Last June 15, Channel 4 spent 46 seconds reporting about the state’s $98 billion budget for the coming year. The budget document is about as thick as a phone book and affects every Californian. On the same evening, the station allocated 3 minutes and 15 seconds to a story about Casey, a small dog that had again gotten stuck in a sewer pipe in Walnut Creek.
The effort to rescue little Casey had charm. While it might have claimed mention in the newscast, it’s difficult to see why it was four times more important than California’s plans to spend $98,000,000,000 of our dollars on projects that would affect our children’s education, the quality of our environment, our highways and transportation web, our criminal justice system, our parks, our cities and farms, etc.
If the purpose of news is to help us make sense of the world in which we live, some stories are far more valuable than others. The newsworthiness index is a way of scoring news outlets on their faithfulness to this public service.
This index is our most important because no matter how much context accompanies stories such as Casey’s, no matter how fair they are, or accurate, they don’t contribute as much to public knowledge as stories such as the state’s budget. That’s why we count this index twice in computing an outlet’s overall GPA.
Each story was rated on three characteristics:
· Topic, the subject of the story;
· Episodic vs. thematic reporting¾ was the focus a single event or an issue or theme;
· Impact, how many people were likely to be affected in a non-trivial and lasting way by what was reported.
Stories on core topics each received two points. Core topics include just about everything but celebrity news, minor fires and accidents, sports, promotions¾such as Channel 5 “Survivor” stories and Channel 7 “Millionaire” stories, and stories primarily focused on human interest¾e.g., Casey the sewer pipe-loving dog. Non-core stories each received one point.
Stories were also coded based on whether they were covered episodically¾as unconnected events¾or thematically¾as connected events or dealt with issues. Stories in which half or more of the content was thematic or about an issue received an additional 2 points for the explanatory value of treating the story within a broader context. Simple event stories, received no additional points. For example, a story about gun safety, or patterns of violence, or an attempt one city was making to reduce it, would score 2 more points while a story limited to a particular shooting, would gain 0.
Finally, stories likely to affect a significant number of people more than momentarily (6 months or more) received an additional 2 points, while stories likely to affect relatively few gained no additional points.
A story about a fire, for example, has a direct and lasting effect on the people who used or owned the building and may have some impact on those who live within a few blocks, but not on many others. That’s a few thousand people in a region of 6 million. Likewise, a shooting in San Jose is unlikely to make a lot of difference in the lives of people in Walnut Creek or Santa Rosa. But a story about state-mandated high school graduation tests affects a huge number from Gilroy to Guerneville. Stories affecting 10,000 or more people earned the 2 points.
All told, stories could earn from 1 to 6 points. In the analysis, each story was weighted by its size. It wouldn’t be fair to equate a 3-minute story with a 30 second “brief.”
We used a gentler scoring system than in school, however, because it may not be realistic to think journalists can always make what’s important interesting. Thus a station or newspaper could indulge almost a quarter of its news time or space in cotton candy stories and still earn an “A.” (Each story was multiplied by its newsworthiness score and added into a grand total for the station or paper. That sum was divided by the sum if all stories rated a 6. Overall scores of 80 percent or higher received A’s; scores below 50% failed.)