How to hold TV news stations accountable – a letter from reader Bill Santagata

TV remote control and static -- post imageFrom time to time we receive correspondence from fellow news junkies outside of Washington State, and sometimes overseas as well. As the last fully operating news council, we’re starting to show up in search engines for people who need answers on accountability in the news media. A fellow named Bill Santagata wrote to us asking for advice on how to reach out to his local television stations in Rhode Island. Bill writes:

For the past couple of years I have been growing increasingly more and more irritated at the shoddy quality of our local television news stations here in Rhode Island. Their coverage is disproportionally — if not exclusively — dedicated to stories of no civic importance, namely nonsense “human interest” stories and house fires

We pointed Bill to a number of useful resources, i.e. the savethenews.org petition to the FCC on better local TV dislcosure practices (possibly not still current) and a survey to report the state of local TV coverage in your community. Noting that a Pew Research poll shows that around 70% of Americans say they rely on their local TV brands for information, the Journalism Accelerator held a series of forums on the value of local TV, featuring a number of experts, including Steve Waldman, who authored the FCC’s version of The Information Need of Communities.

We also suggested Bill write a letter to his stations. The response he got was minimal. Bill writes:

One newsreader suggested I write to the news directors, which I suppose is fair advice. I had another newsreader again say she would be more than happy to help. I gave her the questions, and like before, haven’t heard from her since. I sent a follow-up e-mail several days ago with the first newsreader who said she’d have to check with her boss, still no response for her.

While I am not at all happy with the quality of my local news, I’d also like to point out that I am by no means being mean or condescending to the newsreaders I’m contacting. I genuinely do want to hear their input, and I would be more than appreciative of the time it would take them to answer these rather in-depth questions.

Below is a full copy of the thoughtful, well researched letter that he sent:

1. In the 9 June 2011 FCC report “Information Needs of Communities,” the FCC has found that the flourishing of national and global news information on the Internet has left a “shortage of local, professional accountability reporting.” This has resulted in a “shrinking coverage of munici- pal government around the country [which] raises the risk of corruption and wasted taxpayer dollars” because “citizens [are] more dependent on government itself to provide accurate and honest information” (345, 47).

a. In your estimation, what percentage of WPRI’s news coverage falls under the label of “accountability reporting,” defined as “beat and investigative reporting about powerful in- stitutions such as schools, city hall, and courts” (12)? How sufficient is the amount of ac- countability reporting covered by WPRI?
b. How do you incorporate accountability reporting into your work at WPRI? c. This study finds that “most local TV stations have increased the volume of news pro- duction, while reducing staff—which generally weakens a station’s capacity for depth” (13). Such a business model hinders long-term investigative reports in favor of quick re- ports on crimes or house fires. Does WPRI conduct enough long-term investigative re- porting? What can WPRI do to increase the depth of the stories it covers? What do you do to ensure that your stories are meaningful and informative to your audience? d. Have you and WPRI consulted this report? How has WPRI taken the findings of this report into consideration?

2. In the article “Why ‘Generation Next’ Won’t Watch Local TV News,” (Television Quarterly Spring/Summer 2007), author Richard Campbell asserts that the “eyewitness news” format, de- veloped in the 1970s with the advent of videotape and relatively unchanged to this day, is dead.

a. Do you agree? Should WPRI re-think its format, and if so, what changes would you suggest? What other formats do you think can effectively deliver news of local interest?

b. Campbell finds that the eyewitness news format, marked by tight time constraints (typically 90–120 seconds per story) conducted by a stand-up reporter on location introduced by a newsreader in studio is no longer relevant to a younger generation used to in- creasingly complex and serialized fictional television programming. Do you agree that this phenomenon can be correctly attributed to the waning viewership in the 18–29 demo- graphic?

c. What do you and WPRI do to attract a younger demographic to local TV news in the Internet age?

d. Campbell argues that local news stations “need to figure out how to tell stories—not just about individual heroes, individual criminals, and individual events (which main- stream journalism is very good at)—but about our shared interests and problems, and how individuals live and work together to make up institutions, communities, and a nation” (17). Do you agree with this assessment? How do you incorporate your stories of specific events into the “bigger picture”?

