Context Index


On January 16, last year, Channel 7 reported that shyness was the third most common mental health problem in the United States with 10 million sufferers. The 21-second story was little more than an announcement. It was so stripped of context that we did not learn how shy one had to be to be considered mentally ill, nor of whether the problem was growing or shrinking, nor its causes or remedies, nor its effects on people’s lives. In fact, we didn’t even learn who conducted the study or whom they represented.


Stories with little context usually have little value. We have no way of placing them in relation to ourselves or other things we know. They constitute what the novelist Norman Mailer calls “factoids,” free floating bits of information that are difficult to puzzle together into a coherent picture of the world.


How the index was constructed


This measure is based on the number and quality of sources in a story. Up to 150 points are assigned as follows:


·        100 for a random sample of more than 100 persons conducted by the newspaper or station under normal social science requirements.

·        40 for each named independent expert source, up to a total of 3 sources.

·        20 for each specific source, up to a total of 5 sources.

·        10 per story for 1 or more un-named sources.


Caps on number of sources counted are designed to level the competition between print and television. A lengthy newspaper story with 20 named sources gets no more points than one with 5. Likewise, no story can earn more than 150 points.


Sources may be persons or documents. They may be quoted directly or paraphrased. They need not be on air. Generalized sources, such as “police,” “educators,” or “critics” count as unnamed sources. A specific source must be a particular person, never plural. He or she may be anonymous only if expressly granted anonymity in the report, e.g., a source who spoke only on condition of anonymity. A document’s specific title is unnecessary, but the authoring institution, department or individual must be named, e.g., a report prepared by the Public Utilities Commission.


Sources who refuse comment are counted just the same as those who are quoted.


Because stories vary in how many sources they need, stories with more than 100 points can make up for those with less. We estimated that the top stories of the day should average more than two identified non-expert sources and one non-specified source. Simple event stories might appropriately have fewer and issue stories more. 


Grades range from A, 85 points or above to F, less than 55. Minus and plus grades are assigned at 3 point intervals, i.e., 82-84=A-; 79-81=B+, etc.