A project affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley

Testimony at FCC San Francisco hearing on April 26

Bagdikian Warns Against Further Concentration of Media Ownership


My name is Ben Bagdikian. I have been a reporter and editor of newspapers, written books on the media, and am former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley.

Commissioner Adelstein, thank you for the opportunity to speak at this hearing.Since the broadcast frequencies are the property of the American public, it is fitting that a member of the Federal Communications Commission, a steward of this public property, gives us, the owner-citizens of the Bay Area, an opportunity to be heard.

I would like to make three points that I believe are significant in the stewardship of our air waves.

$300 billion earned from public property

1. This is a fabulously valuable public property. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, the revenues of broadcasters and the associate telecommunications firms represent more than $300 billion a year.  The channels through which this $300 billion industry makes its money are the property of the American public.  It is the opinion of many citizens, myself included, that this fabulous public resource that we own entitles us to have an effective voice on how our property is used. At the very least, the commercial users of our property ought to be required to give the people access to their programming in the communities being served.  But, year by year, this local access has diminished until in too many markets it is now close to zero.

Giving public property worth more than $300 billion dollars to private corporations for their own profitable use is, in my opinion, an expropriation of a magnitude that reminds one of the Tea Pot Dome scandal.

I think it is notable that large media conglomerates like AOL-Time Warner, the largest media firm in the world, and ClearChannel, the largest radio group in the country, are said to “own” a certain number of stations. Legally, of course, they do not own the licenses for these stations.  In a real sense, their licenses are rented to them for a specific  period by us, the public. According to the law, they are rented to them on condition that  operate, to quote the law,  “in the public interest.” 

“local” stations with no local employees

I suspect that few people who follow such things need to be reminded that the largest radio group in the country, ClearChannel,  has more than 1200 stations and has only 200 employees. They have 10 stations in the general San Francisco Bay Area. How can any company operate in the public interest when it operates 1200 local radio stations with only 200 employees?  Even in this period of genetic engineering, there is no way a radio station can be actively and locally run by one sixth of a human being.  But, of course, the reason ClearChannel needs so few employees is that most of its stations have no human beings in them, most of the time. The stations are operated remotely with canned programming.

As you know, recently in Minot, North Dakota, a train wreck released anhydrous ammonia gas that killed one person, sent 300 people to the hospital and blinded others.  The local police could not use the most effective local warning system to tell the public to get indoors at once and close windows and doors against a deadly gas. The best  local system to issue this emergency warning were the six stations that ClearChannel operates in the city of Minot. But the ClearChannel studios, though broadcasting during all this time, were empty and locked. They were operating with canned programming by remote control. Is there nothing the FCC can do to end this mockery of the law?  Do these stations operate in the public interest of their communities?   

Furthermore, this company had six stations in a city with a population of 37,000. Why should a city of 37,000 people have the same owner for six stations?  Six stations with no human beings in them and using programming that had absolutely nothing to do with Minot, North Dakota?  This seems to be greed raised to the 6th power.

disastrous legislation

This kind of concentrated control by broadcasters is permitted by the 1996 Telecommunications Act which, in my opinion, was the most disastrous broadcasting legislation in our history. It effectively robbed people of their own air waves. According to the Wall Street Journal, the 1994 Gingrich Republican caucus called in top broadcast executives, asked them what they wanted, and gave them the 1996 Act. It did so in the name of keeping up with new technology, a technology that permitted ClearChannel to dehumanize six radio stations in Minot, North Dakota.

I cite Minot, North Dakota as a dramatic case because, as in medical epidemics, a dramatic case demonstrates more clearly the systemic failures, in this case the systematic negligence of the public interest throughout the country.  But ClearChannel is not alone.  

news from nowhere

Some time ago, I was interviewed on a major network with studios in San Francisco.  Before we went on the air for the interview, the host asked me not to mention where we were, not to mention the date, not to mention the day of the week, and not to mention the weather.  He explained that this program is used in the network’s other cities all over the country and, as he put it, “We like people in all those cities to think they’re listening to a local program.” ClearChannel is not the only network that misuses the word “local.”

I believe that even under the disastrous 1996 Act, the FCC still has the responsibility to intervene when license holders so egregiously ignore the public interest. That phrase, to operate “in the public interest” is still in the 1996 Act.   Yet, it has turned most of our radio talk shows into a right-wing propaganda machine.

local perspective is vital because power is local

My second point is that we are speaking here about something close to the heart of sustaining our democracy. It is too often overlooked that it is uniquely necessary for the United States public to have routine access to the broadcast stations in their own community. We are unique because the United States is the only developed democracy in the world that leaves so many central functions of government to each locality. Each of our cities operates its own schools, its own police, its own land use, most of its taxes, functions that in other countries are the responsibility of a centralized national agency. No purely national programming can possibly report on these for us. Why else would almost all our broadcast licenses require the licensee to maintain a station in its city of operation?

           Yet we are close to imitating other countries who have all their significant broadcasts originate in their capital or central city and then sent out to the whole country by mechanical translator towers. In those countries, every community gets the same programming.  The United States is almost alone in requiring a broadcast license holder to operate a studio in each city and for a valid, fundamental reason.  But by now that requirement has become close to meaningless for most chain broadcasters. 

Continue? click the


Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee?

Chronicle bans newsroom staff from public political speech about war in Iraq

commentary by John McManus

“Dissent Under Fire

The U.S.-led war on Iraq has been accompanied by assaults on free speech in the homeland. The attempt to label anyone who disagrees with the war as ‘unpatriotic’ is predictable, but no less disturbing.”

--Opening paragraph of the lead editorial of the San Francisco Chronicle, March 22, 2003

The very last place you might expect an assault on free speech would be in a newspaper. Of all enterprises, the press is the most dependent on the protection of the First Amendment.

But just 11 days after this editorial was published, top editors at the Chronicle imposed a blanket prohibition on any newsroom staff member publicly taking a political position on the war with Iraq—the most pressing national political issue of the day.

Deputy Editor Narda Zacchino, Vice President and Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal, and Executive Editor and Vice President Phil Bronstein, wrote:

Our responsibility as journalists can only be met by a strict prohibition against any newsroom staffer participating in any public political activity related to the war.

In practice, this means everyone in the newsroom--from copy clerks to sports writers, editors, even a technology columnist—loses the normal citizen’s right on his or her own time to influence the public mind about the war in Iraq.  No political contributions, no participation in a demonstration for or against, no bumper stickers on the family car, no window or lawn signs.

Is such a sweeping prohibition of free speech consistent with the core values of journalism?

Not so fast

Before accusing Chronicle executives of hypocrisy, however, consider this:  If journalists are—or even appear to be--affiliated with one side of any controversy, the newspaper risks its credibility with readers on the other side. Even discerning readers on the same side.

To be successful in either public service or as a business, a news organization must be seen as impartial—on nobody’s side but the public’s--on its news pages. Editorial pages are another matter; opinion is expected there.

Core values colliding

What’s happening at the Chronicle now is a collision between two of the most cherished and foundational values of journalism: free speech on the one hand and independence—freedom from real or apparent conflict of interest, on the other.

But when two core values are in conflict, is the complete subordination of one to the other the only choice?

Continue? click the




Defending the Ban

Memo to Chronicle Staff from Phil Bronstein, Robert Rosenthal and Narda Zacchino

We have to be scrupulous about protecting the paper's integrity and mission to be a source of reliable, unbiased work.

This is true of any issue. But the war in Iraq is most prominent and immediate, and touches all of us in some way.

The Chronicle conflict-of-interest policy expects early disclosure and discussion with a supervisor, the editor or his designee before engaging in public political activity. Some situations, however, require more decisive action.

Public political activity related to the war is one of those situations.

Our responsibility as journalists can only be met by a strict prohibition against any newsroom staffer participating in any public political activity related to the war.

There is simply no other way to maintain our public trust, avoid conflicts and the appearance of conflicts, and to fulfill our duty to provide fair, thorough and objective reporting.

Any violation of this policy will be viewed as a very serious matter.

There is no question that many with deep personal feelings about this war are also fiercely committed to quality journalism.

We are justly proud of the coverage Chronicle journalists have provided, some literally risking their lives. Their work is intended to give us the credibility we need to keep faith with our readers and to survive as a newspaper. Many of our readers - who also have many strong emotions about the war - question that credibility every day.

We are reviewing the policy as a whole on an ongoing basis with the intention of making it clearer and more precise, always with the goal in mind of scrupulously protecting our credibility.

The Man Caught in the Middle

At the center of the controversy over the ban on public political speech is Henry Norr, until April 21, the Chronicle's personal technology columnist.

Norr was fired for allegedly falsifying his timecard, taking a sick day to attend an anti-war rally in March. But his termination seems clearly linked to the changed newsroom policy on political participation.

To see Norr's take on the issue, click the

NorCal Newspaper Guild calls Policy Change "heavyhanded"

To see the Guild's statement, click the

How Well Are Bay Area Newspapers Covering the War With Iraq?

analysis by John McManus

By what standard can we judge coverage of the war on Iraq?

The first thing to acknowledge is that no journalist or news organization is impartial. Not the Mercury News, not the Chronicle, not the Contra Costa Times. Not Al-jazeera.

There is no neutral standard of comparison.

As Arabs, Al-jazeera’s reporters are just as likely to be influenced by their historical background as American reporters by their upbringing in the United States. The lenses through which they make sense of events differ.

And their interests differ. American audiences hunger for news of American troops¾how they are faring, what they are up against. Arab audiences are naturally more concerned with how their fellow Arabs are coping with the war.

If  that’s not enough, commercial forces color reporting at least to some degree. As businesses, news media around the world risk losing customers should their reporting stray outside the accepted biases of their audiences.

So it’s not surprising that the enormous mosaic of war is not uniformly illuminated by news organizations from the U.S., Arab states, Europe and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, journalists are charged with providing as accurate and complete a picture as humans can—without regard to nationalism or the commercial interest of the companies that employ them.

And then there are logistical difficulties

Covering war inevitably strains the normal conventions of journalistic neutrality. It simply isn’t possible for journalists to cross a shell-scarred battlefield and ask the opposing commander “How was it for you?”

The best one can hope for is:

Only history is competent to judge, but it’s not too soon to test for some obvious signs of bias.

What jingoism looks like

In American news media, bias might look like the failure to report on U.S. military set-backs, or civilian casualties, or oppositional views from around the world. Elsewhere it might be the photo-negative of such reporting.

So how did the Bay Area’s three largest newspapers do?

I analyzed every story in the first week of the war, March 19 to 25. Overall, the report is positive. Some highlights

·        Coverage was very extensive, particularly in the Chronicle and Mercury News. Both papers expanded from the week before by 50 pages over seven days, about 8%. Both papers ran special sections devoted to the war. Providing its own perspective, the Chronicle sent four staff reporters and a photographer to Iraq, as well as commissioning a freelance photographer. The Mercury and Times each sent a staff photographer. While the Times created no special sections, its first section was dominated by war coverage. (The circulation, and therefore revenue, of the Times is substantially smaller than the Mercury or Chronicle.)

At a time when newspaper ad dollars are down, sending journalists half-way around the world, paying for satellite phones, hiring translators and securing transportation under black market conditions represents a genuine commitment to public service.

“The cost has yet to be determined,” said Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal, “but when you look at newsprint, high risk insurance for those in the war zone, sat phone transmissions for words and pictures, overtime in the overall newsroom, production costs, etc. you are looking at well over half a million dollars in additional costs.”

·        With few exceptions—and those only at the Timesthe Bay Area’s largest newspapers avoided overt jingoism. No U.S. flag logos. No “us” and “them” language. The use of the word “allies” and “coalition” for the Anglo-American forces, however, may imply greater multilateral representation than actually exists. In fact, with reports of as many as 5,000 Syrians fighting for Iraq, as well as volunteers from other Arab states, the Iraqis might too have claimed a coalition. The term, however, was reserved only for the Anglo-American side.

The Times headlines sometimes substituted the Bush Administration’s view of the war as a liberation effort for a more impartial one. On the first day of the land invasion a page one headline read: “Anticipation of freedom joins fear of war in Baghdad.” The next day a headline characterized the attack on one Iraqi city a “liberation” even though that term appeared nowhere in the story.

Undoubtedly some Iraqis look on the Anglo-American forces as liberators. But it’s far from clear that the majority welcome the invasion of their country and its attendant destruction¾the death of many young soldiers, over a thousand civilians, and national humiliation.

On March 25, the main headline was “Next Stop, Baghdad.” To my eye, this seems like cheer-leading. Were a foreign army marching on San Francisco from Santa Cruz, would the Times print “Next Stop, San Francisco” in 72-point type?

·        The reporting pulled few apparent punches. Bay Area newspapers did not shy away from reporting and photographing American setbacks. The captured American Apache helicopter surrounded by Iraqi irregulars was a prominent front-page photo. Attacks disrupting American supply lines and the capture of American POWs may have dropped American morale (and stock prices) temporarily, but they were front page stories.

However, photos of dead American or British soldiers were off limits with one exception—a small, grainy photo taken from Iraqi television of ambushed American servicemen that appeared only in the Chronicle. The bodies of slain Iraqi troops, however, were fair game for photographers. Still, none of these pictures appeared, to my eye, to be sensationalized. The faces of the dead were not shown, nor were the photos especially morbid.

·        The death of Iraqi civilians and the destruction of their homes by American bombs and missiles was reported, but generally relegated to the back pages during the first week of the war. In fairness, however, after the sampling period, when bombs fell on a Baghdad market, civilian deaths were prominently reported.

·        With the occasional exception of the Mercury News, the global story of the war enraging large numbers of people around the world and of the increasing isolation and alienation of the United States was buried by “rat-atat-tat” coverage of combat. The Mercury reported more stories skeptical of the White House take on the conflict than the Chronicle, and did so more prominently. The paper ran a special section “Understanding the Conflict” on the third day of fighting which provided the broader context so lacking in the battle coverage television was providing non-stop. The Times provided the least tough-minded coverage.

In a world in which even superpowers depend on other nations for trade and security as never before, the story of what the war is costing America may be far more consequential than accounts of an unequal and brief set of battles.

·       Coverage of domestic protest against the war outside of the Bay Area was scant in all three papers. All three papers gave significant space to covering the protests that disrupted San Francisco. The dominant frame of that coverage in both the Chronicle and Times was generally indignant—the protesters were an expensive nuisance. As the Chronicle’s Rob Morse put it in his column, “Think globally, ruin people’s day locally.” (Columnists are allowed the freedom to offer opinion, but Morse’s clever phrase also described news reporting.)

The Mercury, while noting the expense and inconvenience caused by record numbers of arrests, managed to publish more of the motivation of those engaging in civil disobedience than the slogans on their signs. In fact, the Mercury ran an entire special section on the protests.

Civil disobedience always creates inconvenience for others. Arrests of African-American protesters at segregated lunch counters in the South during the 1960s disrupted small businesses. The bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks was cripplingly expensive. At the time, many people saw such actions as hurting the cause of civil rights.

But peaceful protest has a special place in a democracy. It ought to be treated respectfully by an institution whose freedom to print unpopular views is expressly provided in the First Amendment.


The Editors Respond

Daniel Sneider
National/Foreign Editor

Mercury News

(email interview)

“[The analysis] seems fair to me.

“A couple of small points -- on the issue of civilian casualties, we have tried hard to ensure balance in our coverage on this point. We have been putting a running casualty count on page 2 that relies in part for the civilian number on the iraqbodycount website. And we have had some strong stories on this including on the front page -- one that stands out was Meg Laughlin's piece on the incident involving an Iraqi family at a checkpoint in Najaf that ran on the front page on April 2.

“We also have been very aware of trying to ensure coverage of the reaction in the rest of the world -- particularly, but not exclusively, in the Arab world. I would agree that it has been dwarfed by the battle coverage but we have tried to keep it in the paper on an almost daily basis, space permitting.

Lastly re the reporters there: The coverage of the war has been centrally pooled for all the Knight Ridder papers so as to give us collectively a scale and, hopefully, a quality of coverage that matches that of other large news organizations. We have been largely well served by their work and didn't feel the need to have a lot of our own bodies out there (although 7 of our reporters are getting ready to go over now as replacements). Instead I have sent reporters elsewhere -- Karl Schoenberger to Malaysia and Indonesia in the weeks before the war started for example -- where we weren't getting coverage. Some of the KR folks are our folks however as well -- Mark McDonald, for example, who has been in northern Iraq (now in Mosul).”

Mark Abel,
Foreign  Editor


(phone interview)

“We have tried to be careful about not pulling punches. There certainly isn’t any attempt to sugar-coat anything.