3. In “Local TV News in the Los Angeles Media Market,” the Norman Lear Center conducted a survey of what topics were most present in local news broadcasts. They found that per 30 minutes of broadcast news, on average 10 minutes 35 seconds was devoted to ads and teasers, 3:36 to sports and weather, 8:17 to local news, and 7:27 to non-local news (2). Of the 15:44 total dedi- cated to news (local plus non-local), 2:50 was dedicated to crime, 2:26 to “human-interest” stories (oddball, “contests, make-overs, world record attempts, fashion, travel, cooking, animals going wild, weddings etc.”), and 2:02 to entertainment. These three topics were grouped as “soft-news” in the report and totaled 7:18. 1:20 was dedicated to business and the economy, 1:19 to catastro- phe stories (namely wildfires and water main breaks), 1:16 to local civil issues (“transportation, community health, the environment, education and taxes, activism, fundraisers, vigils, changes in services provided by local organizations”), 3:19 “was spread across international coverage (includ- ing war coverage and U.S. foreign policy), health-related stories, traffic reports, science and tech- nology, and unintentional injuries, such as car crashes.” Finally, 1:12 was dedicated to government actions (of this 1:12, 0:49 covered the federal level and other states and coverage of Los Angeles city government received 0:22) (5).

a. Is this an appropriate distribution of news topics?

b. How would you describe WPRI’s distribution of news topics? How would you assess WPRI’s distribution? How does your distribution compare to other stations? What changes, if any, would you suggest?

c. In your opinion, does WPRI dedicate enough time to covering the proceedings of de- liberative bodies such as the Rhode Island General Assembly, city and town councils, and other public councils (e.g. the Johnston Landfill Commission)?

d. Legally, “stations are not required to archive and analyze the local news they broadcast. The Public Files they keep are often inadequate for anyone—from Congress and the FCC to citizens of local communities—to assess whether the content of their public af- fairs programming fulfills their public interest obligations” (1). Does WPRI voluntarily keep such statistics? If not, why not?

e. Legally, broadcast stations are required to air content that is in the “‘public interest, con- venience and necessity.’ This means that it must air programming that is responsive to the needs and problems of its local community of license” (FCC, “The Public and Broadcasting,” July 2008). What do you do to uphold this legal obligation?

4. What does it mean to be an informed citizen? How do you and WPRI contribute to the crea- tion of an informed citizenry?

5. What is the fundamental goal of local television news? How do you work to achieve this goal?

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Comments

  1. Mr. Santagata’s correspondence to the tv news directors in his area seems condescending and likely heard with a tin ear. Calling them ‘news readers’ would definitely put their backs up. While their TV news Emmy’s for investigative reporting may come from ‘tips’ vs. investigation, and their stories superficial due to time constraints; trying to ‘educate’ them about content and important segments vs. features, teasers, house fires and fender benders is futile. Requiring them to disclose commercial messages that appear on air as news features is a slippery slope as ‘corporate media sales people’ take the reins of their news organizations. Pitching a story that has substance is fun and interesting to talk with real journalists about its value to readers. Having a media buyer orchestrate ‘live shots’ and showcase advertiser’s good deeds in consideration for advertising spot investments crosses the line. The FCC needs to fix that…

    • Bill Santagata says:

      I never called them newsreaders in my e-mails in my correspondance to them, nor was I ever condescending. I very politely asked if they would like to participate in this interview. They responded that they would. I thanked them, told them to please take their time, and not hesistate to ask me any questions they had. I also provided them with links to the original articles so they could get more context if they wished. I know these questions are involved and I would have been truly grateful for their assistance. Once I e-mailed the interview questions, I never heard back, even after one quick follow-up e-mail. The exception was one local newsreader who was very polite, seemed genuinely interested in my project, and gave me useful advice on contacting the heads of the news divisions directly (something I haven’t had the time to do lately as I’m now back in school).

      I’d also like to add that there is nothing wrong with being a newsreader: it certainly requires talent such as public speaking skills and screen presence (as someone who participated in acting groups in college I know that acting is not at all as easy as it looks!). My insistance on calling them newsreaders is one of accuracy. According to by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in the “Elements of Journalism” there are 9 principles of journalism that must be met:

      “The first among them is that the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.

      To fulfill this task:

      Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
      Its first loyalty is to citizens.
      Its essence is a discipline of verification.
      Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
      It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
      It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
      ****It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.****
      ****It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.****
      Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.”

      (http://www.journalism.org/node/72)

      Local news fails to meet at least those requirements that I set off by asteriks, and as the FCC found in “Information Needs of Communities” the lack of accountablitiy reporting puts us at risk of government corruption at the local level because the local media is failing in their job to hold them accountable. This is not holding up their duty “to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.”

      I therefore cannot consider the work that a newsreader performs in most instances to be “journalism.”

      Whether or not it is futile to seek change: we won’t know that unless we try first, now won’t we? I think that most people have been so lulled into the eyewitness news format (as Richard Campbell states in the article I quote in the questions, the format has been relatively unchanged since the 1970s) that they can’t conceive of local news as being anything other than it is presently. We should work to educate the public that there are other means of delivering news of local interest, and that they should stand up and demand more from the people who are licensed to broadcast on *our* airwaves.