Too Hard on KNTV?

If the purpose of news is to help citizens make sense of current issues and events--as opposed to rubbernecking for us--would it be better to change the model? Instead of reporting on each tree, why not report on the forest? Why not report on the causes of the most common types of crime, their solutions, what other communities have tried?

KNTV could have reported young Hernandez missing, run a picture, perhaps a map of his neighborhood, and moved on. A day later they could have reported on his being found, rather than re-running video of his parents’ anguish and promising to intrude on his homecoming with cameras. The station then could have launched a series for February sweeps on the most common reasons kids run away; or how, when and why they are abducted; or what domestic violence may have to do with runaways; or whether physical punishment constitutes good parenting or child abuse; or what we can do about missing children, or …. you get the idea.  

This isn’t arcane sociology. Some newspapers have been moving toward this model. Most crimes get a brief mention, but there are occasionally longer stories that develop context and examine causes and solutions. (Although newspapers too will wallow in cases they believe will shock or titillate us--such as dog bites woman, or a handsome black celebrity accused of slashing his beautiful blonde wife’s throat.)

In both print and broadcast, police blotter crime reports may lack context, cause or solution, but they are dirt cheap to discover; just listen to the scanner radio. They’re cheap to report; one-stop shopping because all the sources are at one place at one time. And, the stories play to our fear or pity--as they are designed to--so they attract viewers or readers across the region. Reporting on violent (but not white collar) crime also has the advantage of not angering powerful advertisers or sources.

Its benefit-to-cost ratio is superb. But only for the station.

Consider that with about 7 million people living in an area comprising several thousand square miles from Santa Rosa to Gilroy to Fairfield and Livermore, some tragedy will befall one or more Bay Area residents just about every day. The hurt and worry from such incidents will be bitter and sharp--and mighty important--for the victim’s family, perhaps even the neighborhood. It will have direct and lasting effects on hundreds, maybe even thousands. But that’s an infinitesimal proportion of 7 million. 

Reporting each violent incident consumes much of an already brief newscast, displacing other important issues and events. And a steady drumbeat of street crime reports may encourage prejudice toward those most often identified as perpetrators, the poor (often people of color). Finally, crime-focused newscasts may spread fear that can lead to voter decisions to emphasize prison-building rather than society-building, even in a prolonged period of falling crime--such as we’ve experienced over most of the past decade.

The critic: “KNTV sports reporter Chris Flanagan is accused of conducting ‘an obviously coached interview’ to elicit the desired response from an athlete. However, GTN offers no facts to support a claim of this alleged ethical lapse.”

GTN: Do you really think the Sharks talk about “must-see TV” in the locker room, and when a reporter arrives, want to impress him with their knowledge of NBC’s entertainment roster? That they are bursting to reveal their “favorite NBC program”? If so, how come none of them could come up with a show’s name?

My objection, however, wasn’t about coaching an interview. It concerned using the players for an exercise in “branding”--building an identity in the mind of viewers between KNTV and NBC. There’s a difference between reporting and branding. The object of reporting is informing the public. The object of branding is promotion of corporate interests. (Normally if you use athletes to create an advertisement--in this case for NBC and KNTV--you pay them, and you separate the result from the news just as you would an ad for a Toyota.)

Even more disturbing was the reporter’s frank admission that “we try to brand as much as possible.”  But most troubling was the lack of awareness that this kind of blatant commercialism isn’t really reporting--an obliviousness that such practices may undermine the good work KNTV and other Bay Area news media do.       

The critic: “KNTV was evaluated during the first week of January, a notoriously slow time in most local television newsrooms. By comparison, it is my understanding that the newspapers and TV stations in your previous reports were evaluated during different periods over the course of an entire year. Apples and oranges.”

GTN: Certainly a year-long sample beats a six-day sample, as was pointed out in the initial article. But the purpose was to get an early look at whether KNTV was ready to compete with Channels 2,4,5 and 7. Viewers are making an important decision now. Our consumer report couldn’t wait a year. Six days is not a long time, but if you had six consecutively bad meals at a restaurant, would you return? (We will, by the way.)

