Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.
Email to a friend | Printer-friendly version | Discuss Story


Balancing the commercial appeal of the Peterson trial with other news

Suppose Walter Lippmann were right: The purpose of news is to provide a picture of the world upon which citizens can act. Were that standard taken seriously, which stories would editors choose for the front-page?

To find out which they did pick, we took a ruler to the cover page of the San Jose Mercury News from Monday June 21 back to May 22 -- a monthlong snapshot. Looking only at articles written by Mercury News reporters, we measured which stories merited the most space on the most-read page of the paper.

With so much happening, you might expect close competition. Gov. Schwarzenegger has been wheeling and dealing. Legislators are thrashing out a state budget. School districts are declaring bankruptcy. Counties and cities are sawing into the muscle and bone of local government service. The Bay Area economy is sputtering back to life. Ronald Reagan passed away, as have local soldiers sent to Iraq.

But just two stories dominated the Mercury News' front-page during the last month. The former president's legacy and the trial of a Central Valley man charged with murdering his pregnant wife. Even when stories were lumped into categories like "the economy," "Governor Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature," "the environment" and "education," nothing approached the coverage of Mr. Reagan and the trial of Modesto resident Scott Peterson.

Mr. Reagan's death netted 732 square inches on the newspaper's front-pages, all in the week after he died. Mr. Peterson's trial accounted for 619 square inches. The next closest competitor was a topic -- all stories about the military. Including D-Day reminiscences, it totaled 262.

John McManus

By contrast, many topics that have a profound impact on South Bay residents' lives didn't crack the top 10. Editors displayed just 124 square inches reported by the Mercury News' staff about politics over the month. Technology/science claimed 74 square inches, transportation 72, health 37, energy just 14 -- despite threats of summer blackouts and renewed state efforts to retrieve billions from companies like Enron.

For comparison, we also looked at how much front-page space another respected California newspaper gave the Peterson trial. The Los Angeles Times did not run a single story about it on 1A.

Applying Lippmann's test

Because Ronald Reagan was such an influential figure in state and national politics and popular enough to win the highest office in California and the U.S. twice, you might expect big play on 1A. Mr. Peterson sold fertilizer in Modesto. He never ran for office, but was twice voted MVP on his high school golf team. He fished some.

It's difficult to argue that the picture of the world upon which citizens can act would be much diminished were the Peterson trial relegated to the local front, or even an inside page.

But news is a business and must make a profit to benefit anyone. Many are clearly interested in the Peterson case and that public curiosity creates a compelling reason for covering the trial.

For business reasons, the Mercury News might choose to carry news of the trial. But positioning it so prominently on the front-page swamps far more consequential stories.

A question of balance

It's a question of balance. Placing more than twice the emphasis on the trial of an out-of-town murder suspect as on the environment, the economy or ongoing budget crises at the state or local level is embarrassing for a newspaper ranked in the top-10 of American journalism. Both for journalistic and business reasons.

First, three concerns from the perspective of journalism ethics:

Questionable business practice

As a daily reader of the Mercury News for over two decades, it pains me to see a wonderful newspaper lower its standards in such a dubious pursuit of expanded circulation.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.


A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle


San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)


Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

Site highlights


The three-part series follows the rise of three Bay Area handouts:
• Part 1: At free dailies, advertisers sometimes call the shots
• Part 2: Free daily papers: more local but often superficial
• Part 3: Free papers' growth threatens traditional news
• See also: SF Examiner and Independent agree to end payola restaurant reviews
• And: The free tabloid that wasn't: East Bay's aborted Daily Flash


Lou Alexander started a firestorm with his original guest commentary predicting the company would be sold. Several other experts on newspapers have weighed in:
Newspapers can't cut their way back into Wall Street investors' hearts, by Stephen R. Lacy; Alexander responds
Humbler profits won't encourage buyouts, by John Morton; Alexander responds
Newspapers can't maintain monopoly profits because they've lost their monopolies, by Philip Meyer
Knight Ridder in grave jeopardy, by Lou Alexander...


Leakers and plumbers: There's no difference between a good leak and a bad leak? Journalists need a shield law. 11/22/05
Unintended consequences: How Craigslist and similar services are sucking revenue from faltering newspapers. 9/13/05
Is CPB irrelevant? As Congress moves to cut public broadcasting funds, has CPB become obsolete in the modern marketplace. 6/26/05
The paradox of news: There's more news available and its cheaper than ever before, but fewer young people are interested. 5/12/05


Most recent updatesHow the Bay Area's most popular media stack up.Talk about Bay Area journalism in our on-line discussion forum. A printable news scorecard you can use at home or in school. Raves and rants aimed at the local media. What would you do if you were the editor? Upcoming happenings and calls for public action. Let 'em know! Contact a local newsroom.Codes of ethics, local media advocates and journalism tools. Tip us off about the local media, or tell us how we're doing.Oops.A comprehensive list of past GTN exclusives.