Too Good to Be True?

New research about what viewers want from television news

The decade-long collaboration between the Project for Excellence in Journalism and several academics led by Wellesley College political scientist Marion Just concludes that the more local TV invests in quality reporting, the bigger its audience tends to be. Crime news and celebrity news, contrary to all popular and professional wisdom, they say, aren’t as appealing to TV viewers.

But are American TV audiences really pining for a local-news equivalent of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer? The question is before us again, not just in the recent pages of CJR (which has published PEJ reports on local TV), but also in the April issue of Political Communication. There one can find an article by Just and Todd Belt, “The Local News Story: Is Quality a Choice?” as well as a review that challenges the conclusions reached by Tom Rosenstiel, Just, et al in their 2007 book, We Interrupt This Newscast.

That reviewer, John McManus, a journalist-turned-Ph.D. and author of a leading academic study of local TV news, Market-Driven Journalism (1994), contends that marketplace pressures stifle the capacity of local TV to serve the public interest by producing hard-news stories, basing his conclusion on a close analysis of three West Coast stations. Rosenstiel and Just, on the other hand, insist that it is newsroom misperceptions about public taste that defeat quality, that newsrooms erroneously believe that the public wants sensation and gossip rather than substance. Rosenstiel and Just’s extensive national data indicate that newscasts with quality news have bigger and demographically more desirable audiences.

McManus judges the quality of local TV news to be abysmal. Belt and Just have data to support this (only 6 percent of local TV news stories show any enterprise), but they take some cheer that a quarter of stories deal with policy, politics, and important community institutions.

It would be appealing to agree with Belt and Just that “reporting hard news with high journalistic standards attracts viewers” and that there is consonance, not contradiction, between quality journalism and economic success. But the argument has some gaps. First, as McManus observes, it does not consider the cost of quality journalism, only the benefit in audience size. Does the cost of journalistic enterprise outweigh the benefit of modest audience increases? There are no data here to answer that.

Second, perhaps it is not quality journalism that leads to bigger audiences but bigger audiences (or the added revenue they bring) that lead some stations to devote more resources to quality journalism. Belt and Just deny that there is a chicken-and-egg problem here: their statistics turn up no correlation between resources and ratings. At the same time, their observations do: “When ratings go down, budgets are contracted.”

Third, it’s possible that on the (relatively rare) occasions when stations invest in enterprise journalism stories, they promote them heavily and draw more viewers.

Belt and Just raise the important question of why, if their own interpretation is correct, TV news directors disagree with them, insisting that the public seeks schlock news. Belt and Just speculate that because TV journalists change jobs so often, they construct a common culture across stations: “After a short period of time a remarkable number of news people have worked with someone at just about any station in the country… homogenizing the views about how to produce TV news.”

What makes sense to us in the Belt/Just article and the Rosenstiel/Just book is their argument that the marketplace does not constrain TV news directly but only through the way TV news personnel understand it. And that understanding is stubborn. Even if news directors agreed that quality news brings bigger audiences, given the cost and effort necessary to produce stories of substance, it isn’t at all clear that they would (or could) easily abandon schlock. 

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Michael Schudson & Danielle Haas write The Research Report for CJR. Schudson teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and in the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego. Haas is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications at Columbia.