Grading the New NBC 3 Local News: Must-See TV?

Analysis by John McManus

Imagine the pressure on the newsroom at “the new NBC3” in San Jose during the first week of the new year.

As the White House--or at least the West Wing--as well as Jay Leno, Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw, Frasier and E.R. all moved from San Francisco’s KRON to San Jose’s KNTV on January 1, they could be expected to bring a swell of first-time viewers checking out the local newscast.

So the station scripted its polished former San Francisco anchor Terilyn Joe to boast: “We’re dedicated to covering the entire Bay Area better than any other station.” And they set a standard for their newscast with the words of co-anchor Allen Denton: “Our top priority is bringing you the stories that impact your life regardless of where they occur.”

To test those claims, Grade the News analyzed the best of Channel 11’s newscasts--the top half hour of the 6 p.m. news--from January 2 through January 8.

KNTV’s Report Card

Index                                       Grade

Newsworthiness                     F

Context                                   F

Local Relevance                    A

Civic Contribution                  D-

Enterprise                               D-

Fairness                                  A

Overall                                    D+



The results?

KNTV’s newscast was the worst we’ve ever rated for newsworthiness. Topics of great importance across the region--rising unemployment, threats to hospital care, the Governor’s and others’ assessments of the state of the state, falling housing prices--were all but displaced by emotional stories important to very few viewers. Coverage often appealed to fear--real or imagined: Multiple stories about a “missing” child, who had merely been visiting a nearby relative; A “sighting” of Oregon family killer Chris Longo that both police and FBI had discredited before the story ran.

In addition, stories were so short-sourced many had no more authority than what you’d hear over the back fence. There with ethical problems, too. In one instance the station ran an ad for NBC in the guise of a sports story. When questioned, the reporter saw no distinction between reporting and promotion.  Even the simple stuff was often muffed. The newscasts were riddled with “Journalism 101” errors you just don’t expect to see in the nation’s fifth largest market.

KNTV exhibited a few strengths. Rather than repeating network stories, it focused on the Bay Area and did its own reporting. The newscast reported every night on the Bay Area’s important high tech industry. Stories with two sides often had both represented, although the week’s most accusatory story--about the poor safety record of a Bay Bridge contractor--failed to include the firm’s response.

Across all six measures of journalism quality, the station averaged  a “D+”. Not exactly “must-see TV.”

To be fair, our sample of KNTV covered only six days (technical problems caused us to miss Jan. 7) while other news media have been sampled repeatedly over a year. Still, consistent patterns are difficult to dismiss as one-time errors. Nor was it a week devoid of important news. Further, Channel 11 has offered a local newscast for many years and has been preparing for affiliation with NBC for most of 2001. The only thing new was the “flow” audience from NBC’s popular programs.

KNTV News Director Bob Goldberger declined to respond to this analysis, saying he would be too busy over the next several months. 

Marketing fear

KNTV emphasized events with highly emotional content that affected only a few Bay Area residents in a significant and lasting way. A preference for the sensational over the substantive is hardly unique to KNTV, but consider the following:

At best the story was premature. But rather than apologizing for crying wolf, the station took credit for the boy’s discovery and promised live coverage of the reunion with his parents. It was one of two reunions Channel 11 presented among its top stories. The other was a two-part series on a local woman meeting her long-lost brother. Great material for home movies, but not news for a mass audience.

While the absence and return of a son to parents who apparently hadn’t bothered to check with nearby relatives, makes for dramatic television, it does little to address events and issues that matter to many Bay Area residents. On the same night, only 16 seconds were allotted to a report that unemployment had reached a six-year high; 33 seconds were spent on the failure of many divorced men to pay support for their children; falling home prices rated a half minute; a new state tax form that promises much faster filing merited 15 seconds.  

Problems with the basics

Typically, sources who speak on camera are almost always identified either in the reporter’s narrative or in an on-screen label. But not on Channel 11. Again and again nameless sources appeared and spoke. Others spoke without appearing. Once a strange new voice joined the narrative during a shot of a terminally ill man receiving care from his family. Another time, several unidentified voices chatted while the camera panned a rockslide threatening a San Francisco condominium complex.

Failing to identify sources isn’t an issue when those sources are volunteering quick reactions from a crowd, or when a trustworthy source seeks anonymity to avoid retribution. But when a source goes on the record and appears to be an authority, particularly when he or she is quoted more than once, it’s helpful to know who they are. Without that, we don’t know whose side they represent, or how much to credit their comments.  

Sometimes the news writing gave viewers pause:

On the other hand, Budman and KNTV focused on local stocks and technology issues every night, appropriate for Silicon Valley, and unmatched by other stations.

Ethical questions about “must-see TV”

KNTV’s sports reporter Chris Flanagan turned a hockey story into an advertisement for incoming owner NBC. 

“The Sharks cannot live without must-see TV,” he reported using the network’s advertising slogan for its entertainment line-up. In an obviously coached interview in the Sharks locker room that was interspersed with footage of NBC comedian Jay Leno, the reporter coaxed one player (who was not identified) to say: “I watch Jay.”  Another player couldn’t remember the title of his “NBC favorite” but after some deliberation, blurted “the English Lady.” The hostess of “The Weakest Link” flashed on the screen. After another cut of Leno, a third player answered the favorite NBC show question: “Uh…Letterman? He’s at NBC?” Mr. Flanagan’s riposte that the player had taken “too many hits to the head” convulsed the anchors with mirth.

“We try to brand as much as possible,” Mr. Flanagan said explaining the purpose of the piece. The story was meant to be light and humorous, but also emphasize the connection between Channel 11 and NBC, he said. He saw no ethical issue.

Sports news is certainly less important to society than news of government, politics, business, etc. Sports at the professional level, after all, is only entertainment. So there may be little real harm when a report abandons the journalistic function of helping viewers make sense of current issues and events and substitutes the narrow corporate goals of getting people to watch NBC programs or connecting Channel 11 with the network in the public consciousness. Nevertheless, the Radio-Television News Directors Association Code of Ethics recommends against it: “Professional electronic journalists should understand that any commitment other than service to the public undermines trust and credibility.”

When reporters are encouraged to “brand as much as possible” rather than maximize public understanding of the community, and when they are unaware of the conflict between branding and reporting, it does nothing to reduce the mistrust that polls show Americans harbor of the messenger.

According to NBC, more than 200,000 Bay Area households can’t get a clear signal from Channel 11’s transmitter, located south of San Jose. Those without cable may be denied the winter Olympics and some fine entertainment programs, but so far, they’re missing little in terms of local news.


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