Report card

Bay Area newspapers chose more trivial stories, but still beat local newscasts, 2003-04 grades show

Print outperforms TV news even accounting for newscasts' time limitations

By Michael Stoll and John McManus
Posted Feb. 1, 2005

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Newspapers used to scorn the "flash and trash" story selection of local television news. But a yearlong Grade the News analysis of the Bay Area's eight most popular news outlets shows a decline in the significance of the top papers' story choices, as they followed local stations in responding to the allure of sensational stories such as the Scott Peterson murder trial.

Television news still scored lower overall on our seven yardsticks of basic news quality. Many Bay Area TV news directors claim to buck the stereotype of local newscasts over-reliant on the visual and emotional, including violence, fires and minor accidents. Yet when it comes to picking stories that matter, a measure we call "newsworthiness," the best any local station rated was a C.

This sample period, from mid-2003 to mid-2004, offered plenty of meaty stories -- two statewide elections, foreign interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, profound changes in federal programs, a state budget crisis and a new governor who is both populist and conservative. But we often found that in our content analysis of more than 2,500 stories, dramatic items, affecting few people directly, made their way to the top of the news.

Want to see how your favorite news provider scored? Select from the list below:

   
Want to know how Grade the News measures journalism quality? Select an index:
Quality indices:

News-
worth-
iness*

Context
Explan-
ation

Local
rele-
vance

Civic
contrib-
ution

Enter-
prise
Fair-ness
Overall
San Francisco Chronicle
  B
  B+
  A
  A
  A
  A
  A
  B+
San Jose Mercury News
  C+
  B+
  A
  A
  A
  A
  A
  B+
Contra Costa Times
  B
  B
  A
  A
  A
  A
  A
  B+
KTVU (Channel 2)
  C
  C+
  C
  A
  B+
  C
  B
  C+
KRON (Channel 4)
  D+
  F
  C
  A
  C+
  B+
  C
  C
KPIX (Channel 5)
  D+
  C
  C+
  B
  A
  C+
  B+
  C+
KGO (Channel 7)
  C
  D+
  C+
  A
  B
  C+
  B+
  C+
KNTV (Channel 11)
  D+
  F
  D+
  A
  C+
  D+
  C+
  D+
*Newsworthiness counts twice toward overall grade.
For definitions of the above indices, see "Seven basic yardsticks of journalism quality."

Newsworthiness fell at least half a grade for each of the three newspapers -- the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times -- from the last analysis. No paper scored better than a B on that measure; the year before they all earned a B+. With large and randomly selected samples, the difference is unlikely to be due to chance alone. The measure was enough to pull all three newspapers' overall scores down half a grade, to B+ from A.

Boosted by the magnetism of Arnold Schwarzenegger, TV stations did raise the quality of their political coverage during the gubernatorial recall campaign.

Two San Francisco stations -- KGO Channel 7, the ABC station; and KPIX Channel 5, the CBS station -- boosted their overall quality to C+ from C, but the increase came partly from a change in measurement. This time we excluded the final sports and weather reports, two low-scoring story categories.

All media suffered in our grades by crowding out more important stories with news of the weird, the fluffy and the gruesome, epitomized by the now iconic images of Mr. Peterson and his late wife, Laci. In our previous study, the Peterson case was classified as crime news, but in this period coverage was more consistent with the attention accorded celebrities like Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson than with coverage of crime. So we began classifying it as celebrity news, which earns fewer points.

Extra fair: KTVU's Ken Wayne found and interviewed a man Oakland's mayor said was a fugitive.

On the positive side, both print and broadcast journalists showed substantial improvement in fairness -- getting the other side of controversies. One-sided stories dropped by half from the previous grading period.

Seven yardsticks derived from the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists contribute to the overall grade we assign each news provider's work. They are newsworthiness, context, explanation, local relevance, civic contribution, enterprise and fairness. Newsworthiness is the most important index of quality and is counted twice in our grades. That's because it matters little how fairly presented, richly sourced or local a story may be if the topic is trivial.