“The subordination of civilian casualties was true in the beginning because less information was available. At first we couldn’t be sure how the issue of civilian fatalities was going to be handled in a propaganda context.”  Later the Red Cross said Iraqi figures were correct and we began to trust them more.

The story of “U.S. isolation has receded in our paper as well as most other papers. I think we paid sufficient attention to it in the run-up to the war. We have to weigh the relative importance of what can go in the paper. Everyone [already] knows France, Russian and Germany were opposed.

“We’re all very interested in what the long-range implications of the war will be. [No one] knows what it will do to American international relations in the long run.”

Robert Rosenthal, Managing Editor


(email interview)

“I did not see a picture of a dead American except for ones from the ambush which clearly showed the faces of men killed. We decided not to run those because they were identifiable.

“I'd have to look back at Iraqi dead to see if they were identifiable, but my memory is that it is possible if you knew someone you could ID them.

“We ran one picture from the ambush where the US troops were captured and you could ID the dead. We ran another picture of an American wrapped in a body bag after a chopper flight.”
The Contra Costa Times did not respond to repeated email queries sent to several editors.

--posted 4/15/03

What do you think?

A New Kind of War

How are the Chronicle and CNN Handling the Information War?

by David Weir

This first big war of the 21st century is also the first big war of the Information Age, where all over the globe people have instant access to all the coverage they want, whenever they want it. Within that context, the Pentagon's decision to "embed" reporters with its troops is transforming the media-government relationship, and may end up transforming the war as well.

Most of the public is unaware of the emergence of concepts such as "NetWar," whereby military theoreticians have been studying how to use networks (social, political, and communications networks as well as technology networks) to their best advantage against similarly "networked" enemies.

an information war

The information war plays out over Internet and satellite technologies that allow millions of people to network together in ways never before possible. Instantaneous, decentralized communications between and among people who share goals and perspectives pushes and pulls the "news" through multiple distribution channels -- far beyond the reach of traditional, centralized media networks.

So how well do our local and national news media leaders understand these new realities, and how well are they handling these new challenges? I will discuss two news organizations -- the San Francisco Chronicle and CNN.

Whose Side Are Journalists On?

commentary by John McManus

In wartime is the journalist’s first responsibility to flag and country, or to a profession seeking truth regardless of consequences?

It’s a popular, but false question.

Journalists have always served their country best when they’ve provided as accurate, unflinching reporting as they can. 

Such reporting may not, of course, serve the war effort nor please generals or the White House. Americans became disaffected with the Viet Nam War only after reporters broke away from Army briefings—the “5 O’clock follies”—and went into the jungle. Their first-hand reports of combat showed the nation just how isolated our GIs were in a hostile land.

Had journalists been more “patriotic,” or their access to war as Pentagon-controlled as it has been ever since, the outcome of that struggle would not likely have differed. But the death toll, on both sides, would have risen.

Reporting as truthfully as we humans can is never tougher than in a war.

Reporters’ objectivity is compromised by being embedded, literally in bed, with sources on one side of the event. Sources on the other side may be shooting at them.  Reporters must simply trust the military for information beyond their vantage point. That information is likely to be both self-serving and irresistible with its bomb’s-eye video. Finally, the brass can still read dispatches before they reach you and me.

But the greatest threat to truth-telling is as likely to come from corporate as military headquarters. The corporations that own the news may not wish to risk alienating some customers if their reporting appears unpatriotic--embarrassing the military or exposing civilian slaughter to a critical world. Messengers of bad news aren’t shot anymore, just zapped on the remote.

Honest journalism is the best way to serve America, but it’s risky business.

Chronicle coverage

The Chronicle's daily war section was its attempt to keep up with the natural advantages enjoyed by CNN and the other cable news networks. The section resembles The New York Times’ war section, though it is less ambitious and less original. As the war reaches the end of its first week, the Chronicle’s acute inability to compete with live TV means it will have to find creative ways to differentiate its coverage sufficiently to keep a hold on readers.

That said, the coverage to date has been impressive -- dramatic headlines, photos, charts, color, in-depth -- though I wonder how many people in the Bay Area actually consume all of this material every day. One has to be a “news junkie" (more on them later) to really appreciate the attention to detail that the Chronicle daily section is displaying.

Also, in recent days, the commitment to large-sized headlines is starting to limit the paper's ability to communicate anything original. If I already know, or think I know, about that "Gritty Firefight" that occurred yesterday, why should I read the lead story in today's Chronicle?

strong local coverage

On the other hand, the Chronicle has done reasonably well when it covers the local beat, especially the dramatic street protests against the war. I have been surprised, given the paper’s need to grow its younger audience, that the editors did not pay closer attention to the story of the young American activist, Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer. More in-depth coverage of that matter, including the text of the heart-breaking emails she sent her parents in the days before she was killed, would have been of interest to many younger readers, as well as the large local activist community that sees connections between this war and the Palestinian crisis.

CNN's coverage

CNN's non-stop talking anchors are performing admirably, for the most part, though Aaron Brown lost his composure at one point. And when the network uses its backup anchors, it devolves into what might best be described as an unconscious parody of “Saturday Night Live”.

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Art by Linda Lawler

The Most Common, But Least Reported Violence

commentary by John McManus


            As many as 4 American women in 10 get beaten up at some time in their lives… by a current or former boyfriend or spouse. Three women a day are killed. Intimate violence goes hand-in-fist with child abuse. It rears children more prone to batter when they become adults. It boosts our insurance and hospital bills. Police costs are staggering. It’s the most frequent violent felony arrest in many cities.

            Yet, except at its murderous extreme, even quality newspapers, such as theSan Jose Mercury News and Los Angeles Times, all but ignore it. At the Berkeley Media Studies Group, we just finished sampling a full year of crime stories published in the Merc and in the Times.

            Why is such a vast and corrosive problem swept under the rug?

            Some feminist scholars charge that reporters consider domestic violence a women’s issue, not as newsworthy as “real” crime.

            A reporter said it’s undercovered because the public doesn’t fear spousal abuse as much as random crime. And people don’t sympathize with victims caught in such relationships. It doesn’t sell papers.

            Most violence between intimates doesn’t trip today’s commercial standards of newsworthiness for crime¾not dramatic enough. And that may be appropriate. If every act of domestic and dating violence were reported, there would be room in the paper or newscast for little else.

            What's needed is not more police blotter reporting. Rather, journalists need to shift from the mind-set of crime reporting to a public health perspective. They need a wider lens.

            If a disease were sending millions to the hospital and killing thousands, the press wouldn’t consider covering every illness. But it would cover the epidemic. We'd read about causes, effects, costs, and solutions.

            Without news about the plague of battering, society goes unwarned. Politicians aren’t pressured to seek solutions. And this plague can be cured¾ with education of young men and women; with shelters and protection for victims; with strict rehabilitation programs for abusers.

            There’s no excuse for intimate violence. Nor for the media’s failure to cover it as the pervasive, but preventable threat to our public health that it is.

For the full study, click the

Avoiding ‘Blaming the Victim’

            Some scholars have complained that the way news media report about violence against women makes battering appear appropriate, “deserved” or a “family matter” rather than a crime with very serious consequences for a society.

            Our study of the San Jose Mercury News and Los Angeles Times looked for the following inaccurate stereotypes in all stories about intimate partner violence:

  • If a woman stays with a violent partner, she bears some blame for further assaults.
  • If a woman dates another man, she “is asking” for trouble.
  • If a woman dresses provocatively or flirts, her husband or boyfriend is justified in “disciplining” her physically.

We also looked for more subtle expressions of attitudes of male dominance, such as news accounts in which batterers’ names are withheld. Such stories may use the passive voice--"her skull was cracked”--rather than “he cracked her skull” to deflect blame from the assailant.

And we searched every story for words that partially excused men from responsibility. These portrayed battering as not about controlling a woman, but “snapping” or acting out of character because their love or passion for her overpowered their self-control.

The good news is that none of these distorted stereotypes appeared in more than a very few stories. And when they did, they were often challenged by other sources in the story.

It’s possible, of course, that our findings would have differed had we analyzed articles published in 1990 rather than 2000. Or had we looked at less prestigious news media, we would have found the sexist stereotypes scholars have described.

Nevertheless, there’s reason for celebration. Papers like the Merc and Times are looked up to and emulated by lesser organs of journalism. The model they set is influential.

And that’s very hopeful!

posted 2/19/03        What do you think?   


Which news subject is most important to you and your community? Crime? Jobs? Politics? Government? Education? Environment?

A major study shows for newspapers the subject getting the most space is … sports. 

If you live for the Giants, A’s, Niners, or Raiders, news corporations have got their priorities straight.



But if the lowest turnout ever in a California general election last November worries you, or if you think schools, jobs or your shrinking retirement account merit as much attention as Barry jackin' one, or “How to TALK the game,” you might wonder:  

Why does sports get the most ink?

 Journalism ethics say the purpose of news is to empower citizens so they can make good decisions, particularly about society’s rules and rulers. Not whom to bet on in the Super Bowl.

Sports unify the community, editors say. Maybe you exchange a nod with another fan you wouldn’t have spoken to otherwise. But … what city has unified behind a professional team to diminish poverty or ensure schools have adequate resources? The Raiders are suing a city that can’t even afford enough police.

Let me suggest a different reason why publishers push sports. It's catnip for those young guys who are drifting away from newspapers. Advertisers pay a premium for their eyeballs. And sports is so cheap to cover. Send a couple of staffers out for an afternoon and fill not just the front page, but two sports sections on Mondays. Reporters get the best seats free, and all the food and booze they can consume, all compliments of the team. After all, they're the team's publicists.

Imagine for a moment if even half that space were filled with something that matters for more than a season--like the 34 billion dollar state deficit before it grew so painfully large, or the dot.com failure, before we lost our investments, or why we have to spend our young people and treasury attacking Iraq?

Sports has become a weapon of mass distraction.

--commentary by John McManus

What do you think?


Grade the News is Returning

It took longer than expected, but this month Grade the News returns to active mode. Major grants from the Ford and Knight Foundations will make it possible for the project to expand and move to Stanford University.

Over the next several months expect a redesign, greatly improved photos, some video and sound clips of local news, much more community involvement, opportunities for you to "make the call" on dollars and sense ethical issues in Bay Area newsrooms. We're also completely remodeling "Your Turn" so you can raise all sorts of issues about news quality and others can respond.

Since this website is entirely independent of the media and of any advertising, we enjoy a great deal of freedom in making it as useful as it possibly can be. Sooooo, we would like to encourage your ideas for our redesign and features you'd like to see. Contact us by clicking the


The Chronicle's Series on San Francisco Public Schools: Great Journalism?

Or a 'Grave Injustice Against the Children'?

Last December, Grade the News awarded this      To reporters Chuck Finnie and Julian Guthrie, photographer Deanne Fitzmaurice and the San Francisco Chronicle for a surprising investigation of what happened to millions of dollars of bond and tax funds squandered by officials of the San Francisco Unified School District. The series began Nov. 11 and concluded on the 13th. There have also been follow-up stories since as school officials reacted to the investigation.”

The articles took first place for a series at the 2002 Peninsula Press Club Awards dinner in May. In April, the Hearst Corporation bought a double page ad in Editor & Publisher magazine to crow about the series. “San Francisco schools were neglected by city officials, but not by the newspaper,” the ad proclaimed. 

The series told a “shocking” story, it continued. “Reaction to the Chronicle’s series and editorial was swift. The new school superintendent announced a radical overhaul of the division that was involved. Stricter oversight of how the district spends bond money was proposed to voters. The schools stopped using school repair money to pay for salaries.”

But while the Hearst Chronicle was accepting praise and heaping it upon itself, activist parents and the new administration were seething. The newspaper, they said, was taking credit for investigations and reforms the school district initiated before the series was published. 

The controversy prompted the dialogue below. The first column is a critique of the series researched and written by several members of the schools’ PTA (parent-teacher association). The second is a response by lead Chronicle reporter Julian Guthrie. The third column holds GTN’s response to the most central points raised in columns 1 and 2.

Start with column 1, read down and then columns 2 and 3.

The Critics

The 9 Worst Problems with the Chronicle’s “Expose” on San Francisco School Bond Money

1. The Chronicle and the Hearst Examiner all but ignored the problems while they were going on. The post-merger Chronicle reported on them only after new school district leadership had revealed and taken vigorous steps to address the problems.

Many members of the school community spent years begging the newspapers to cover the problems while they were occurring. Had the newspapers revealed the problems at the time, mismanagement could have been stopped.

Now the series casts blame on the reformers instead of the culprits. And it may well make it impossible to pass further bond issues. If that happens, it’s San Francisco’s schoolchildren who will suffer.

The headline on the first part of this series perfectly describes the Chronicle’s coverage: “ ‘A grave injustice against the children.’

2. The series promotes the view that mismanagement is hopelessly entrenched in the school district.

It uses many quotes indicating that the problems are beyond repair, without countervailing views from the many voices in the school community who express optimism about the district’s new leadership.

The definitive quote – the kicker, or last line, of the last part of the series – reinforces that view: “The problem with moving forward is that the mistakes and abuses of the past are very much alive."

The quote is from Nancy Wuerfel, a neighborhood activist whose cause is rebuilding Parkside. She’s a community-spirited person informed about her cause, but is not a parent, an educator or otherwise involved in other aspects of the district. She is not an authoritative enough voice to appropriately provide a damning assessment of current leadership in such a defining spot.

3. The series, and follow-up stories, repeatedly assert that bond money was “diverted” to “ill-conceived projects.” The series gives almost no detail on “ill-conceived projects,” but cites in passing two new schools, Tenderloin Community and John O’Connor High School. Yet Tenderloin Community is widely viewed as a groundbreaking resource for an extremely disadvantaged community, while John O’Connor High is regarded as a rare resource for students seeking vocational education.

The only detail about what would be “ill-conceived” about the schools is that they are currently underenrolled, which is not uncommon for new schools. It’s  revealing that the series singles out schools that serve very disadvantaged students to assail as “ill-conceived.”

4. The series notes that SFUSD overall has more classroom space than it needs, partly in implying that Tenderloin Community and John O’Connor were “ill-conceived.” Yet it criticizes delays in building a new school at the former Parkside School site in the middle-class Sunset District. Parkside is in an area that already has far more classroom seats than students, yet the series implicitly supports a new school there.

This raises the question of whether the Chronicle supports schools serving middle-class populations but views money spent on schools serving disadvantaged communities as “diverted” to “ill-conceived projects.”

5. The series repeatedly blasts the use of bond money to pay salaries, but never makes clear whether or when that’s appropriate, illegal or improper.

Superintendent Ackerman’s investigation found that it’s appropriate to use bond money for salaries directly connected with bond-funded projects. The series is incomplete without further detail.

6. The series describes how the school board allowed mismanagement to occur – but singles out only veteran board members Jill Wynns and Dan Kelly for criticism. Kelly and especially Wynns were the longtime challengers to discredited former Superintendent Bill Rojas, criticizing his unaccountable spending and calling for fiscal responsibility. Yet the series castigates Wynns and Kelly for insufficient effectiveness, while neglecting even to name the members of the board majority who supported Rojas and rubber-stamped his proposals.

7. Meanwhile, the series treats former school board member Leland Yee (currently city supervisor and Democratic Assembly candidate) as a heroic fiscal watchdog, though he was no more effective than Wynns or Kelly in halting mismanagement.

The long description of Yee’s actions in supposedly trying to force accountability aggrandizes Yee while omitting his obvious motivation, which was to distance himself from his own background as an eight-year school board member in preparation for his Assembly run. Since Yee defeated Dan Kelly in the March 2002 Assembly primary, the December 2001 series appears to have been conveniently timed to promote Yee’s candidacy. (Kelly entered the race late, after the series appeared, but was well known to be preparing to run.)

8. The story mentions prominently that bond money was used to fund a “sprawling bureaucracy,” but gives no further details whatsoever of whether SFUSD’s administration is excessively large or costly.

9. The series declares that bond money was spent on “work never authorized by voters”: The wording clearly implies wrongdoing, but the series never explains whether use of bond money is properly limited to the projects originally listed.

If another need arises or circumstances change, is a school district locked into the originally stated uses? If another need arises, is it legal and appropriate to use bond money? The wording above lumps this with wrongdoing, but is it? The series doesn’t tell us.


No one who has followed San Francisco school issues would dispute that bond money was  mismanaged for many years – though not as badly as the Chronicle implies.

The Chronicle series is fatally flawed, especially in its strong implication that current district leadership is to blame for the problems and is impotent to remedy them. It amounts to an attack on the 60,000 schoolchildren who will suffer if voters reject future bond issues because of this shoddy, biased and incomplete piece of reporting.