 As for the “notoriously slow [news] time,” KNTV itself cut a number of important stories down to mere headlines. The wide issue of security provided by the National Guard was reduced to a story about a guardsman shooting himself in the foot. A new law requiring a lower ratio of patients to nurses in California hospitals begged for elaboration on what that might mean in a time of nurse shortages--even higher medical costs? closed hospital wings? delays of surgery? It received 38 seconds. A bill in the General Assembly that would tax California’s wealthiest citizens to help the state emerge from a reported $12 billion deficit merited 31 seconds. An oil spill on the north coast rated 44 seconds. There was a debate in the Assembly about assigning every citizen an ID card. It received 39 seconds. Gov. Davis’ “State of the State” message received 137 seconds, not enough to understand what it was about. (In the second half of the newscast, KNTV brought on San Jose State Professor Larry Gerston to offer a three-minute critique. Gerston’s thoughtful commentary is a credit to KNTV. Wasn’t the state of the state important enough to couple it with the first story?)

During this “notoriously slow time” the newspapers were reporting on such key issues as a $50 million-plus effort by Bay Area corporations to address the chronic shortage of housing for less affluent members of our community. And the failure of a highly touted state plan to collect child support for the 3 million California children who depend on such checks. KNTV gave the story 33 seconds. The Chronicle played its story about new reports of rising joblessness above the fold on its front page and noted that unemployment is slowing, perhaps indicating an end to the recession. KNTV’s 16-second report didn’t get past the headline. A new law took effect Jan. 1 requiring car seats for older kids. The state legislature debated the enormous state deficit. A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a three-fold rise in the treatment of depression in the U.S. since 1987. San Francisco supervisors debated a new plan for dealing with the city’s substantial homeless problem. California’s redwood forests may be threatened by the same disease that’s been killing oaks. New census figures showed that California ranks last among the 50 states in creating new housing for its residents during the 1990s.

Slow news time?

At the risk of “piling on,” the whole concept of “slow news” days or weeks is itself an admission of a passive newsroom dependent on press releases and the scanner radio for news. KNTV’s “D+” in the enterprise index documents a failure of the newsroom to actively seek answers to the public’s enduring questions about the quality of life from education to environment to technology, housing, transportation, politics, government, etc. News is much more than events others bring to the attention of the newsroom. To paraphrase a newspaper mogul: News is what someone (powerful) wants hidden.

The critic: “KNTV was evaluated during the first few days following a number of major internal changes that were the result of its new affiliation with NBC. That new affiliation began on January 1st. GTN's evaluation began January 2nd.”

GTN: Certainly the non-news schedule at KNTV changed radically once NBC’s line-up was installed. But local news is independent. Note too, that NBC hasn’t taken over yet; the purchase from Granite is still pending government approval. So on January 1, the news department was under the same leadership as before with the same staff. KNTV isn’t just beginning to produce news; it’s had a newscast for many years.

The critic: “The reference to KNTV anchorwoman Terilyn Joe as a ‘polished former San Francisco anchor’ belies a geographical bias in favor of San Francisco media over San Jose. Did the GTN analysis of San Francisco TV news include former cities of employment of the anchors? This is no small point given the resentment some San Francisco media critics have expressed over NBC's terminating its affiliation with KRON in favor of a San Jose station.”

GTN: I feel your sensitivity. But I don’t see how reference to where someone used to work implies a bias toward that city. If GTN is biased toward SF media, why did Channel 5 rate a “D” and channels 4 and 7 a “C-“? Ms. Joe strikes me as a professional news reader whose cadence and expression make her scripts easy to comprehend.

Another critic asked whether KNTV’s rating was determined by a panel or just myself. This particular rating was conducted entirely by me. It consists of taping the newscast and filling out a survey form for each story of 20 seconds or longer duration. The data from those forms--story topic, time, local relevance, number of identified sources, etc.--are entered in a computer and analyzed using SPSS (the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences). More detail of the process is available elsewhere on this website.

Overall ratings from our on-going sample--which will now include KNTV--resulted from two coders’ efforts. The other was former KRON news director Alan Goldstein. Relevant to this critic’s question, the level of agreement between the two coders met standard social science standards (better than 80% agreement after discounting for chance agreement) on almost all survey items. In other words, the coding protocol yields roughly the same results regardless of who is following its directions.

GTN’s analyses fall between the urgency of news reporting and the circumspection of peer-reviewed academic research. I think we serve the task of consumer education better by compiling a study over weeks rather than years. But the critic is right to exercise greater skepticism than for analyses published in a scholarly journal such as Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly.

GTN is grateful to our critics. We welcome criticism of everything we do. News is too essential to democracy to exempt it from rigorous scrutiny and wide public debate. Please join the conversation.

 

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