Our grading method examines only basic measures of quality. It does not capture more subjective qualities, such as writing or photographic skill. (See "How the study was done," below.)

Grade the News' report card is an effort to hold Bay Area newsrooms accountable to their readers and viewers. We evaluated all eight daily news providers once every 13 days to get a representative, statistically valid sample with equal numbers of fat Sunday and slim Monday editions. We used the results to compute a set of grades for each newsroom.

We analyzed the top stories of the day -- those on the newspapers' front and local news front pages, and those selected for evening newscasts during prime viewing hours. We believe this careful, empirical approach is a valuable new tool in distinguishing between public-interest and narrowly market-driven journalism. The idea is to help news consumers make informed choices, to change the marketplace by rewarding quality and discouraging schlock.

The newspapers -- still solid

Overall, the Chronicle, Mercury News and Times devoted considerable space on their front and local front pages to what we consider to be "core" topics such as education, government, crime, environment and politics. All three devoted 14% or more of their coverage to government, and at least another 10% to politics; 7% or more to education.

The three papers also concentrated on another newsworthy topic, transportation. Each allocated about 5% of its display space to the topic. The Times and Mercury News did well on housing, while the Chronicle led the pack on environmental news.

Major metro, or fan-zine? Just how much front-page space does "American Idol" deserve?

The newspapers were statistically tied for first place after averaging our seven indices of news quality. But there was plenty of room for improvement in each: In the Chronicle we often noticed editing errors and lapses of front-page news judgment. The Mercury News was attracted to sensationalism, and devoted more of its most prominent story space (6%) to celebrity news than any other news outlet. The Times tackled some big issues, though it lacked resources to cover the number and breadth of stories found in its competitors.

Television -- still shaky

After watching more than a thousand TV stories, our overall impression was that local stations are extremely good at covering the least important news of the day -- random action events such as episodes of violence, fires and accidents.

But when it comes to issues that matter, their usual modus operandi fell short. A 90-second story with strong visuals is entirely appropriate to a house fire, but completely inadequate for almost any issue raised in state or local government, or about the environment, economy, education or social trends such as same-sex marriage, etc. As a result, we often, but not always, got the impression that something important was happening, but we weren't sure what it was or what it meant to us as citizens.

The primary exception to this impression was the 10 p.m. newscast on KTVU Channel 2, the Fox affiliate in Oakland, which ran its issue stories longer and included more sources than any other station. On political stories, KPIX Channel 5 sometimes boosted comprehension by using an in-house expert, Joe Tuman, a professor at San Francisco State University. To a lesser degree, KNTV Channel 11, the NBC station in San Jose, followed the same track on political stories with Prof. Larry Gerston of San Jose State University.

In television, there were clear differences both in quality and quantity:

On the issues

On politics, all news providers stepped up their reporting, devoting between 10% and 17% of their coverage to the topic. KNTV Channel 11 covered politics least between elections, but most in the weeks before Election Day. KPIX Channel 5, on the other hand, covered politics best in the routine periods between elections, but was surpassed by other stations just before election days. KPIX was the only station with its own full-time capitol correspondent.

KRON Channel 4, the independent station in San Francisco, and KNTV Channel 11, both filled their news reports with significant quantities of mayhem -- crime, fire, accidents and other news that is dramatic but not presented in a fashion that viewers can use to think about causes, effects and solutions.

For more detailed discussion of each news provider, click here.

Talk about fluff: Sometimes TV stations ran out of important news.

Overall, we noticed an increase in the percentage of "broad impact" articles -- those affecting at least 10,000 people in a lasting and meaningful way -- a component of the newsworthiness measure. In this survey, large-impact stories averaged 59% of the news we coded, four percentage points above the last Grade the News survey.

But on another measure of news quality, the "explanation" factor, the local news media did not fare as well as in our last survey. Only a bare majority, 51% of the news, was devoted to reporting about issues or patterns of events. Nearly half consisted of breaking news -- disconnected events. In the last survey 55% of the news concerned issues, or connected events into patterns readers and viewers could use to make sense of their world.