Julian Guthrie

Chronicle Staff Writer

I've heard these things many, many times before (from the same people), but will try to respond yet again. Be reminded, however, that the critiques come from paid and/or elected defenders of the public school system. They have a political agenda, which is to make the school district look at good as possible.

I too am a believer and supporter of public schools (as is my colleague Chuck Finnie). But, unlike the critics, I believe that it is necessary and beneficial to scrutinize a troubled system.

The Chronicle series that Chuck and I did was thorough, exhaustive and revealing. It also prompted reforms. 

I would make one suggestion, and that is for the school board members, officials, followers and full-time defenders to begin focusing their energies on making sure this never happens again, rather than continuing to cover up for past mistakes.

To respond, briefly, to some points made:

1. The Chronicle and The Examiner spent considerable time and energy covering SFUSD fiscal and management problems. Beginning several years ago, I did a series of stories that uncovered serious fiscal mismanagement.

Those stories included, but were not limited to, incredible amounts of overtime paid to school janitors and a sewing machine repair lady who was paid, year after year, despite the fact that the district had long before discontinued sewing programs.

The Chronicle and the Examiner chipped away at the fiscal problems. Sometimes, though, it is not possible to see abuse or mismanagement until a few years later. The bond spending is one such case.

We would not have been able to do much on where the money was going then. We had to look at what was promised, give them time to deliver, and once they had failed to do so, take a look at what happened. 

That's what Chuck and I attempted to do. We wanted to look at exactly what had been accomplished and what wasn't.

2. The district is mired in problems. A new administration is trying to correct them. We will see if they succeed.

The problem with believing that this administration will reform the district is that other administrations have promised exactly the same thing. The district deserves a chance, and it's getting one, but it also deserves continued scrutiny.

The press plays an important role in making sure this public institution is serving the public. When teachers are paid next to nothing and kids are without basic textbooks and materials, and yet lavish new schools are being built, something is awry.

3. Read the series. We did a great amount of research and reporting. We explain why the projects didn't live up to their billing.

The projects went tens of millions of dollars over budget; were built at a time of severely declining enrollment; and enroll significantly fewer students than promised. Again, all of this happened while teachers were out on the street panhandling for money to buy classroom supplies.

4. There is no point in responding to this. It is an implication without merit.

5. We made it very clear when it's okay to use bond funds to pay salaries. We interviewed dozens of officials at other districts. Nearly all said they do not use bond funds to pay salaries. Period.

We talked to lawyers. We went back to look at the text of the ballot measures. We conveyed when it is legal, when it is questionable and when it goes against public will (i.e. the public's view of where the funds are intended to go).

After the series appeared, the district said it would stop using any bond funds to pay salaries. So, that was one of a series of reforms that came out of the stories.

6. Wynns and Kelly have been the longest serving board members. They were around when the funds were being spent.

They did ask questions but didn't effectively pursue answers. We gave them proper credit for asking the questions.

7. This question doesn't deserve a response, except to say we have no alliance with Yee. We pointed out he was on the board at the time. He has since tried to bring attention to problems. That's how we portrayed him.

8. We researched SFUSD compared to other districts and made a reference to the size of the administration in Fresno Unified, a district of comparable size. It has a significantly smaller central administration. This was supported by documentation, including an audit of the district by FICMAT.

9. The series clearly shows what was promised and what was delivered. Voters believed they were approving the funds for very specific things. Some of those projects were completed, others weren't.

The Chronicle stands by its series. It was an important service to readers. Public agencies must be accountable. SFUSD was a system that lacked accountability. We hope that is changing.



Grade the News

The critique on the left was not produced by anyone on the payroll of the San Francisco Unified School District, nor are they School Board members. They are parents of children in the public schools.

1a. Which came first: the Chronicle series or the school reforms?

Arlene Ackerman became Superintendent of San Francisco Schools in August, 2000. In November, she and the school board commissioned Arthur Anderson to audit the Facilities Department ¾the part of the school administration in charge of construction projects such as those approved in bond measures.

In May, 2001, Ms. Ackerman publicized parts of  the audit showing improper allocations of bond funds and invited investigations by the FBI and City Attorney to determine whether mismanagement extended to outright fraud. She outlined a series of reforms suggested in the audit.

On September 7, the superintendent announced a plan to reimburse the bond fund for money spent on salaries rather than the construction promised in the 1997 bond measure.

On Nov. 11, the Chronicle series began.

It appears the school district revealed problems with how some bond money was spent and began reforms before, rather than in response, to the Chronicle series.

However, Julian Guthrie broke the story of the Anderson audit results on March 29, 2001. Undoubtedly this report added support for reform.

1.b Did the Chronicle and Examiner ignore the bond problems until after they had been solved?

Ms. Guthrie’s claim that sometimes “it is not possible to see abuse or mismanagement until a few years later” in reference to bond mismanagement is plausible.  But it appears to be contradicted by her own reporting. 

The second part of the three-part “Broken Promises” series leads with the sentence: “The warning signs were there for years.

“San Francisco voters approved hundreds of millions of dollars in bond and tax funds, but repair, modernization and construction projects promised by school officials were not getting done.”

These problems shouldn’t have been difficult to spot. As Ms. Guthrie and Mr. Finnie report in the same story:

“Parents, teachers and neighborhood activists complained. An independent audit found incompetent district staff, weak financial controls and wasteful contracting practices.”

Critics actively attempted to interest the press.  A column by Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders in May of 2001 stated:

“Kelly and Wynns [School Board members Dan Kelly and Jill Wynns] got wise to Rojas [former SF School Superintendent Waldemar “Bill” Rojas] and his free-spending ways before he left the district. They tried to stop the types of practices the FBI and city attorney now are investigating. The two even came before the Chronicle editorial board in 1999 to take on Rojas for buying a $7.8 million building the school district didn’t need.”

On the other hand, Ms. Guthrie and Mr. Finnie examined thousands of pages of school district documents going back to 1988.

It’s easy to understand the chagrin of Superintendent  Ackerman and the PTA over the timing of “Broken Promises.” But the public is better off getting such an accounting late than never.

2. The series does take a  pessimistic view of the new school administration. But it doesn’t blame Ms. Ackerman for misspending bond money.  

The role of the Ackerman Administration in uncovering and publicizing past problems is submerged under repeated references to the Chronicle’s “six-month investigation.” In fact, the Chronicle relied on the new administration’s investigation for much of its data.

In her response, Ms. Guthrie is right to be skeptical¾it’s a prime journalistic virtue. But it’s cynical to cast the new administration in the mold of the past when Ms. Ackerman has begun her term by calling for outside investigation and replacing top financial personnel.

If not for the public’s sake, for its own sake, a dominant metro paper like the Chronicle must be careful not to feed public cynicism about government institutions; it chokes the civic impulse that generates a newspaper’s most loyal readership.

3. The series conveys the impression that as much as $100 million of bond revenues were misspent.

In part one, the Chronicle reported: “Records show San Francisco Unified School District used as much as $100 million of the bond and tax money to support a sprawling bureaucracy and to finance ill-conceived construction projects that ran far over budget or were never mentioned to voters” (italics added).

These are very strong words for reporters to use; they aren’t attributed to any source.

“We’ve never been able to account for that $100 million figure,” says Sarah Hart, the chief financial officer Superintendent Ackerman hired to put the district’s books in order.  But, Ms. Hart concedes, the Chronicle analysis went back to 1988, further back than she delved. Still, she’s skeptical.

Virtually everyone GTN spoke with acknowledges that some money was indeed squandered. But those within the Ackerman Administration argue that most of the $100 million went to personnel and projects the schools needed and would have funded out of other parts of its budget had the bond money not been available.

Says Dan Kelly, a school board member since 1991: “You wouldn’t have any idea [from reading the series] that seven brand new schools were built and others renovated.”

Kelly agrees that some bond money was spent on schools not mentioned to voters in the bond proposals. “But there’s nothing illegal in [spending bond dollars on] these schools in response to community requests. There were lots and lots of hearings about that. Schools can change direction to greater need as long as they do so publicly.”

5. Was the use of bond money for salaries overplayed?

Of the questionable $100 million, most went to salaries. The school district says most of those salaries paid for oversight of approved bond construction. If they didn’t come out of bond money they would have to be paid for elsewhere in the budget.

The series implies that such spending was wrong. The fact that Ms. Ackerman has reimbursed the construction funds for some of those personnel expenses¾and did so before the series was published¾ weighs in the Chronicle’s favor.

It also makes intuitive sense that when the public votes for a bond issue, it gets what it pays for, rather than something different. Finally, the Chronicle cites a warning by a financial consultant hired by the schools that administrative charges were too high.

Perhaps the series portrays a complex problem as black and white. But the issue of paying salaries with money voters were told would repair and build schools, certainly deserved ink.

GTN did not have the resources, nor top school administrators the will, to reconstruct the Chronicle’s reporting. So any conclusions must be tentative.

However, it appears that the Chronicle: 1) was late to the party; 2) pushed the negative to¾or perhaps beyond¾the limit of available evidence in its interpretation of bond fund allocations; 3) took considerable credit properly belonging to the Ackerman Administration for uncovering and seeking remedies for problems with bond funds; and 4) failed to give enough credit to the new administration’s investigations and reforms.

On the positive side, “Broken Promises” brought wide public attention to serious structural problems in the Facilities Department and in accountability for the city’s public schools generally.

It’s important to note that the Chronicle didn’t break faith with the public by mishandling bond funds. School officials did that.

It may be true that voters will need time and reassurance from outside auditors that San Francisco Unified has put its house in order before they approve another bond measure. But as a result of the Chronicle’s series it’s now more likely that the district will tighten accountability. It will have to in order to regain the public’s trust. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Posted 7-28-02


The Nature of Bias

commentary by John McManus

On a brisk fall afternoon in 1951 an undefeated Princeton football team took on Dartmouth’s “Big Green.” The vicious game--in which a Princeton All-American’s nose was broken along with the Dartmouth quarterback’s leg--became the subject of a famous analysis of the nature of bias.

Princeton and Dartmouth students who saw the game, or a film of it, were asked to judge it. The Princeton observers overwhelmingly believed Dartmouth players had unfairly mauled their classmates. “No,” the Dartmouth observers said. Both sides were to blame.

The researchers concluded that there was no single game. What each side saw was shaped by their own purposes and background. The idea of objectivity was shattered.

I mention this research because groups on either side of the struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians are pressuring journalists to correct what each sees as obvious negative bias.

The critics certainly caught the Chronicle off base in its failure to cover a pro-Israel rally a month ago when the paper had reported pro-Palestinian demonstrations.  But other than such obvious asymmetry in reporting similar events, bias is very difficult to prove.

That’s because news brims with value decisions. Just calling this year 2002 values the birth of a Jewish carpenter named Jesus so highly it counts all time from the traditional date of his birth. Calling the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Israel or Palestine betrays values. So does the term “occupied territories.”

In seeking truth, journalists enter a contested arena.     

What they do there matters greatly. They have astonishing power to define reality. That’s why we need journalists with many different perspectives. And why concentration of media ownership is dangerous.  It’s also why your community should pay attention to the news and communicate--the biases you perceive.

What do you think?



Silent Revolution

 How U.S. and Bay Area Newspapers Portray Child Care

By John McManus and Lori Dorfman

Imagine a news story so big, it touches the hearts and strains the pocketbooks of 10 million American families. It’s also a business story about a giant emerging industry that is beginning to rival agricultural crops in size and impact.

It’s a story about women’s ability to pursue careers. It’s a science story, about advances in understanding how and when children’s brains develop capacity not just for knowledge, but also for citizenship. And it’s a political story about who and how many will enjoy the American dream.

You’ll have to imagine much of this story. American newspapers great and small are paying scant attention to a sea change in how Americans care for their young children. The omission is important. What's not in the newspaper rarely makes television, the public agenda, or the deliberations of policy-makers.

Few mothers stay home anymore

In 1950, a minority of women worked outside the home — about one in three, according to government statistics. Now it’s a majority — six in 10. In 1950 most children under the age of five were cared for at home, usually by their mothers. Today only 14 percent of U.S. children spend their first three years in the full-time care of a parent. Even the majority of mothers with children less than a year old are working or seeking work.

Not since the establishment of universal public education in the 19th century drew children from farms and factories into schoolhouses has there been such a turnaround in the lives of young people. At the same time, cognitive scientists have discovered that children can and do learn a great deal in their first five years and early relationships can shape what kind of people they will grow up to be. What’s absorbed — if the child’s environment provides them — are not just the shapes and sounds of letters, or how to hold a pencil and throw a ball, but reasoning, empathy for others and moral accountability.

Important, but ignored

Despite its importance to our society — laying the foundation for an educated and responsible citizenry — and to our economy — generating jobs and freeing parents to pursue employment — child care is barely visible in newspapers.

We examined every story about child care for pre-schoolers published in 1999 and 2000 in the nation’s four largest papers, The New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as seven California regional papers including the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Santa Cruz Sentinel. Because of child care's economic impact we separately examined every relevant story on the business pages.

The results were scant. Stories about child care (or nursery school or day care) represented only a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the stories in our sample newspapers. For perspective, consider that in an earlier study of three large California newspapers we found that about 6 percent of the stories on news section fronts (or promoted there) and editorial and op-ed pages focused on education.

Bay Area results

In the Bay Area, the Mercury News led by far. In fact, the Merc published more stories about child care than any of the 10 other papers we analyzed. But that was only 134 stories over two years. During 1999 and 2000 the Chronicle only carried 58 child care stories, the Oakland Tribune 42 and the Santa Cruz Sentinel just 15.

On the business pages child care was all but invisible. California newspapers averaged just two stories per year about child care in their business sections. But so did the New York Times. Yet the child care industry generates as much as $5.4 billion-a-year in California, according to a report compiled from state data by the National Economic Development and Law Center. That's as big a business as vegetable crops or live stock. And that  figure only counts licensed care, not the informal care provided in the homes of neighbors or extended family.

From necessary evil to social good

To discover the content of these stories, we randomly selected half of them for further analysis.

We did turn up some good news. Themes in an earlier study of news coverage that disparaged child care as an inconvenience or "necessary evil" were disappearing.  Newspapers now paint child care more often as a social good, even a chance to "level the playing field" for poor Americans.

Children's advocates---and even politicians---are now suggesting a government role in making quality child care available to all parents. As child care's portrait in the media moves from a motif of "baby sitting" to "early childhood education," state responsibility for funding and setting standards is replacing the idea that parents alone should bear the burden.  Another common theme was the idea that child care is good for business. Parents are free to expand the labor force or enhance their value to industry through education.

A new news frame--a prominent concept in stories--has emerged from discoveries in cognitive science about the impact of quality child care on early brain development, school readiness and formation of a social conscience. Researchers are finding enduring improvements in educational outcomes-- even higher college attendance rates--among poor children exposed to quality child care. Reducing the gap between rich and poor in access to quality child care, said Harvard Professor Christopher Jencks, "would probably do more to promote [racial equality] than any other strategy that could command broad political support."    

Less encouraging was the prominent play accorded isolated cases of violence or allegations of sexual abuse at child care settings. Because of the overall scarcity of coverage of child care, these stories probably raise more alarm than they might were child care a more frequent news topic.

Why does child care get so little ink?

The dearth of coverage is surprising. We asked editors from the Chronicle, Mercury and Tribune why the story rated so little attention. None have yet responded to our inquiry, although the Tribune ran an earlier version of this article on its op-ed page.

Child care ought to be newsworthy for a variety of reasons: It is provided in every community across the nation. Three of every four children under the age of six spend considerable amounts of time in the care of someone other than a parent.  Formal child care is also among the most rapidly growing businesses in the U.S. And it’s a troubled industry, experiencing considerable difficulty finding and keeping staff. Finally, the field is entrusted with something priceless, our children.

Lori Dorfman directs the Berkeley Media Studies Group

To download the entire study in PDF format, click here

ASNE Annual Survey of Newsrooms

Mercury Leads in Diversity

by John McManus

They say ‘perception is everything.’

In a famous social psychology experiment a researcher took a photo of several young African-American men leaning over the engine of a car with its hood up along a darkened roadside.

The photo was then showed separately to black and white students. The students were asked what was happening in the picture.

Most of the white students thought the men looking under the hood were either stealing or vandalizing the car. Most of the black students thought the men were trying to fix it.

In a nutshell, that’s why diversity is critically important in the newsroom. Journalists tell us what’s happening in the pictures they draw of daily life’s most important events and issues.


The San Jose Mercury News is far and away the diversity leader among Bay Area newspapers which took part in a new survey conducted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The Mercury reported that 31.7 percent of its reporters, editors, and photographers identified themselves as members of racial/ethnic minority groups. That’s about two-and-a-half times higher than the national average of 12.1 percent minority journalists at American newspapers.

