declining audience and a sluggish economy, local television remains consistently profitable. And news is responsible for a disproportionate amount of a station's income -- 16 percent of a typical station's programming each day, but roughly 40 percent of its revenue.
The ‘why’ of this sorry state of affairs is long and complicated -- certainly media consolidation is one factor, but only one of many.
Len Downie Jr. and Bob Kaiser of The Washington Post are among many others examining this issue. Their view: “If most newspapers have done poorly, local television stations have been worse. Typically, local stations provide little real news, no matter how many hours they devote to "news" programs. Their reporting staffs are dramatically smaller than even the staffs of shrunken newspapers in the same cities. The television stations have attracted viewers-and the advertising that rewards their owners with extraordinary profits-with the melodrama, violence and entertainment of "action news" formulas, the frivolity of "happy talk" among their anchors and the technological gimmicks of computer graphics and "live" remote broadcasting.”
And broadcasting analyst John McManus, in an article entitled “Do Television and Politics Mix?” writes: “To be fair, stations under economic pressures to maximize profit can make more money doing stories other than politics, even at this time of year. Despite the hoopla of a presidential election, roughly half of eligible Americans don’t bother to vote and presumably aren’t interested in political stories. Because you can’t ignore a long political story in favor of something you find more interesting—as you can in a newspaper—those bored by politics switch channels, thus penalizing the station.
“Stories the stations emphasized — the flaming crash of an airliner in Taiwan, the cute little feature about the Lawrence Livermore Labs doing research on something so prosaic as grilling burgers, Channel 7’s “x-ray” camera looking through the skirts of young women — all have a powerful human-interest appeal, through life and death drama, oddity, or titillation. In other words, they “sell” well.
“Television clearly pays a greater price in profits than newspapers for coverage that doesn’t turn the heads of as many as possible. But the role of news isn’t to rubber neck for as big an audience as possible. It’s to help as many as possible understand the world around them.
“Just before an election the public need is greatest for intense, independent reporting on how billions of dollars of our money shall be spent and who shall lead our nation, our state, county, city, even police departments and schools. Political coverage is a litmus test of the civic responsibility of our news media. Given the extraordinary profits local stations earn—the industry average for large market affiliate stations is about four times that of the average U.S.
firm—and the bonanza that political advertising represents, one might expect at least a tie between journalism ethics and the demands of Wall Street.”
What is important in terms of the upcoming election is for Americans to remember that local television stations operate on airwaves given to them by the US taxpayers. With that gift goes a responsibility to inform the public. The Federal Communications Commission and the Congress need to take whatever steps are required to insure that this responsibility is taken seriously, and that owners of local TV stations are held accountable.