How the study was done

This analysis derives seven yardsticks (or "indices") of basic quality from the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. Descriptions for the indices are little changed from the 2003 grades. The 2003 report can be found here.

Nine researchers contributed to the analysis, grading 2,500 stories. We sampled stories once every 13 days from July 2003, when our last survey ended, to June 2004. We chose to grade the region's five highest-rated English-language TV news stations and the top three daily newspapers by circulation. We defined our region as the nine counties ringing San Francisco Bay plus Santa Cruz, an area of roughly 7 million people that encompasses the cities of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.

Saturation sensationalism: Many newsrooms hyped the Scott Peterson murder case.

To assure quality control, the researchers were trained and all of their work was reviewed by the associate project director or the director.

We did not rate the ANG newspaper chain, which operates nine Bay Area papers, because none of them, not even the Oakland Tribune, has a circulation matching that of the third-largest paper, the Contra Costa Times.

We examined just the news that's most likely to be read or watched. That means print stories on the front and local-front pages, and stories airing in the most-watched evening newscasts. To be sure all media had the same raw material, we evaluated all during the same news cycle -- the evening newscasts and the next morning's paper.

Our researchers were trained to note several objective qualities about each story we evaluated: length, topic, location, number of sources and whether the story was originated by the newsroom itself. They also tried as consistently as possible to asses more subjective qualities such as fundamental fairness, the number of people affected, and whether the story was "episodic" -- i.e., an isolated event -- or "thematic." Our complete one-page scoring sheet and 13-page coding manual are available in Microsoft Word format.

We tabulated the results on a computer and converted the raw scores into grades. For a breakdown of how we converted the scores to grades, see entries for the individual indices.

Stanford graduate students Seeta Peña Gangadharan and Lise Marken, and volunteers Julie A. Varughese, Patrick Cain, Kate Cheney Davidson, Rajeev Poduval and Caroline Keough contributed to this analysis.

Want to see how your favorite news provider scored? Select from the list below:

   
Want to know how Grade the News measures journalism quality? Select an index:

TOPIC COVERAGE BY NEWS ORGANIZATION

For more detail about a newsroom, select from the menu above.

Core topics*


Topic: Politics Govern-ment action Natural disaster Educ-ation Econ-omics

Crime/
justice

Medical Environ-ment
Chronicle 15% 14% 1% 7% 4% 14% 5% 4%
Mercury 10 16 0 8 5 12 5 3
Times 11 20 0 11 8 9 3 2
KTVU 2 12 10 2 3 5 19 5 3
KRON 4 14 6 0 4 5 26 5 1
KPIX 5 17 9 0 5 5 16 9 3
KGO 7 12 8 1 4 10 17 8 1
KNTV 11 10 9 2 4 6 21 5 1
Average 13 12 1 5 6 17 6 2

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.

 

Core topics, cont'd*


Topic: Hous-ing Trans-porta-tion Sci-ence/
tech
Other import-ant social issues Major fires, acci-dents Weather Military Con-sumer report-ing
Chronicle 1% 6% 2% 6% 0% 0% 9% 0%
Mercury 3 6 2 4 1 1 11 0
Times 6 5 1 3 0 0 8 0
KTVU 2 0 2 3 5 1 4 10 2
KRON 4 1 2 1 4 1 6 8 2
KPIX 5 0 2 2 3 0 4 12 1
KGO 7 1 2 2 3 0 6 9 3
KNTV 11 0 5 3 3 1 4 10 1
Average 1 4 2 4 1 3 10 1

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.

 

Peripheral topics ("fluff")*


Topic: Human interest Celeb-rities Sports Minor fires, accid-ents Other stories % "Fluff"
Chronicle 5% 3% 3% 2% 1 14
Mercury 3 6 3 1 0 16
Times 7 2 2 2 0 13
KTVU 2 4 4 2 7 0 13
KRON 4 3 6 2 4 1 15
KPIX 5 2 5 2 5 1 13
KGO 7 2 2 3 5 1 14
KNTV 11 3 4 4 5 1 17
Average 3 4 3 4 1 14

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.