The Mercury employed twice the percentage of minority journalists that its San Francisco rival, the Chronicle did.  The San Jose paper also led the state’s largest paper, the Los Angeles Times, whose minority staffers comprise 19.3 percent of its journalists.

Is Journalism Going to the Dogs?

commentary by John McManus

Quick, off the top of your head:

  • What profession was shared by both Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, custodians of the two massive dogs that attacked and killed Diane Whipple 14 months ago? (No, inmate is not a profession!)
  • What were the dogs’ names? (No, not Nedra!)
  • What kind of dogs were they? (No, they were not bichon frises!)
  • What was the nickname of Paul Schneider, the Pelican Bay prison inmate, adopted son, the dogs’ owner, and intended marriage partner of Ms. Knoller and Mr. Noel?

OK, good. Now try these.


Of course I don’t know how you scored (answers are below). But I’m guessing you got more correct answers in the first group than the second.

And why wouldn’t you?

Despite its whopping price tag and its grand aim to protect California’s drinking water, buy and renew city parks and recreation areas, keep pristine beaches from development, purchase historically significant sites across the state to preserve our cultural heritage, Prop 40 merited only seven articles this year in the San Francisco Chronicle compared to 73 stories about the dog-mauling incident. The San Jose Mercury News devoted 10 articles to Prop 40, compared to 48 about the Whipple murder over the same 12 weeks.

In fact, between the beginning of the year and last weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News--the Bay Area’s two best news organizations--both published more than one-and-a-half times as many stories about this single year-old murder than all six state ballot measures. Combined.

The Chronicle’s  73 dog-mauling stories and editorials compared to 45 articles about all six propositions. The Mercury’s 48 stories about the Whipple murder compared to 31 for all state ballot measures.

The analysis was conducted on each paper’s electronic archives. I called up all stories about each proposition separately and subtracted the duplications and letters to the editor. Ditto for the dog-mauling case using the keywords “Knoller” or  “Whipple” and eliminating any unrelated stories.

Which set of stories do you think had more lasting importance for Bay Area readers? Which articles helped us act as intelligent citizens?

Continue? click the

The Merc Wins Award for Design

The San Jose Mercury News recently shared top honors for newspaper design with five other papers in a world-wide competition sponsored by Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Society for News Design. 

A panel of judges met in early February, sifting through 349 papers from 26 countries, looking for the best design, graphics and photography.

Medsger Resigns from GTN Advisory Board

Grade the News would like to appreciate the contributions of an original member of its advisory board. Dr. Betty Medsger, former chair of the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University, has moved to New York City to begin a new phase of her life and asked to leave the board.


 ``The top-five honors are the Pulitzer Prizes of design, so this is quite an achievement for the designers and editors who work hard every day to do something special for readers,'' Mercury News Executive Editor David Yarnold said in a Mercury article.

 The four other newspapers named ``World's Best Designed'' were the Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va., circ. 220,000), Die Zeit (Hamburg, Germany, circ. 450,000), Palabra (Saltillo, Mexico, circ. 15,000) and the Independent on Sunday (London, England, circ. 220,000).

If News is Worth Dying for,

Is it Worth Protecting from Conflict of Interest?

commentary by John McManus

We have just learned of the gruesome execution of Wall Street Journal reporter, and Stanford grad, Daniel Pearl. He joins eight other journalists recently murdered in Afghanistan, and more than a score elsewhere around the world last year, who were willing to risk their lives for something called news.

Yet aren’t those who employ journalists increasingly looking at news as just another way to make money?

While Pearl was in captivity for seeking dangerous truths, NBC’s Tom Brokaw--wearing a bright yellow parka--was anchoring the news from Salt Lake City.  Was the respected NBC anchor there because Utah offers a clearer perspective on America’s war on terror or Enron’s implosion?

Was it because the Winter Games are such a big story that Mr. Brokaw needed to be there to symbolize their importance? For a week? Or was it because NBC owns the rights to broadcast the Olympics and when NBC sold ads for the Winter Games, it promised an all-out promotion--

News or promotion?

No doubt the Olympics are popular. And the events of September have sharpened American partisanship. But if the Winter Games are such a signal story that they demand the evening news move to Utah, where were Dan Rather and Peter Jennings?

One might make a case that Mr. Brokaw was in Salt Lake for a national news story rather than a corporate promotion. But what journalistic justification could there be for KNTV’s Terilyn Joe and Allen Denton anchoring the local news--Bay Area news--from Utah?

The value of news for promotion

The economic incentive is clear. KNTV, or NBC3 as it now calls itself, could promise Bay Area advertisers that all of its commercial “spots”30-second ad slots--in the Winter Games would be backed by news department promotion--a total station effort. The additional audience drawn to the Olympics by making them the focus, not just of network promotions, but of the news itself, made all of the locally-sold spots peppering the two-week games more valuable. The bigger the anticipated audience, the more stations can charge for spots.

As politicians and advertisers can attest, news is the most valuable kind of promotion. That’s because news is expected to be neutral, told for the public’s benefit rather than a special interest’s. It’s far more credible than an ad.

Boosting the Olympic audience was only part of the windfall for KNTV. By linking the local newscast to Salt Lake, the San Jose station made the most of its promotional teases during prime time viewing of the games, luring an Olympic-sized “flow” audience to its 11 p.m. newscast. The fact that the games coincide with February “sweeps” when audience size is measured to set ad rates--means NBC3 can charge an Olympic rate for its ads not just during the games, but until after the next sweeps in May.

When millions of dollars are at stake, why shouldn’t news be devoted to promotion?

NBC3 responds

NBC3 news director Bob Goldberger has declined interviews until March. But KNTV’s spokesperson, Erika Taylor of PRx Solutions in San Jose, responded this way:

We don't think it's unethical for a station that just became an NBC affiliate (and will soon become an O&O) [owned and operated] to leverage its network's sponsorship of a major sporting event. There is enormous interest in the Bay Area about the Olympics (as shown by the phenomenally high ratings here) and NBC3 is providing its viewers with additional information and a local perspective.”

News as "leverage"

No one questions that residents of the Bay Area, like many other Americans, enjoy watching the Olympics.  And NBC is responding to that desire--quite appropriately--by saturation broadcasting of the Winter Games.  In addition, KNTV’s news team is providing local coverage of the Olympics beyond the network’s, outside of its normal newscasts. Why, with all of that, must the regular local newscast also be shifted to Salt Lake?

I have two objections to using the news as “leverage” rather than a good in itself.

Continue? click the


Too Hard on KNTV?

by John McManus

Several thoughtful readers have taken issue with Grade the News’ critique of  KNTV’s local newscast. On at least one point they are right and I was wrong.

One critic writes: “GTN grossly distorts the facts regarding the story of the ‘emotional plea from parents’ of a missing boy who ‘Turned out...was merely at his cousin's house a half-mile away.’

“That's baloney.

“The boy had run away, was the subject of a massive police search and was in hiding after telling relatives that he had been beaten by his stepfather. This was a not, as you state, a case of ‘parents who apparently hadn't bothered to check with nearby relatives.’ You also overlook the fact that police conducted the parent's news conference (covered by many Bay Area media outlets) as a way to get a message to the boy that it was safe for him to return home.”

GTN: This criticism goes too easy on me. I characterized the story as “premature,” and “crying wolf.”  Neither fit the facts. I regret the misrepresentation. KNTV was right to help San Jose police by alerting the public that 11-year-old Robert Hernandez was missing.

But what happened after that makes me think that KNTV was milking a potential tragedy for ratings. Although KNTV was aware that the boy had been recovered safe and sound from nearby family members, it continued to broadcast the emotional pleas of the boy’s parents for him to come home.

Hours after Robert was recovered, KNTV’s 6 p.m. newscast opened with a tease of the boy’s mother pleading for him to come home. Anchor Terilyn Joe then said: “A tearful plea from South Bay parents who are desperately searching for their young son. We’ll show you where the trail has ended.”

If the trail has ended, why are they shown and described as still “desperately searching”?

The second story on that newscast reported that the boy had been found, yet KNTV again ran the tape of the tearful mother and father begging him to come home.

Video of powerful emotions builds audience, particularly if it graphically portrays a fear that hides in the shadows of every parent’s mind. It’s hard to ignore a grief-stricken mom in your living room, hard-hearted to click to another station. That’s what I mean by marketing fear.

The critic continues: “I am also amazed by your conclusion that this story about a then-missing child did not ‘address issues and events that matter to many Bay Area residents.’ Given the kidnap/murders of Xiana Fairchild, Polly Klaas and disappearances of other Bay Area children I suspect that missing children are an especially sensitive issue to many parents.”

GTN: No doubt about it. A missing child makes us heart-sick. So does a shot child, a burned child, a beaten child. It doesn’t have to be a child. Violence turns our stomachs, and that’s a pretty good way to turn our heads.

But consider the typical television report of such an incident: A concerned reporter stands at a yellow-taped scene describing the violence. There’s an emotional sound bite from a grieving neighbor or family-member. A somber police officer cryptically outlines the investigation as red and blue police lights swirl in the background. Then a toss back to the anchor.

If executed well--and it usually is--such reports compel our attention. But they don’t do much with it.

How much does such a report help us make sense of the crime, much less think about its causes or solutions, or how to protect ourselves or our neighbors? What should we do with the fear the story has aroused?

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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.

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.”

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Why News Can’t Be Business as Usual

Commentary by John McManus

Recently, the publisher of the Sacramento Bee was booed off the stage in the middle of a university commencement speech. Some graduates disagreed with her. Others were bored. So they censored her.

Ironically, her speech was about preserving the freedom to say what the majority doesn’t want to hear. The publisher tried to warn of how shortcuts in the process of justice and abandonment of journalistic neutrality might come back to haunt America. What happened on that stage captures in a single incident why news media can never be run like ordinary businesses.


New Diversity Guide Available

Are you unsure about the difference between an abayah and hijab?  Don't know whether to use "Latino" or "Hispanic"? Still using the term "wheelchair-bound"?

Find the definition of these terms and others in News Watch's updated Diversity Style Guide. This online resource will help you use the most accurate terms in covering news stories about people of color, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities.

The Diversity Style Guide is available at http://newswatch.sfsu.edu/guide/

Journalism is the only business where your job sometimes requires you to drive away paying customers. News media that have taken unpopular stands--even those later applauded have risked the enterprise for a principle that may make them a target on Wall Street and on Main Street.

The Bee’s publisher’s comments earned her the scorn of two-thirds of those who flooded the paper’s ombudsman with messages. There were calls for subscription and advertiser boycotts.  A century ago during the Ku Klux Klan terror, Southern newspapers that opposed lynching black men faced public rebuke. In the civil rights era, Southern papers championing racial integration lost subscribers. Here in California, which newspapers crusaded against the internment of Japanese-Americans?

In journalism, the customer isn’t always right. But the standards of the market are more powerful now than they’ve ever been in American newsrooms. I should say maketS. More and more, news is crafted to please not just readers and viewers, but advertisers, powerful sources, and most importantly, distant investors.

Let the citizen beware: Market-driven journalism is an oxymoron.

This commentary aired on KQED January 4, 2002

KRON’s Former News Director Looks Back

What’s Right and Wrong with Local TV News And Some Ideas for Reform

by Al Goldstein

Before I begin, here are a few qualifiers. I don’t know every general manager or news director; don’t know the workings of every newsroom; haven’t worked in a newsroom in ten years; don’t know every company that owns a station.

My comments are based on my experience, and I still stay pretty much in touch.  There will be exceptions to most everything I say and what I see as reality is my own reality and not intended to represent all realities. Now you have full disclosure. I have been told on numerous occasions that a particular story may be good journalism, but that it was not the kind of story that helps attract viewers.

TV news is as its best during disasters, such as earthquakes, major fires that threaten communities, and the recent acts of terrorism at the World Trade Center.

TV news can be educational.  We all received lessons in civics during the Clinton impeachment and even the OJ Simpson trial. Broadcasters, in their coverage, set aside revenue concerns for several days in order to serve the public. For most of the time, however, public service and quality journalism take a back seat to revenue and ratings.

The issue of ratings versus quality news first surfaced in earnest about forty years ago.  Former CBS News President Fred Friendly quit, when CBS refused to air Senate hearings on the Vietnam War, substituting re-runs of “I Love Lucy” instead.

The documentary “Local News,” which aired recently on public television, set the issue before the viewer, asking if ratings and quality news can co-exist.  In a broad sense the issue was portrayed realistically, exposing the viewer to the dilemma with its attendant problems and pressures.

In my experience the number one pressure mitigating against quality journalism is the ratings. That pressure is exerted by the company owning the station on the station general manager who exerts it on the news director. As a result, news directors operate within a very narrow box that is drawn and enforced from higher up.

Within that box there may be a journalistic and public service component of news. But to a GM, news is mainly about the money.

I have never had a discussion outside the newsroom with any GM or any other department head about how to improve journalism. I have been told the journalism is too serious.  I have been told on numerous occasions that a particular story may be good journalism, but that it was not the kind of story that helps attract viewers. A GM or sales manager never walked into my office and said “Goldstein you’ve got to do more substantive journalism.”  The same goes for public service.  It was never discussed as an obligation or responsibility, but only as a strategy.

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“Black Hole” Live Shots:

Expensive Gimmick or Better Journalism?

by John McManus

Particularly after September 11, no one disputes the value and power of live television when an important event is unfolding. But how about when the event folded hours earlier?

Consider a recent case on Channel 2’s Ten O’Clock News.

His overcoat buttoned up, his breath a whispy cloud, Lloyd Lacuesta stood in a deserted parking lot. It was late, on a chilly November night. The darkened building behind him, dim in the yellowish neon of street lights, had been a hive earlier in the day when he interviewed folks eating free meals at the Cecil White Center.

But that was hours ago and now Mr. Lacuesta was waiting for his spot in the newscast to arrive so he could speak a few sentences “live” at the beginning and end of his otherwise taped story. And go home.

In local television news, this is known as a “black hole” live shot. Nothing is happening in the background that’s related to the story. The mobile TV lights are swallowed by the surrounding emptiness.

In the Bay Area, as elsewhere, empty live shots are common. In fact, an 11-month Grade the News survey shows that in 76 percent of the live stories during the top half of Channel 2’s Ten O’Clock News, nothing is going on in the background that’s relevant to the story. The percentage is identical on Channel 4 at 6 p.m. It’s 78 percent on Channel 5’s 6:30 newscast, and 56 percent on Channel 7’s news at 6 p.m.

(Stations were given credit for an “active” live shot if any activity connected to the story could be observed behind the reporter--even snow or rain falling in a weather-related story.)

Empty live shots are frequent because few stories break between 6 and 7 p.m. when most local news is presented. Fewer still at 10 or 11 p.m.

So why go “live” when nothing is happening at the scene?

            Critics, including many reporters, say:

o       Reporters could better spend their time gathering news and writing than lingering at the scene or returning to story locations.

o       It’s a gimmick that tricks viewers into thinking a story is worthy of special attention; why else would the station go live?

o       The capability to broadcast live diverts dollars-- that might have been spent hiring more journalists--into the purchase of hugely expensive live vans. Stations are buying live background-- “wallpaper”--at the expense of substantive reporting.

o       Because those trucks must be used to justify their cost, newscasts become shallower--more oriented toward visual, location-specific events and less about issues.

            Supporters, including many news directors, counter that:

o       Even empty live stories make a newscast more interesting by changing the background and lending a sense of immediacy.

o       Live reports are more believable than videotaped stories.

o       Live vans can save reporters time by allowing them to stay in the field and gather the latest news at the scene.

o       Live stories allow anchors to question reporters.

o       Live stories give local communities a sense that the station is out with them, “everywhere.”

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From NewsWatch

An inside look at the successes and trials of a TV station's diversity committee

By Craig Franklin, KRON, Channel 4

In 1996, KRON's annual filing to the Federal Communications Commission showed 26 news stories under the category "Civil Rights/Multicultural/Diversity." Already this year that number is more than 50.

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Children Now Research

Local TV News Distorts Real Picture of Children

Local television newscasts rarely report on children, according to a new study. And when they do, the children are most often shown as victims of crime.

A survey of local newscasts in six metropolitan areas across the U.S. by UCLA researchers found:

These distortions are meaningful because people act not on objective reality, but the pictures in their heads--many of which are supplied by TV news.

“By rarely covering children and when they do, reporting primarily negative stories, local television news marginalizes many issues that directly impact children’s lives,” says Patti Miller, director of Children Now’s Children and the Media program. “This sends the wrong message to children, parents, voters and policy makers.”

