Study: Competition between TV stations spurs investigative journalism

Image: BBC World Service/flickr.

A silhouette of a man sits in a stark television studio. Exposed wires snake their way up bare plywood walls. The man’s face has been blacked out. His voice is disguised. The only light in the studio shines on a well-groomed reporter in a dark blue suit.

“They don’t want you telling the truth,” the reporter says.

“Correct,” the man responds.

“Why?” asks the reporter.

“Because people would be outraged.”

This interview of an anonymous local pharmacist by New Orleans reporter Lee Zurik was the linchpin of a 2016 WVUE-TV investigative story, “Medical Waste,” that exposed less-than-scrupulous practices by some of the biggest insurance companies in the US. Zurik’s revelations led to changes in state laws, numerous lawsuits, and a prestigious award for the station.

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Station managers say hard-hitting investigations like this may also have led to a recent ratings surge. WVUE’s 10pm newscast has only been around since 2010, but last year it became the highest-rated late news show in the market. It was the first ratings win for a New Orleans news station over dominant rival WWL in almost four decades, and since then WVUE has increased its lead in a highly competitive environment. “Viewers appreciate that kind of hard, long-form investigative journalism,” said WVUE news director Mikel Schaefer in an interview with “Serve the public. That cannot be overstated.”

The Fox affiliate’s rise to the top of the Nielsen rankings in just a few years exemplifies a nationwide phenomenon I discovered in my research on investigative news. Between 2013 and 2015, I analyzed hundreds of newscasts and conducted a survey of investigative reporters in a comprehensive examination of US local television investigative journalism. Results showed that stations in more competitive markets were significantly more likely to produce investigative journalism, and more likely to produce good investigative journalism.

Competition might spur news directors to raise the quality of their news, opting for investigative journalism rather than accidents and mayhem.

My research suggests that managers of local television, the most popular news source in the US, recognize the competitive value of investigative reports (I measured competition as the degree of similarity between stations in Nielsen market “shares”). Original, enterprise investigative reporting can help differentiate a station’s product from rival products, and other studies suggest investigative news has broad appeal.

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Many survey responses supported this. One reporter wrote that “investigations are one of the few vehicles that allow a station to present unique promotable content.” Others said stations are starting to rebuild investigative units as a “reason to watch” and are trying to “win viewers with unique, investigative stories.”

Historically, investigative TV news has been seen as a “loss leader”—important to democracy because of its ability to hold powerful institutions accountable, but not popular enough to justify the high cost. In his 2004 book All the News That’s Fit to Sell, James Hamilton proposed that local television competition creates a “race to the bottom,” whereby stations chase ratings by appealing to the lowest common denominator, eventually creating a downward spiral of increasingly low-quality and titillating content. Hamilton thought that in competitive markets, local TV managers would try to beat rivals by airing cheap, visual, and sensational fare such as weather events, murders, and car crashes, that ostensibly would attract viewers.

My study turns this received wisdom on its head, suggesting that competition might spur news directors to raise the quality of their news, opting for investigative journalism rather than accidents and mayhem. There is even some anecdotal evidence that investigative reporting can improve local television ratings. And local TV stations producing the highest quality investigative news earn the highest ratings, as my ongoing research suggests.

The amount of investigative journalism on US television is low (my study found that only 1 in 5 newscasts featured investigative stories), and in an era of extreme ownership consolidation, it could sink even lower. Pew Research Center reports that since 2004, the five largest local TV ownership companies have increased their holdings by nearly 250 percent and now own more than a third of all US stations. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the biggest of the bunch, is waiting for approval of a merger that would give the media giant access to 72 percent of American households. The trend toward concentrated ownership could cripple local television competition, which might in turn weaken investigative reporting.

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But large corporations may not be the bogeymen they’re sometimes made out to be. Stations owned by corporations with public shareholders (often a sign of large, profit-minded companies), such as Sinclair, produced more investigative journalism than stations owned by smaller, private companies in my research. For example, Tampa’s WFTS-TV, owned by the publicly traded E.W. Scripps company, was one of the more active investigative newsrooms in my study. In 2014, the station won a national award for its investigation revealing that government officials took advantage of senior citizens by declaring them “incapacitated.”

Although publicly traded firms did not produce higher quality investigative journalism, the research suggests that higher-ups at these firms are at least committed to accountability journalism, even if it is done with profit in mind.

Some investigative reporters in my survey backed the idea that certain large corporations provide an investigative boost. One journalist at a station owned by the publicly traded Tegna corporation said, “I am fortunate (that) our station, our company and the industry as a whole recognize that investigative journalism can have a major positive effect on ratings.” Another said his station’s owner, Comcast, which has massive public stock holdings, had “re-invested mightily in TV news operations…after massive cuts by (the) previous owner. Stations are still rebuilding so resources remain an issue but it’s nothing compared to the dark days.”

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Jesse Abdenour is a former television anchor and reporter and is currently an assistant professor in the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. His research focuses on journalism production and copyright law.