The study was conducted during the month of July in New York, Atlanta, Boston, Des Moines, Los Angeles and Seattle. Researchers analyzed the early evening local newscasts of network-affiliated stations. No San Francisco stations were included.

Children Now, headquartered in Oakland, is a national organization that advocates for children.

For details of the study (which was virtually ignored by Bay Area news media) go to the Children Now website.


Advertising Disguised as News:Does it Matter?

Is it ethical for a newspaper to publish advertising under the guise of news?

Should a newspaper like the Mercury News that’s been a stickler for ethics among its reporters, apply the same standards to its news execs?

What’s at issue here may seem a peccadillo--an article at the top of the front page of every Saturday’s real estate section called “Fantasy Home of the Week.”

But trust is always a big deal in the news business. If your trust is betrayed in a small matter, you can’t help but wonder about larger ones. Further, ethical standards erode one rule at a time.

That, presumably, is why the Mercury has come down so hard on reporters for infractions that elsewhere might have merited only a warning. The paper has been protecting its credibility against any challenge.

A volume discount on integrity?

But major advertisers, such as the real estate industry or auto dealers, can wedge crowbars as big as their ad accounts under the slats of a news organization’s integrity. In times of falling ad revenues, the pressure can be difficult to resist; advertising contributes about  four times as much revenue to the Mercury’s bottom line as your subscription dollars.

Unlike the Sunday real estate section, which is clearly--and ethically--marked as an advertising supplement, the Saturday section is presented as news.

Among the first commandments of journalism is the obligation to clearly label advertising so that readers can distinguish it from news. No blurring the line. The reason is simple: when most people read ads, they erect defenses. They realize the copy is there to persuade rather than inform, that it might not be trustworthy.

You be the judge

You be the judge of whether the Mercury is slipping an unmarked ad into its news reporting.

Webster defines advertising as: “To make known; to call public attention to, especially by emphasizing desirable qualities so as to arouse a desire to buy or patronize.”

Here’s how a $25 million property was described on the first Saturday in September:

“The livestock fencing, three barns and Central Valley views do put you in mind of the Ewing place on the old “Dallas” TV show…. Even the Ewings would be envious of this set up…. The beauty is in the details….a heated tree house for the kids…. Pellets hitting the water announce feeding time for the fish, and young children can fish successfully from rowboats…. Lights adorn the gazebo and the snack bar making it a festive place…. On a clear day you can see Monterey.”

Here’s the description of an $8 million mansion on September’s final Saturday: “It’s not the elegance that excites you as you approach this ‘painted lady,’ a romantic lavender and cream-colored villa three short blocks from the ocean. It’s not the overwhelming size, nor the spire on top—the highest point in Santa Cruz. No it’s the tug of history that first lights a spark.”

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Ad Platform or Real Estate News?

Media critics such as Ben Bagdikian have argued that real estate, automobile and other sections devoted to some type of commodity are more “ad platforms” than news sections. Their task is not to critically inform readers about an industry or the social issues that industry addresses, but to create “a buying mood” for its products.

Let’s subject the Mercury News’ Saturday real estate section to a test.

If the critics are right, one would expect to find, not just the presence of favorable articles about real estate, such as “Fantasy Home,” but the absence of critical ones. That would create the positive “buying” mood.

One might also expect a higher than average ratio of ads to news. Finally, one might expect that the paper would spend little of its own reporting resources, relying instead upon cheaper free-lance articles and those from wire services. The purpose, according to the critics, is not to report on the Bay Area’s critical housing imbalances or problems the industry is facing. Rather, it’s to gather as much ad revenue at the least cost to the Mercury.

To test the criticism, Grade the News analyzed all five Saturday real estate sections during the month of September. Here’s what we found:

  • Of the 79 stories (including charts and transaction lists) published in September’s Saturday real estate sections, only one was critical. It was a one-paragraph article without a byline that pointed out the deficiencies in the real estate website, LivingChoices.com. The emphasis on positive or neutral articles contrasts sharply with front and local sections of the Mercury, where stories containing allegations of mis- or mal-feasance or mistakes with public consequences, or negative trends, are common over the course of a month.
  • Of course it’s possible that real estate is a trouble-free industry, or at least was so in September. However, problems with home construction constitute one of the most common types of complaints received by the Santa Clara County Consumer Protection Office. The Contractors State License Board in Sacramento doesn’t break out complaints by month, but in the fiscal year ending June 30, it received 950 complaints from Santa Clara County alone.

  • Of the 79 real estate stories, only one carried the byline of a Mercury News reporter. Most articles originated from wire service reports, from real estate columnists who sell their reports to one or more papers, or from companies providing lists of real estate transactions.

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Look Inside a Local TV Newsroom

Have you ever wondered what it's like inside a local television newsroom?

This Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 10 p.m. on Channel 9, KQED, you can find out. "Local News," a dramatic behind-the-cameras documentary will air on Tuesday nights at 10 for five consecutive weeks.

Grade the News has been given a chance to screen the series. As far as we know this is the first time any television documentarians have ventured behind the sets into a local television newsroom. "Local News" begins to fill a gap in public understanding of what has become America's most trusted and watched source of news. It's worth watching because it takes an unflinching look at the values in one such newsroom, WCNC in Charlotte, North Carolina, over a 10-month period.

(Disclosure: Grade the News has partnered with the Television Race Initiative in an effort to engage the Bay Area public in watching and discussing this series.)

The series, produced by Lumiere Productions and WNET-13, has received critical praise:

  • "More engrossing than the 1987 film 'Broadcast News,' the series is hard fact, not fiction -- real people painfully wresting with how to cover the news honorably, right before your eyes," said Editor-at-Large Neil Hickey in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review. (See his review?)
  • Samuel G. Freedman in the New York Times says the central issue of "Local News" is "the struggle to reconcile honorable journalism with profitable television." (See his review?)

A Bay Area website has been established to discuss the series. Questions relevant to the most recent episode will be posted to help launch this discussion. You can also discuss the series here on Forum. Click the

Those who would like to use excerpts from "Local News" to spark community or classroom discussions may contact Forum as well.

Score your favorite newscast or newspaper

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Check our scores of major Bay Area stations and newspapers

When is Bad News Good News?

commentary by John McManus

When you  awoke Tuesday morning, September 11, to news of the terrible events in Manhattan and Arlington, did you click on your TV? 

Did you keep it on at home or work throughout the day watching the unbelievable video of an airliner punching through the World Trade Center and the collapse of those familiar twin towers?

Could you turn away? I couldn’t. I couldn’t concentrate on work that suddenly seemed so trivial.

Humans have a deep urge to witness such powerful events. Reading about them 24 hours later won’t do. We yearn to feel connected to the events and to each other as they happen. Danger obliterates our usual illusion¾that we don’t need each other.      

At times like this we recognize how utterly we depend on television journalism. It becomes society’s most important senses¾our eyes and ears. It enables something to happen that is relatively new¾for hundreds of millions of people to see and hear a distant event at the same time. That astonishing power conveys commensurate responsibility.

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Remember the Maine?           

In the first 48 hours of news coverage of the horrific tragedies in Manhattan, Arlington, and a Pennsylvania cornfield, the dominant voice has been that of President George W. Bush and his administration.

Appropriately. Journalists must provide our elected leader and his team extensive time and space.

But American journalism cannot be an extension of the press office of the White House or Pentagon and still serve the public. With the whole nation literally looking on, America’s news media must struggle to find some balance. It most go beyond those--Republicans or Democrats--whose political interests may profit from unleashing the might of the world’s most fearsome military.

An escalation of metaphors

Did you notice the shift in the Administration’s central metaphor? On Tuesday, the president spoke within a criminal justice frame. He looked to “punish those responsible,” to “bring them to justice.” By the second day, however, the metaphor had escalated from crime to war. A war of “good versus evil.” A war against those who hate America because, as he said the day before, “we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” 

Humans reason in metaphors; they’re instrumental in shaping public opinion. But a metaphor is like an iceberg, most of it is below the surface.  Moving from a crime frame to a war frame may seem trivial, but the baggage, or entailments, of the new frame hijack the substance of  the debate.

Why shifting from crime to war matters

When we think of crime, we think of a process of apprehending suspects, gathering evidence, an impartial trial with rules of evidence, open to public scrutiny. The government’s goal is justice. Punishing the wrong people would be a travesty. Harming the innocent along with the guilty would constitute an egregious failure of the system.

War, on the other hand, is an all-out deadly struggle. It’s not carried out at the individual level, but whole nations are involved. In war there are enemies to be destroyed, not suspects to be tried.

A war is prosecuted by generals planning in secret, not lawyers in open court. In war there are no trials, only executions. In war, the paramount goal is victory, not justice. In war the innocent are expected to die. “Collateral” damage is regrettable, but acceptable. No modern war has been fought without massive civilian suffering.

If journalists accept the metaphor of war, they are preparing the public for its entailments.

“The language of war has its consequences,” Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute pointed out on the ethics website it operates for journalists. “It anticipates formal declarations. It imagines counterattacks. It begins to define and dehumanize an enemy. Within the current frame, that enemy is ‘likely’ to look a certain way and dress a certain way and practice a certain religion. The collateral damage of building a culture of war is xenophobia and paranoia, much if it directed at our own citizens.”

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News is democracy’s most essential commodity. Here’s how to perform your own simple consumer report.

Guiding principles

The primary purpose of ethical journalism is to help as many people as possible make sense of the issues and events happening in the world around them. News makes informed choices possible: How to improve the quality of life--be it environment, schools, jobs, transportation, housing, health, etc.

In journalism, entertainment should serve information. Making the important interesting is the journalist’s challenge. What’s merely interesting may add spice. But when spice becomes the main course, self-government chokes.

Ground rules

Pick your favorite newspaper or newscast. One day is good. An enterprising newsroom never has a “slow news day” because the public’s enduring questions dictate stories, not events. Further, most newsrooms have minimum standards of quality applied every day.  Still, two--or more--different days are better. 

Get your printable score card by clicking this apple

Get your printable instruction sheet by clicking this apple

 Why do it yourself?

P.S. Make it a social event; grade with friends.

Evaluating the May Sweeps

Extreme Fighting, Spies Among Us, Bacteria Breakout, Jail Babes, Charity Thieves, Terror Fighters, Behind the Scenes (at every hit show on NBC), and other tales from Bay Area TV news

commentary by John McManus

Even the weakest-willed dieter fasts between snacks. The real test of a diet, or virtue, requires the presence of temptation.

Temptation peaks for local TV newsrooms four times a year, during “sweeps” months. That’s when stations set their advertising rates. The temptation?  To sacrifice journalism for more sensational fare designed to pump up audience ratings.

Grade the News took advantage of the May “sweeps” to see which, if any, Bay Area stations doffed their press hats in favor of the carnival barker’s straw pork pie.

We sampled the 10’ O’Clock News on Channel 2 and the 11 p.m. newscasts on Channels 4, 5 and 7. After commercials, newscasts only have 22 minutes each half-hour to address the information needs of 7 million Bay Area residents living in scores of cities covering more than a thousand square miles. We wanted to see how those precious minutes were spent.

Compelling journalism attracts audience. So one might have expected reports that drilled deeper into the Bay Area’s most pressing problems than daily deadlines allow. Investigative reporting, backgrounders. Obvious topics included scores of issues associated with the power crisis, or traffic gridlock, or urban sprawl, or environmental issues, or the sharp decline in technology industries, or the enormous loss of wealth in stock, or… you get the picture. 

But most of the “special reports” focused elsewhere:

We saw sweat-beaded close-ups of men locked in a cage beating and kicking each other senseless. Explored the “love loophole” (which turned out to be a pre-nuptual agreement; our guide was a woman who didn’t use one). Learned from the fictional Dr. Mark Greene of E.R. that the shows’ actors “aren’t really doctors!” Attended one Survivor party after another, (probably not coincidentally) on the station owned by Survivor’s owner. Uncovered Bay Area residents getting “free power” (but who were actually paying for electricity as part of their rent). Caught up with Eddie D. in Tampa. (He still isn’t in charge of the 49ers.) Interviewed “jail babes.” Gaped at nasty sores on two women’s calves, apparently inflicted by a bacteria-infested pedicure bath in Watsonville. And were astonished to hear of “a dramatic new way” one could get a face lift “without going under the knife” (only to find they cut with a laser rather than a scalpel). (Checking out the story with an experienced cosmetic surgeon also revealed that the procedure was far from new.)

Call it gimmick journalism.

In a more serious vein, we saw a San Francisco park’s fountain used as a urinal…and worse. The story apparently provoked city officials enough to saw through the legs of nearby park benches and remove them, presumably to drive away the homeless.

We also toured Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge from which the Bush Administration would like to extract gas and oil. We learned why some Europeans consider us barbarians for putting people like Tim McVeigh to death. And how life has abruptly changed for former dot.com millionaires. How bad the situation is in real emergency rooms in the Bay Area. How DNA testing may free some innocent prisoners. What happens when a career mom takes time off for child care. And something about older drivers risking their lives and others. 

We can’t assign grades because the sampling method was random, but not in a scientific sense (letting chance alone determine selection). All four of the Bay Area’s biggest stations strained to put on “special reports” with sexy titles. All were—understandably¾ pushing to maximize audience.

Channel 2 appeared to take the high road most of the time. Their specials were flashy, but usually newsworthy in the sense that both topics and reporting were consequential; you could learn something. Channel 7 fell in the middle.  Channels 4 and 5 both pushed ethical boundaries. Every station had at least one strong special or series.

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A Defense of “Behind the Scenes... ” and Audience Flow Stories

by Henry Tennenbaum, KRON-TV

GTN: Do you think stories such as "Behind the Scenes at West Wing" and "Inside ER" represent a conflict of interest ... The conflict, of course, would be between boosting ratings and profits on the one hand and giving the public the top local stories of the day on the other?
HENRY: As you've defined "conflict of interest," the answer to your question is a resounding YES, there are conflicting interests .... just like most other news decisions. Not to parse your question too finely, but in television news (and probably in all news media) story selection is, by definition a "conflict of interest."  Which stories will viewers/readers/listeners care about? Which are "the top stories " (I've been waiting years for a definitive explanation of that concept). Any news program/newspaper is a blend of so-called "top" stories and other items that emphasize audience interest over urgency. This isn't sophistry, really! Is sports a "conflict if interest," since most material serves little purpose but to satisfy the audience? How about "Dear Abby?" The stock listings?
So I don't believe "conflict of interest" is an issue as you've defined it (i.e. choosing between ratings and profits by replacing "top" stories with less worthy material).  I think "self-serving" would be a more apt description. As of this writing, "self serving" is a virtue, not a sin in our current economic system.

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The Latest from NewsWatch

Making News in Newsrooms

By Dara Williams

While the frequency of national news stories about gays and lesbians has slowly increased in the past 10 years, local stories about their daily lives haven't been as popular.

Resource Guide

Some resources for covering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

Printable Journal: Get the entire print version of the journal. (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Visit NewsWatch at San Francisco State University

A European View of Media Ethics

The Other Two Aims of Media Ethics

by Claude-Jean Bertrand

Of course, the primary purpose of media ethics is to improve the services that news media provide to the public. But it is not the only one. And two others can be considered more important, though they are insufficiently mentioned.

Good journalistic service has always been threatened by Big Government and now it is increasingly threatened by Big Business. What can an ethical reporter do against such threats? Not very much.

But the individual journalist need not be alone. Two allies are available. Or could be. And only media ethics can mobilize those mighty forces. 

"Media ethics" usually takes the shape of principles and rules gathered in a code. Codes give concrete, practical existence to ideals and guidelines. Certainly. But media ethics can do more: it can help unite journalists into a profession that shares the same values and is sufficiently attached to them to fight in their defense. Tight-knit professions can do much to protect their autonomy.

Moreover, ethics is of little use if there are no means to enforce its codes. Not governmental means or managerial means, like jail or firing. What I have in mind are "Media Accountability Systems" (M.A.S.). About 60 exist, using peer-pressure and public pressure to obtain respect for the rules.

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Mea Culpa

Wrong on IKEA

            About a year ago I fussed about the attention given the opening of the IKEA furniture store in Emeryville.

            Last March the Chronicle ran a front page story touting the opening of “The Mother of All Furniture Stores” as the headline read. On the very same day the Chron’s business section gushed: “Shopping will never be the same after giant Swedish home goods retailer opens in Emeryville.” Forty-five miles to the south on the same day, March 10, the Mercury covered much of its lifestyle section front with a story headlined: “Countdown to IKEA.” The subhead swooned: “IKEA will furnish Bay Area, finally.”

            I suggested that the Chronicle and Mercury were confusing promotion with news. That the stories abandoned the skeptical detachment of objectivity for the throbbing hyperbole of PR. The Chronicle, for example, enthused that “The grand opening promises to be the closest a Scandinavian entitiy¾other than Abba¾can get to causing a frenzy.”

            I still think that’s true.

            But I also speculated that the two papers were “greasing the skids” for a barrage of ads from IKEA that would greatly enrich them. I implied a “quid pro quo.” I argued that the papers were providing advertising disguised as news to establish the credibility of¾and invite¾later paid ads. I spoke of the declining trust in American journalism.

            Over the past year I’ve noticed very few IKEA ads in either paper. I’ve also noticed no other promotional copy about IKEA.

            One might argue that with that kind of “news” coverage, the store had little need for paid advertising. But I think that goes too easy on me. I went too far. I speculated about the future rather than analyzing and commenting on the past. Worse, I imputed motives violating the journalistic rule that reporters stick to facts and leave mind-reading to psychics.

            I’m sorry.

            I’m particularly sorry because my critique made the papers appear more venal than they were. I contributed to the cynicism of the public.

            That’s the opposite of what this project is about. We are trying to generate enthusiasm and appreciation for good journalism and awareness of poor journalism. We are trying to remind the Bay Area’s news firms of their ethical responsibilities.

            In the future, I’ll try to stick to the established record and not speculate about motives or the future. And I invite you to call me on it, if you feel that I’ve failed.

                        ¾John McManus



The News Media’s Most Destructive Myth

commentary by John McManus

            Lots of smart people believe that the news media give us--for better or worse-- what we want. Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post’s energetic media reporter, says as a society we get the news we deserve.

Most local TV news directors agree. They say they’d produce a serious, informative newscast except for one thing: You, the viewer, will click to another station with more sensation. Look at the O.J. Simpson trials, they say. People couldn’t get enough.

They have a point. I’ll admit it if you will. The lurid, violent, or bizarre can turn my head.

Still, I think Mr. Kurtz and the news execs are wrong.     

First, notice that there are lots of things we want from news but don’t get. Investigative reporting that exposes government and corporate corruption interest almost everyone. So does solid consumer reporting. So does trend reporting on the things that matter most to us.

But all of these cost much more reporter time--and thus dollars--than crimes, accidents and fires. And they can anger the powerful. With the occasional exception, what local TV news provides is not what we want, but only that part of what we want that’s cheap to produce and protects their bottom lines.

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In Memory of Steve Chaffee

            The world of communication research was shocked in May to learn of the loss of one of its very best minds and most engaging spirits.

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First Annual Report Card on News

Which Paper or Station is Really

The Bay Area’s Best

--And Why It Matters

You may be tempted to think that one newspaper or television station’s reporting is about as good as another’s.

If you quickly click through newscasts, it's true; you’ll see many of the same stories. And the stories above the fold of the front page of local newspapers will also resemble each other. When a U.S. surveillance plane collides with a Chinese fighter jet, everyone will report it.

But if you care about local news, or you watch or read closely, you’ll find surprisingly large differences among the most popular Bay Area media. None have the seriousness of purpose of a paper like the Washington Post, but two match the Post in almost every other aspect of excellence we measured. No local news outlet flunks, but one comes close. And two others are much more interested in “rubber-necking” than informing you.

Over 2,200 stories analyzed

In the largest effort ever to rate a metropolitan area's news media head-to-head, Grade the News systematically analyzed 2,261 stories produced by the seven most popular local news organizations, plus the Post. We examined each newsroom’s best work--stories selected for the front page and local front in print, and the first half hour of the premier evening newscast. These are the most read and watched--the most influential. The patterns we found were so consistent, it’s very unlikely they can be explained by chance--that we caught a particular station or paper on one bad day after another.

We slowed down television, taping newscasts and studying each story. We took a tape measure to newspapers and a stopwatch to newscasts. We recorded every story’s topic, whether it was local or not, whether it was fair, how many sources were quoted (even how many were experts), whether the reporting focused on a single isolated event, or stepped back to provide us the big picture, whether the story showed investigation or enterprise, or was the result of someone holding a press conference or feeding the media a press release. For newspapers, we called sources and checked the accuracy of quotes.

Why grade the news?

We did this because a democratic society depends on news. Consumer Reports evaluates cars, cameras, computers, even tuna, but news is our most essential commodity. That’s because uninformed citizens are dangerous. Not just to themselves. Uninformed citizens are easily manipulated. They leave policy decisions on our air, water, schools, transportation, economy, even whether we are at peace in the world--to special interests. The most dangerous of all are those who think they are informed, but aren’t--the ones who watch or read junk journalism.

"Our republic and its press will rise or fall together." Joseph Pulitzer, 1904

What wasn’t graded

We didn’t judge matters of taste--the aesthetics of videography, or layout or graphics or photos, or the clarity of the writing. These are quite important, but everyone’s yardstick differs. Further, no matter how elegant the writing or photography, if the stories ignore what’s important or the reporting is shallow or unfair, it’s second-rate news. We only measured where we felt we could hold up journalism’s codes of ethics and match them with newspapers and newscasts so that everyone would agree on the results.

Second, in order to level the field between television and newspapers, we didn’t measure volume. Newspapers simply have much more space for news than television has time. This also means we didn’t evaluate the quality of many valuable sections of newspapers, such as business, editorials, lifestyle/culture, etc.

The Bay Area’s best, really

The best news in the Bay Area, by our measures, is reported in the paper many deride as “The Comical.” Perhaps it once deserved that moniker, but when we took a calculator to it over the last year, the San Francisco Chronicle graded out on top. We gave it a strong A-. On a 4 point scale, it’s GPA (grade point average) was 3.75. The only area of weakness was in the area of choosing newsworthy topics--events and issues that affect the well-being of many Bay Area residents--on its front pages. It rated a B. But that was as good as any in the region.

The San Jose Mercury News ran a very strong second, with a 3.55, also an A-. It fell behind the Chronicle only in two areas--enterprise and civic contribution. The first refers to the amount of active newsgathering that doesn’t rely on press conferences and releases, nor react to events. Civic contribution measures how well the news keeps an eye on what government is doing in our name. With less than a fifth of the circulation of the Chronicle, the Contra Costa Times scored almost on par with its larger competitors. It earned a B+, with a GPA of 3.46.

Check out the newsworthiness index

Check out the context index

Positive trends for newspapers

More good news. Each of the three papers improved its scores from the first and second time we sampled them. And since merging with the staff of the San Francisco Examiner, the Chronicle has begun to turn out as many or more project stories and series of stories as the Mercury. These deep, abundantly and diversely-sourced reports help put an issue in perspective. Their greater frequency in the Mercury over the years may have much to do with that paper’s superior reputation.

Channel 2 leaves television competition behind

Because we score news on how the time or space was used rather than its absolute quantity, television has as much opportunity to excel as print. Channel 2 earned a solid B with a GPA of 3.07. It fell slightly behind the three newspapers in choosing newsworthy issues and events and way behind in reporting on its own initiative, but otherwise nipped the heels of the leaders.

Check out the local relevance index

In fairness, Channel 2’s “Segment Two”, which is usually enterprise reporting, comes just after the half-hour break in the 10’O Clock News and thus falls outside of our 30-minute “top story” sample. It’s also only fair to mention that Channel 5’s scores are diminished slightly in our comparisons because it has no hour-long newscast. That means it’s the only station whose sports segment--which gets less credit for importance--is routinely captured in the sample.

Oakland-based Channel 2 clobbered its broadcast competitors across the board. The next highest grade was Channel 7’s C- based on a 1.7 GPA. Channel 4 also earned a C-, with a 1.67 GPA. Channel 5 brought up the rear with a D, on a GPA of 1.1. Both Channels 4 and 5 had so few sources in their stories that their context scores were in the F range. Many stories were source-less. This denies viewers the opportunity to evaluate the authority and bias of those providing the information. It’s poor journalism. Channel 7 also short-sourced its stories, earning a D- on this index. In contrast, Channel 2 earned an A-; its stories had multiple named sources and experts were common.

Check out the accuracy index

Check out the fairness index

Action news rather than substantive news

All four stations devoted more time to crimes, fires and accidents--an ambulance-window view of the Bay Area--than any newspaper. Three of the four, virtually ignored government and politics, despite their fundamental importance. Channel 2 was the exception. Even when a gentler measure was used--giving stations credit for assessing people’s reaction to government policy rather than showing “talking heads” in meetings, Channels 4, 5 and 7 largely boycotted the process of self-government.

Check out the civic contribution index

Check out the enterprise index

Don’t blame the reporters

Looking over 2,261 stories, we couldn’t help but be impressed with the reporting talent in all seven newsrooms. We couldn’t identify a single weak reporter. Those who showed poorly in some reports, shined in others. The key element appeared to be adequate time to gather news and enough time or space to tell it. Despite the extraordinary profits of all seven news outlets, some had too few reporters chasing too many stories. 



How Accurately Do News Media

Portray Youth Violence?

 By Lori Dorfman and Vincent Schiraldi

Violent crime always dominates the news, not only when  young boys wield guns in crowded schools.

It's easy to see why. Our reflex to peer into misery is automatic and irresistible. The news is our collective "rubberneck" -- the media turn our eyes all at once in the same direction to bear witness to the latest horror.

And horrible it is. When children shoot children, we must be told, and it is journalists' responsibility to tell us, in part so we adults can figure out what to do about it. The urge to witness a graphic scene of violence, be it a gruesome car crash or a tragic school shooting, is an  involuntary twitch, a first reaction. Afterward, though, we need more. We need to understand how it happened and why. The overwhelming evidence from research is that news coverage of crime, especially violent crime, is out of proportion to its occurrence, distorts the proportion of crime committed by youth, and over-represents minority perpetrators while under-representing minority victims.

But do we get enough information from news to understand violence among youth?

 To answer that question we assessed every scientific study of news content of crime and youth available -- more than 100. What we found is disturbing and extraordinarily consistent. The overwhelming evidence from research is that news coverage of crime, especially violent crime, is out of proportion to its occurrence, distorts the proportion of crime committed by youth, and over-represents minority perpetrators while under-representing minority victims.

Rare acts of violence are pushed into the foreground. Even some news directors believe we have an epidemic of school violence when, in fact, schools are one of the safest places for our children. The reason that statement feels so counterintuitive is the core of the problem: Without a proper backdrop, the image of violence in schools that so dominates news coverage is easily misunderstood.

Despite the headlines, school-associated violent deaths have dropped by 72 percent since 1992. Youth homicides declined by 68 percent between 1993 and 1999 and are at their lowest rate since 1966.

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Is Wife-beating Ever a Love Story?

            If you read the front page of the San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday, February 28, you couldn’t help but feel sorry for Dan McGovern.  

He looked up at you from a thumbnail photo, smiling, dreamy-eyed as  you learned that he died two days before in an early morning volley of police bullets. He had  pulled a .45 caliber handgun from his waistband and pointed it at Sunnyvale officers.

“A year ago,” the lead paragraph read, “Dan McGovern was so happy, so deeply in love, he felt he could have flown with his new bride from Moscow to Sunnyvale without a plane.”

“This is the story of Dan McGovern, who friends and family say, loved cars, cops, guns and most of all, the woman he met after paying $3,000 to a professional matchmaking service.”

Now he was dead, by all accounts the victim of a broken heart.

His Russian wife, Julia, suffered a broken skull during a beating by McGovern earlier that morning, according to police investigators. That’s what led Sunnyvale police to the couple’s apartment later that fatal day. The story clearly stated that McGovern had struck his wife and that she was hospitalized, although the severity of the beating wasn’t reported until later. And Julia McGovern declined to speak to reporters.

But from headline to final paragraph, the story artfully developed the irony of a simple, but good man, driven to apparent suicide by his consuming love for a manipulative mail-order bride who done him wrong. The portrayal outraged women inside and outside the Mercury newsroom. They felt it breathed new life into old stereotypes of domestic violence: directing sympathy to the batterer, and disparaging the victim. Those stereotypes, say those who work with battered women, discourage abused spouses and encourage their assailants, at a time when domestic violence has become the leading type of violent felony arrest in California. 

Even the editor who oversaw the story conceded: “I confess I just dropped the ball.” To its credit, the Mercury picked up the ball--the side of the story that says broken-hearted men don’t get to fracture the skulls of women they love no matter what--the next day on the front of the local news section.

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The Question Behind Jay Harris’ Resignation

Does Wall Street

Have to Trump Main Street?

Analysis by John McManus

You can easily imagine former San Jose Mercury News publisher Jay T. Harris’ chagrin.

Last year, newspaper analyst John Morton estimates, the Mercury earned a profit of better than 30 percent of sales. Not only is that four times higher than the national average for an American firm, but it’s multiplied by a huge sales volume. According to SEC (the federal Securities and Exchange Commission) filings, advertisers and subscribers spent $341,400,000 last year on the Mercury. That creates a pre-tax profit of more than $102 million.

That’s enough to employ 2,000 more journalists than the current staff of about 400. And Harris was asked to sacrifice people to protect the profit. Instead, he resigned in protest.

“Much greater priority is given today to the business aspects of our enterprise than is given to fulfilling our public trust,” Harris wrote his superiors. “I fear as well that we no longer sense the same level of ‘moral obligation’ to ‘excel in all that we do’ and that our founders’ commitment to publishing ‘high-quality’ newspapers is no longer the powerful drive in the company that it once was.”

Harris not the first to quit in protest

Harris is not the first respected news executive to resign after complaining of Knight Ridder CEO P. Anthony Ridder’s profit-demands. The legendary Gene Roberts preceded him in Philadelphia and David Lawrence in Miami.

Harris’ resignation raises the most important question facing journalism in an era when most major news corporations are owned by investors: Do the interests of shareholders trump those of the reading (or viewing) public? Put another way, must publicly-traded news media put private profit above public service?

Continue? (click the apple) Corrrection: Gene Roberts was previously identified as a Knight Ridder publisher; he was an executive editor. We regret the error.

Reactions to Harris’ Resignation

Austin Long-Scott, journalism professor, San Francisco State University

I think it's rare that a publisher acts with such conviction, and so openly, in defense of journalistic values, as opposed to corporate or marketplace values.  It shows what a difference it makes to have a publisher committed to First Amendment responsibilities.  Contrast that with the corporate values demonstrated at the Los Angeles Times over the Staples Center special section, where the executives making those decisions had no experience in news, and didn't understand journalistic values or ethics.

Good journalism is supposed to be about accuracy and fairness and telling people what's really going on out there in the world beyond their immediate reach.  To do this takes talented people working in an atmosphere that is steeped in the public interest, rather than in the interest of the corporation they work for.  Talented people get discouraged and leave if their jobs are tied to short-term rises and falls in advertising revenue.  The public interest disappears if a news organization shows by its actions that it responds first to market values.

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Which Topics Get Top Billing?

Which Are Downplayed?

Every day journalists gather in Bay Area newsrooms, coffee mugs in hand, to decide which stories will be played on the front page or at the top of the newscast. Because these are the stories most of us will see, these are very important decisions. What’s tucked on inside pages or comes up in the back half of the newscast gets much less public attention, according to a number of studies of reader and viewer habits.

You might think that over a year every topic that makes a big difference in our lives would get about the same amount of time or space in the spotlight. You’d be dead wrong.

Grade the News analyzed what Bay Area journalists think we most ought to know about with a random sample of more than 2,200 stories over 11 months. Because we didn’t look at every story, nor always agree on which category to place every story, what follows is an approximation. But as far as we know, it’s the largest ever attempted across the Bay Area’s leading news providers. (We also analyzed the Washington Post to provide a reference to a paper of recognized excellence.)

If it bleeds, it still leads

The old adage “if it bleeds, it leads” still holds true for Bay Area broadcasters. Channel 2 spends 36 percent of news time in the first half-hour of its 10 p.m. news on crime, crashes, and conflagrations. Channel 7 is right behind at 34 percent for the first half-hour of its 6 p.m. news. Channel 5’s 6:30 p.m. newscast allocates 30 percent to an ambulance view of the Bay Area while Channel 4 devotes 28 percent of the first half-hour of its 6 p.m. newscast to the three C’s.

Downplayed topics

Despite the intense local interest in environment, the topic rarely makes the front or local front pages nor the top half of newscasts. And although education--from pre-school through university--has touched almost every one of us and profoundly affects our economic well-being--and even our safety--it’s rarely a featured story. Consumer reporting is all but extinct. Not a single story in our sample of the Chronicle fell in this category.

The Ambulance Window Index

Percent of prime news time or space devoted to crime, crashes, and fires

The three C’s (crimes, crashes and conflagrations) can be counted on to be visual and emotional. In the words of one TV news executive, “they sell tickets.” Regardless of their importance, they are the stories Bay Area TV news directors overwhelmingly feature.

Newspapers, on the other hand, are more likely to direct our eyeballs to stories about how power is exercised by government and how it is contested in politics. Of all the television stations, only Channel 2 took government and politics seriously. In fact Channel 2 took government and politics even more seriously, in terms of top stories, than did the Mercury News.

The Watchdog Index

Percent of prime news time or space devoted to government or political news

Television journalists often say they can’t cover meetings or political issues without losing their audience to more stimulating alternatives. Channel 2--long the Bay Area’s most popular newscast--casts doubt on this grim assumption about the intelligence of the audience.


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Nutrition Report Card

Who Provides the Bay Area’s Most Nutritious News?


You are what you eat, they say. Salty, fatty, nutritionally-empty junk food may make your mouth water, but it’s bad for your health. Same for news. Emotion-drenched, visually exciting, but informationally- barren news may turn your head. Junk journalism, however, degrades the civic health of the entire community. 

What we don’t know can harm us. We make our most serious mistakes when we don’t know, but think we do. 

All that the sharpest critics of democracy have alleged is true if there is no steady supply of trustworthy and relevant news.... No one can manage anything on pap. Neither can a people.

--Walter Lippmann

What does junk journalism look like? It was the biggest story on the front page of the Chronicle recently--about “Disney’s Virtual California,” opening on a former parking lot at the southern California amusement park. “Theme park makes actual travel superfluous” the headline claimed. A day later the Mercury News followed suit with its own full-color photo and front-page-dominating story of the made-for-media event.

Channel 4 broadcast its weather report from “Virtual California.” Channel 7, the Bay Area’s Disney-owned station broadcast a promotional tape on its evening newscast and promised “live” coverage from its parent company’s new attraction in its morning newscast. (To its credit, KGO’s story on the park did acknowledge the conflict of interest. But far from evading the conflict between journalism and advertising, the morning coverage from the park embraced it.)

More routinely, junk journalism is an ambulance window view of the Bay Area--the context-stripped, cookie-cutter stories of shootings, stabbings and sex crimes. Trimmed in yellow police tape, they throb with angry or tearful soundbites. It’s also the twisted steel of a traffic accident and the ‘copter video of a constipated freeway, the live shot from a scorched building and “pity ‘bites” for the displaced family. It’s the 4-minute feature on “high tech hunks.” And front page stories about whatever editors think has “buzz,” regardless of its importance.

Junk journalism is a method of reporting

Were the tragic episodes treated systematically, we’d learn a lot from them. As it is, we can’t see the forest for the trees. How about a longer story, or a series, on the causes of certain kinds of crime or fires or wrecks, another on solutions, another on the costs to all of us--in fear, in racial and social mistrust, in rising medical bills, in property insurance, in taxes to pay police, lawyers and judges, not to mention prisons? How have other cities or nations coped with these core problems?

Crimes are serious events, not junk. It’s the reporting that trivializes them--marketing tragedy for its audience-building fear or pity value while ignoring the conditions that create it.

Not all front-page or top-of-the-newscast stories need be serious. Content that’s more interesting than important draws people into the news tent. But when the sensational largely displaces the substantive, the tent risks becoming a circus big top.

Grade the News has now analyzed more than 2,200 stories produced by the Bay Area’s largest newspapers and most popular newscasts, a social science based survey of almost a year of news. We’ve fashioned a measuring stick using the definition of news contained in most of journalism’s codes of ethics--news is information about current issues and events that helps people make sense of their environment. (We’d welcome your suggestions for improvements.)

How should journalists report racial slurs?

California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is the highest-ranking ethnic minority politician to hold statewide office, used a racial epithet in his speech to an African-American labor group on February 9 at the group's Black History Month banquet. He apologized at the end of his speech and has since apologized in radio and newspaper interviews. He has told reporters he meant to say "negro" in speaking about the name of an early 1900s labor organization but that he slipped. When is it appropriate, if ever, to use the term "n-word" in news coverage? What do you think the proper style should be when it appears in a newspaper or a broadcaster might have to say it? Should there be a different standard when the slur is spoken instead of printed? Have your say at San Francisco State's Newswatch. And see what others think.

The most important index

Newsworthiness is the most important index of quality of the seven that comprise Grade the News’ overall index. That’s because if the topic and treatment of news is geared toward diversion, it doesn’t matter how many sources speak, whether all sides are represented, or even that it’s accurate.

The good news is that three major local news providers put on more wholesome newscasts over the last nine months. Channel 2 showed the greatest improvement, but the Mercury News and Chronicle also were better.

Here are the grades:


Washington Post



San Jose Mercury News



San Francisco Chronicle



Contra Costa Times



Channel 2 (KTVU)



Channel 4 (KRON)



Channel 7 (KGO)



Channel 5 (KPIX)



The Bay Area’s best still trail strong newspapers like the Washington Post. The Post covers stories on new amusement parks, but not on the front or local news pages. The Post also rarely confuses the front  page with the sports page. Post editors appear to hold the now-quaint notion that the front page ought to reflect what people need to know more than whatever might cheaply draw the widest attention. Despite a more market-driven selection philosophy, Grade the News heartily endorses the Mercury, Chronicle, as well as the Contra Costa Times and Channel 2. Channels 4, 5 and 7 may be good entertainment, but they don’t take news seriously.

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Good News and Bad News

 for Television Journalism

NEW YORK CITY¾ The evening awards ceremony was ecstasy. But the day-long forum on the state of television news was mostly agony.

On the snowy campus of Columbia University in mid-January, a Houston station, KHOU, showed that solid investigative reporting is not dead in local television. The station won a Dupont-Columbia Award¾the broadcast equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize¾for uncovering and spurring a world-wide inquiry into the safety of the Firestone tires that came as standard equipment on the Ford Explorer.

It wasn’t the New York Times, nor Washington Post nor Sixty Minutes that discovered how often these tires lead to deaths and injuries in roll-over crashes of the popular Ford SUV. It was a local TV reporter, Anna Werner, making cold calls to Houston attorneys working in the product liability field.

Of course, Werner had the green light from a station willing to pay for this most expensive kind of journalism. And she teamed with an experienced investigative producer, David Raziq, to make the scores of calls and record checks necessary to document the problem. KHOU’s reporting sparked stories elsewhere leading to an international recall of the tires. (For a description of how they reported the story, click here.)

Earlier in the day, at the DuPont Columbia Forum, three panels of journalists and their critics portrayed television news as an endangered species of journalism. Local television news was described as hemorrhaging viewers weary of formulaic “if it bleeds, it leads” reporting. (For the most recent national surveys of local news viewership, click here.) Continue ? (click the apple)

Covering Campaign 2000

Bay Area and State Races Less Important on Local TV News than Accidents, Sports and the ‘X-Ray’ Camera That Can ‘see through your clothes’

The ad was eloquent and gorgeous.

With an airborne camera’s sweep of the spectacular emerald hillsides and rugged coast of the Bay Area in the background, Channel 5’s anchor Dana King said: “Here in the Bay area, we’re deciding on issues of growth and green space.” Co-anchor Hank Plante added, “We’re voting on measures to help improve our commute and choosing ways to better educate our children.” “It’s a lot of ground to cover,” King rejoined. “But at Channel 5, that’s what we do everyday.”

But like many ads about politics aired during Campaign 2000, it promised more than it delivered. We sampled KPIX’s 11 p.m. news twice in the final week before the election. Not a single story in either newscast was devoted to any state or local campaigns. In fact, politics¾local, state or national¾was almost ignored on Channel 5.

What did they consider more newsworthy than helping us cast informed votes a few days later?

Sports was the most important issue in terms of coverage time, although no playoffs or other unusual performances were taking place. The next most newsworthy topic was accidents, followed by crime, then weather, then human interest. Channel 5 had time to report on how to fry a better burger. But it had no time to help viewers think through the blizzard of claims and counterclaims on a ballot with eight state-wide propositions, a smorgasbord of local initiatives and dozens of political candidates.

In the seven days before the election, Grade the News picked two weekdays and sampled the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, and two evening newscasts each from Channels 2, 4, 5 and 7. The sample size is too small to be definitive; the two days in the final week we sampled may not be representative.  But given the proximity of the election, they provide a rough measure of public service.

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Do Television and Politics Mix?

Television is a wonderful medium for presenting politics. With the capability of dynamic visuals, sound, text and animated graphics, it is the closest medium to real life.

Television also gains extra resources that could be used to finance in-depth reporting in the month before a major election. That’s because local stations raise substantial revenues as political ads compete for the same number of “spots” as commercial ads and drive up rates.

And just before an election, politics is not the audience turn-off that it might be at other times of the year. Public interest in politics is peaking.

So why did the Grade the News sample turn up so little interest among Bay Area stations in reporting anything but George W. Bush’s DUI? Why did newspapers do so much better? Continue ? (click the apple)

Selling Us Our Own Air

Commentary by John McManus

Can you make sense of this?

The most serious problem in politics today¾chad excepted¾is the corrupting influence of campaign contributions, right?

And those who would represent us or advocate for a ballot initiative need to raise ever larger sums because air time, particularly on TV, is very expensive. (TV is the preferred means of transmitting a political message for all but the smallest and most local elections.)

But aren’t the stations collecting those vast sums¾from $600 million to $1 billion this year, according to the New York Times¾selling access to airwaves that really belong to us, not their shareholders?

And aren’t these stations given free and exclusive use of these airwaves on the sole condition that they use them for the public’s benefit?

How can stations licensed to serve the public justify jeopardizing the integrity of elections to sell us something we already own?

I tried to pose this question to the folks in charge of the Bay Area’s biggest stations...Continue ? (click the apple)

Investigation Clears Examiner Editorial Page

of ‘Horse Trading’

Commentary by John McManus

Retired federal Judge Charles B. Renfrew has completed his investigation of whether  former San Francisco Examiner Publisher Tim White offered or provided favorable treatment to Mayor Willie Brown in exchange for Brown’s support of Hearst’s purchase of the Chronicle 

Mr. Renfrew concluded that no real offer was made or acted upon.

News reports are available from the Chronicle and the Examiner. So far, the Hearst Corporation has only made an executive summary of the Renfrew report public.

I sincerely hope Mr. Renfrew’s findings are true. The stakes are high. Hearst now controls Northern California’s largest newspaper. The company’s ethics will affect us all.

Grade the News’ analysis of Examiner editorial pages for two months before and two months after the lunch at which Publisher White testified he made the offer of editorial favoritism found a “subtle, but troubling shift” toward Mr. Brown after the August 30 lunch. The analysis did not, however, find an unambiguous bias toward the mayor.

The Hearst Corporation made the proper response, launching an apparently independent investigation. Its conclusions would gain credibility if the Renfrew report were released in full. They may need it. Judge Renfrew’s conclusion contradicts both the sworn testimony of then Publisher White and the statement of the judge at that trial, Vaughn Walker, that Mr. White seemed more truthful than Hearst executives who denied there was an offer.

Publication of the full report, however, will not completely settle the question. Here’s why.

Even with a court’s full power to compel witnesses to testify and to threaten perjury should their self-interest corrupt that testimony, cases in which one must prove someone’s intention are inherently difficult. We simply don’t know what was in Mr. White’s mind when he spoke to Mayor Brown.

Similarly, proving that Mr. White acted on his statement to the mayor is difficult. Abuse of power is almost always cloaked. Had the publisher told  his editorial writers to go easy on Mr. Brown to keep him from interfering with Hearst business interests, he would have faced journalistic protest. Any effective intervention on his part would have been subtle.

But this was not a trial, but a private investigation. There were no subpoenas. (In fact, Mayor Brown refused to testify.) There was no threat of perjury.

It is overwhelmingly in the self-interest of  Mr. White and the two other parties at the lunch--the mayor and Executive Editor Phil Bronstein--to claim the intent was merely jest. It gets the journalists off a hook sharp enough to puncture their careers. Mr. Brown avoids evidence of strong-arming the press (and U.S. Justice Department) just before a mayoral election.

Somewhat similarly, any Examiner editorial writer who testified to suspicions of his/er superiors would have to be either very brave, very foolhardy, or about to leave San Francisco journalism (or perhaps any corporate journalism). From now on, Hearst will sign everyone’s paycheck.

The only way to erase the stigma of this episode is for Hearst to build a powerhouse newspaper in San Francisco that practices the highest ethical standards. It now has the staff to do just that. 

We wish them well.

National Study Finds:

Channel 2 Ranks Best in Nation, By Far

The runaway quality leader in Bay Area local newscasts may just be the best in the nation.

A national study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism analyzed KTVU’s newscasts during two weeks earlier this year and compared them to 49 other stations in 15 cities. Channel Two had the highest grade ever recorded in three years of analyses comprising scores of stations and cities--more than 100 points ahead of its nearest competitor this year.

In fact, KTVU’s 10’ O’Clock news’ rating was twice as high as the national average in coverage of issues, putting experts on air, in balance of stories and relevance.

In Grade the News analyses, Channel 2 has also dominated its local competitors, earning a “B,” a full grade higher than its nearest competitor, Channel 4. New grades based on an analysis of nearly 2,000 Bay Area news articles will be posted here within a week.

Channel Two’s performance strikes a sharp contrast with the state of local TV news nationwide.

In the face of precipitous declines in ratings, many local television news broadcasts are cutting back on the very type of programming that attracts viewers, the study concluded.

"Stations are turning to flash and hype to sell stories, when the data show that thoughtful, quality news-featuring enterprise reporting, localism, topic breadth, innovation and sourcing-builds its own audience," said Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ),  Director Tom Rosenstiel, a former media critic for the Los Angeles Times and Washington correspondent for Newsweek.

"Stations ignore these findings at their own peril," he added.  "They truly are at risk of slowly killing themselves off."

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The Mercury News Takes on its Immigrant Paper Carriers:

Objectivity, Fairness Are Casualties

“Never engage in a war of words with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

San Jose Mercury News Publisher Jay T. Harris set aside journalistic objectivity and fair play a week ago to demonstrate the proverb to a group of new Americans. It was the $300 million-plus-a-year Mercury News vs. the people who get up hours before dawn to deliver the paper--mostly Vietnamese immigrants paid $1,080 a month for their labor.

It’s always difficult to report on yourself, but the Mercury abandoned its own principles, rules of reporting at which it normally excels. A Grade the News analysis of the strike week’s coverage shows violations the Mercury would never countenance in reporting on outside parties.

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Unfinished Business

Is it Ethical For Journalists to Ask Tough Questions

But Refuse to Answer Them?


To its credit, the Contra Costa Times has responded to our criticism and finally begun to label its Saturday real estate section for what it is--advertising.

However, the letter above is troubling. It seems more than a simple refusal to discuss the performance of the Times. It also appears to be an attempt to undermine a critic the paper has heeded, but found embarrassing. The letter was sent to Grade the News’ advisory board, sponsoring agency (KTEH) and the foundation (Gerbode) funding this project. The letter also makes charges which are demonstrably false. "The desire to suppress opinion different from one's own is inveterate and probably iniradicable" --A Free and Responsible Press, the Hutchins Commission

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Is it News or Is it Advertising?

Research shows most readers are fooled

The weekly “Saturday Homes” section of the Contra Costa Times is laid out to look like news.

The Times runs its logo on top above a banner that reads: “Your Best Guide In the East Bay.” It’s not an insert, but a regular lettered section of the newspaper. Like news pages, it’s presented with headlines and columns of text separated from advertisements. There are datelines on each story telling where it was reported as well as bylines indicating the author.

"Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two."

--The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics


But although nowhere in the section do editors specifically identify it as an advertising section prepared by developers rather than journalists, “Saturday Homes” is 100 percent advertising.

The primary tip that this is not news comes in the smallest typeface on the page. It's an unfamiliar story byline such as “Wheeler”, “Gold Mountain”, “Standard Pacific”, or “Pulte Home Corporation.”

As you read down the page you may also notice that the typeface differs slightly. But unless you line it up next to a real news section, you will probably miss the distinction.  

“It’s either intentionally or unintentionally deceptive to leave open the question as to whether this is refereed, critically examined news copy or fluffy, biased advertising copy."

- News ethicist Keith Woods of the Poynter Institute.


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The Dean of Black Journalists Observes:

Mainstream San Francisco News Media

Aren’t in Touch with Racial, Ethnic Communities

by Al Goldstein

Despite its reputation as America’s most liberal big city, despite the presence of minority members in newsrooms, Tom Fleming contends that San Francisco newspapers and television stations largely ignore the issues and interests important to black, Asian and Latino communities.

“Today, though we live in a world that is increasingly multicultural, much of conventional journalism remains fixated on the lives of the white and wealthy.” Media Studies Journal, Summer, 1994

Fleming has been a journalist in the Bay Area for more than half a century. He remembers being the first black working journalist in the San Francisco Press Club, back in the 1950s.

Asians, Latinos and blacks now constitute the majority in California, but “we still feel that we are not covered adequately,” Fleming says. “Whites just don’t want it.”

He faults white owners of newspapers, who are “indifferent to the issues [in black neighborhoods]...don’t come out of their offices and their communities...don’t see these issues.” Fleming acknowledges that today’s coverage of black issues “is better than it was, but it started from zero.”

Over the past half century, Fleming’s columns and editorials have hit similar themes.  Following World War II, the Oakland transit system refused to hire blacks and Fleming told them: “If blacks can drive army rigs, they can drive buses in Oakland.”

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A long-time San Francisco journalist responds

By William German

Tom Fleming's views on how mainstream San Francisco (media included) has treated blacks and other minorities are worthy of close attention. Fleming speaks, as you put it, "from a unique position." I agree with his criticism of things past and his feeling that while some things have improved, there is still room for progress.


The Second Report Card on Bay Area News Media

The latest report card rating the quality of Bay Area news media is in. The good news is that we enjoy enormous choice.

And the bad? The nation’s fifth largest media market produces some really bad news. 

To continue, click a thumb:


Analysis by Al Goldstein

A South Bay child dies just hours after being released from the hospital.  The mother is devastated and blames the hospital. Channel 7’s Rigo Chacon covers the story and signs off.  The anchors respond.

Anchor: “Such a tragedy; thank you very much Rigo.

Co-anchor:  “What a shame!”

Anchor: “Hmmm.”

An 8-year-old Vallejo girl is kidnapped, escapes and comes home safely.  The Channel 5 reporter, live in the field, tosses back to the anchor.

Anchor: “You know Nola, it is so good to hear at least a positive outcome in this situation. We suspect there will be quite a bit of celebrating out there tonight.” (Big smile)

Reporter: “Oh you bet...”

These empathy exchanges are recommended by news consultants to boost TV news ratings. The show doctors also push stations to personalize and humanize the news. Channels 5 and 7 seem to use these techniques the most, Channel 4 appreciably less, and Channel 2 uses them least..

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"America’s Last, Best Newspaper War"?

Opinion by John McManus

That’s what Susan Goldberg, the San Jose Mercury News’ managing editor, calls the competition between her paper’s new San Francisco edition and the Chronicle.

And competition with the Mercury News was also a major factor in Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision to approve the Hearst Corporation’s purchase of the Chronicle. With the Merc in town, the Chron wouldn’t become a monopoly.

“Let the newspaper wars begin,” taunted the lead of a Chron article last week that called the Merc “the encroacher from the Peninsula.”

But before the public breaks out the champagne over great journalism that might result from “an era of brawling, bare-knuckled news competition,” as the Chronicle put it, consider this:

  • the Mercury’s invading army is a bureau with only 12 to 16 positions according to its own reports. They’ll be up against a home team with over 500 staffers. Some war!

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Why Advertisers Are More Important Customers Than You

Opinion by John McManus

When buying a car or stereo, you bear the entire cost.  News is different.

You don’t get billed for watching news on TV. Advertisers do. Even if you subscribe to a newspaper, you contribute only about 15% of the paper’s revenue. Advertisers cover the rest.

This has the great benefit of making news accessible for all.

But whenever someone else picks up the tab, watch out. Advertisers pay for what they value. Quite properly, they want the eyeballs of potential customers--people with the money and inclination to buy their products. And they want it at the lowest price. Advertisers don’t care whether we use news to be informed, or merely to rubber-neck other people’s tragedies. News is just bait.

Here’s the problem. If the corporations that deliver our news try to maximize profit, they must add to the audience for real journalism those primarily interested in entertainment. Sure, you could make a reasonable profit just doing authentic journalism. But what company wants to settle for normal profits when it can have extraordinary returns?

So pressures from Wall Street and advertisers favor the inexpensive story that appeals to consumers across the region--the human interest tale, the violent one, the one that has buzz, the sports story that appeals to an important demographic. Newspaper sections that pique interest in travel, computers, real estate, wine, or cars make great ad platforms.

Alas, the most newsworthy stories often have the worst cost-benefit ratios. Investigative and trend reporting take reporters days instead of hours to produce. And important but dull stories turn-off the entertainment audience. A recent survey found that almost 8 of 10 American journalists say their newsrooms sometimes or often avoid important but dull stories.

There are other businesses in which quality isn’t as profitable as pap. But none are as important to democracy.

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Harry Potter and the Hawking of the Mercury

Opinion by John McManus

You’re going to think me a joyless Grinch for critiquing the Merc’s coverage of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Or at least a wack muggle.

Don’t get me wrong. I think J.K. Rowling’s enormously popular books are wonderful. And even without the bladder burst of hype with which the media have flooded the release of “Goblet,” many kids¾of all ages¾would have been excited about the new book.

It’s definitely a front-page cultural story.

But is it a front-page story day after day?

Not for the New York Times. Not for the San Francisco Chronicle. Not for the Contra Costa Times. But for the San Jose Mercury News, Harry Potter merited the front page five times in eight days.

In total, the Merc ran 16 Harry Potter stories from July 2-9. We counted down till the midnight sale date. We learned about the author, about the illustrator, the movie, the websites, the sales projections, and a Potter bestiary¾now we can distinguish Hogwarts from Hagrid. There was an editorial, even a story complaining about all the Harry Potter hype!

Why is a Pulitzer-Prize winning newspaper with a newsroom full of great journalists playing the carnival barker for Harry?

Managing Editor Susan Goldberg did not respond by posting time.

Actually, I think it has nothing to do with Harry Potter and everything to do with marketing. The Merc is using Harry. Not that Harry’s creator and publisher mind. Quite the contrary. This is a synergy deal¾a mutual back scratch.

Call it a “buzz” story. In many ways it’s analogous to the “tie-in” stories in local television that print journalists regard with such contempt. Rather than trying to hustle viewers from a hit network drama or quiz show, buzz stories seek to lure consumers of the latest fad or whatever else focus groups tell editors has “buzz.”

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How Reliable are Political Polls?

When Bill Fazio read his morning Chronicle late last October, he had every reason to feel good.

The newspaper’s poll of likely voters showed him leading Terrence Hallinan in the San Francisco district attorney’s race by 10 percentage points just 10 days before the election. With a margin of error of plus or minus 4 points, the poll showed him ahead even if all the error favored his opponent.

But on election day, Hallinan edged Fazio, setting up a run-off election.

Not to worry. Ten days before the run-off, a second Chronicle poll showed Fazio had increased his lead to 18 percentage points. The margin of error was again +/- 4 points. If the poll was correct, on December 4 Fazio was comfortably ahead¾at least by 14 points and perhaps by as many as 22.

But on December 14, Hallinan won again.

Either the poll was much further off than its margin of error, or there was a substantial and late surge for Hallinan. The Chronicle’s pollster, Cheryl Katz, director of Baldassare Associates, argues that in both elections there was a late shift toward Hallinan that took place after her interviews were complete.

An Examiner/Channel Two poll completed three days closer to the run-off election showed Fazio ahead by 7 points. That could support Katz’ theory of a last-minute trend toward Hallinan. Or because the difference between the results of the two polls is more than their margins of error, it could be another indicator that polls aren’t as precise as they seem.

The D.A. race wasn’t the only example of surveys taken close to the election missing the final vote by far more than their margins of error. An Examiner/KTVU poll with a margin of error of +/- 4 points showed Prop. 25, the campaign finance reform measure, ahead by 5 points a week before the election. It lost by 29.

Polls are essential

The accuracy of polls is rarely assessed. Yet they play a leading role in public life. Survey results are used to determine which taxes, public projects, policy initiatives and candidates might be viable. Results of a single poll can open the wallets of contributors or close them, energize supporters or deflate them. Political strategies and governing policies are based on them.

As the November general elections approach, you can count on seeing lots of political polls. So Grade the News analyzed the predictive power of several recent polls and asked the experts how polling is changing.

Here’s what we found:

  • Despite some frustrations, pollsters employed by local newspapers and television stations enjoyed a pretty good record last year predicting winners and losers. We examined six polls conducted by three companies for Bay Area news media during the last year. The side that was ahead in the final survey before the election won in 73 percent of races local media deemed important enough to cover.

If you apply some pollsters’ rule of thumb that the best prediction of the outcome of a ballot proposition is the survey’s estimate of “Yes” voters, then polls forecast winners in 85% of these high-profile races. (In other words, even if a prop is leading, if the final survey doesn’t find at least 50% favor it, the “undecideds” will stick with the status quo and combine with the “No’s” to defeat it.) 

  • The bad news is that part, perhaps much, of the success in predicting winners may have been due to how lop-sided most of the races in the spring primary were, rather than to polling precision. In fewer than half of all races analyzed was the survey’s estimate of the actual margin between the winning and losing sides within the predicted range of error. Sometimes it was way off.
  •  The margin of sampling error is the only source of error mentioned in most news reports of polls, but it is almost never the only source of error, nor, often, the most important.
  • Polling is becoming more difficult across the nation, and particularly in high immigration states like California. The chances of a respondent not speaking the same language(s) as the pollster, of not being at home to take the call or tying up the phone by using the internet, and of refusing to cooperate all are rising, according to experts.

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How Accurate are Bay Area Newspapers?

Joseph Pulitzer once said the three rules of journalism are “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!

The namesake of journalism’s most prestigious prize would likely approve of major Bay Area newspapers. A Grade the News spot check of 66 sources quoted in three of our largest newspapers finds the sources are overwhelmingly pleased with the accuracy and context of their published quotes. Sources also almost unanimously said reporters got other facts in the story right too.

The results represent good news for an industry worried about its credibility. A recent survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors estimates that 73% of Americans have become more skeptical recently about the accuracy of news. In that survey sources were even more critical of reporting practices than the public at large.

But the sources we spoke to seemed almost surprised at how carefully the three newspapers we analyzed reported their stories.      

Asked to rate the accuracy of direct quotes and paraphrases attributed to them in specific stories that were read back to them, sources gave the Bay Area newspapers almost perfect scores. On a 5-point scale of accuracy, with 5 being “very accurate,” the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News tied at 4.82; the San Francisco Chronicle averaged  4.74. All three papers scored at or above 95% of a perfect score, solid “A” work by any measure.

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How to Read Political Polls Like a Pro

As Campaign 2000 intensifies, political polls will dominate the news. Here’s a guide to interpreting them rationally.

1. Take polls conducted more than six weeks before an election with a sack, not a grain, of salt.  As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1840, Americans “find it a tiresome inconvenience to exercise political rights which distract them from industry. When required to elect representatives, to support authority by personal service, or to discuss public business together, they find they have no time.”

Then, as now, many citizens don’t really make up their minds about how they will vote on any but the most publicized races until shortly before the election. So early polls are prone to volatile top-of-the-head responses. Such polls are like nailing Jello to a wall.

2. Expand the margin of error at least by half, if not double. The results of scientific polls are often presented as “a snapshot” of public opinion at a particular time with an exact percentage of the population favoring something or someone and a precise margin of error.

But polling experts caution that the margin of error only measures one reason why the survey results may differ from true public opinion--sampling error. Further, this error margin rests on a small mountain of assumptions that are never met in the real world. A poll is never a “snapshot.” It’s merely an estimate. Not a photo, but a drawing. And it’s based on probability, not certainty.

When the gap between candidates--or sides of a ballot issue--is equal to or smaller than the margin of error, the poll can't really say who is ahead. In fact, unless the gap is twice as large as the margin of error, there is at least a small chance that the race is too close to call. (That's because each side's estimate has a margin of error around it.)

Because there are so many reasons a poll may be off, if possible, average results of similar polls rather than relying on a single survey, suggests Prof. Steven Chaffee, an experienced academic pollster at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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Polls’ Precision is exaggerated

The news seemed too wonderful to be true!

In July the San Jose Mercury News reported that smoking among California youth had dropped by more than a third¾from 10.7 percent using tobacco to 6.9 percent¾in just one year.

The astonishing results were based on a poll conducted by the California Department of Health Services. But the Mercury didn’t say how many were polled, how many of those phoned by pollsters cooperated, or what the poll’s margin of error was. Nor did it say that  interviewers required kids to ask their parents for permission before proceeding, a process that may in itself have depressed admissions of smoking.

The Contra Costa Times, though a much smaller newspaper, included most of this information. It also quoted experts who cast doubt on whether there had been a drop at all, given that youngsters were reporting on themselves, with their parents’ knowledge and talking to representatives of  the health department. The Times also reported that the results¾which reflected very positively on the department sponsoring the survey¾contrasted with national surveys showing smoking rising among teens.

The Mercury reporter did not respond to questions about the smoking survey.

Bay Area newspapers are full of polls. They tell us everything from how many motorists fail to yield to pedestrians on California cross-walks, how many Americans own cats, what Bay Area physical therapists earn, how many kids are solicited for sex on-line, even the funniest film ever. 

So Grade the News examined how the media know all of this. Or some of this. We focused primarily on political polls because of their enormous importance to self-government.

In general, we found that the Bay Area’s two biggest newspapers present poll results with a precision and authority that’s beyond the survey’s ability to deliver. Poll results were reported not as imperfect estimates of public opinion, but as “snapshots” of the public mind. When margins of error were reported, they were presented as the only reason the survey might be off. In reality, there are many reasons.

We also found:

·  Claims made about opinion differences among groups within the sample¾say homeowners vs. renters¾often fail to recognize that sampling error for small groups makes the published comparison meaningless.

·  Ironically, polls the newspapers conducted or sponsored themselves contain the most cautions. Surveys that journalists knew the least about and could not be sure met professional standards, on the other hand, were usually reported with few if any warnings about their accuracy.

·  Polls seem to gain precision the more they are reported. When first published, a poll story might contain a number of yellow flags. Subsequent reports drop margins of error and other caveats about their validity.

Nevertheless, Grade the News commends Bay Area news media for undertaking the cost of discovering public opinion in a systematic way. Good polls are expensive. But they offer a far more accurate view of public opinion than the “person on the street” approach common in American journalism two decades ago.

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Harry Potter Was a Better Story

by Mike Antonucci, Mercury News Popular Culture Writer

Er, what were these stories, displaced by Harry Potter, that would have so elevated civic discourse and community life? What was this information we so badly needed to know?

What our editors think of our readers (who must include a few people who don't feel dirty to earn their living from marketing ) is that Harry Potter was a repeat front-page story because the public chose it to be. It was all those folks out there who built that story into a phenomenon of provocative financial, social and literary interest.

What I don't think about those readers is that they were a manipulated, advertising-driven herd that wiser editors needed to redirect. That broad, unifying and inspirational passion for Harry is the antithesis of demographically targeted, culturally Balkanizing marketing-think.

What the Merc did is called riding a good story. Each day you check to see if it has any legs left. There are always choices. That hour by hour process is exhilarating, erratic and incredibly spontaneous and benign compared to the calculation and cynicism implicit in that theorem about "buzz."

I'm all for serious news, as long as it's patently relevant, can encompass what's joyful and separates the pretentious from the important. A lot of readers I know see the front pages of newspapers only for as long as it takes to throw them aside and pull out a section that means something to their lives.

Harry Potter wasn't a bigger story than others. It was a better story than others.   

Grade the News invited Mr. Antonucci to respond to Mr. McManus' column and appreciates his willingness to spark debate. The views above are Mr. Antonucci's and not necessarily the Mercury's.

Bias in the Newsroom

A new national survey of journalists shows self-censhorship is a common and growing practice.

The pressures to skip or soften newsworthy stories arise largely from market forces--fear of boring viewers and readers, advertiser pressures, the interests of the news organization or its parent company, or fear of angering a boss.

For a summary, or the full story, click the apple.

Do you find it harder than ever to tell the difference between real news and stories that are really thinly veiled advertisements? (click the apple)

Other Analyses and commentaries on Bay Area News Media

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Were the networks right to limit coverage of the 2000 national political conventions?

Our First Report Card Rating Bay Area News Media

Looking back: Rating local coverage of the 1998 California primary

Did area news media enable a rip-off of Microsoft?

Disney synergy at Channel 7

Bay Area journalists tell what's over-covered and what's undercovered

Are tie-in stories ethical?

Is sports more important than news?

Head-to-head: The Chronicle vs. the Examiner on pedestrian safety

Did the Examiner go easy on Mayor Brown after its publisher offered a deal?

What our newspapers aren't telling us about youth and violence

Revised rules for grading news content.

Take a look at the test we put Bay Area news media through.

Tell us if you think it's fair?