Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.
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Comparing Bay Area newsrooms

San Francisco Chronicle
San Jose Mercury News
Contra Costa Times
KTVU Channel 2 (Fox)
KRON Channel 4 (Ind.)
KPIX Channel 5 (CBS)
KGO Channel 7 (ABC)
KNTV Channel 11 (NBC)


 

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

www.sfgate.com

News-
worth-
iness

Local
rele-
vance

Civic
contrib-
ution

Overall
  B
  B+
  A
  A
  A
  A
  A
  B+

 

In its worst moments derided by Bay Area journalists as "The Comical," The San Francisco Chronicle has long labored under a reputation for being a journalistic lightweight among its peers in the national press. While the paper continues to strive for its voice as a "world-class" newspaper, it consistently provides higher quality news than most other Bay Area media.

One good measure of journalistic professionalism is fairness -- whether more than one side of a controversy gets a chance to respond in a story. The Chronicle presented multiple sides in controversies equally 93% of the time, more than any other newsroom. (Equal presentation does not mean equal numbers of paragraphs -- it means both sides were accorded the same status, i.e., both directly quoted or interviewed on camera.)

In our sample, the Chronicle was the most focused on issues: Stories occupying 75% of display space were thematic, addressing broad issues instead of narrow, episodic "breaking" events. The Chronicle didn't ignore the forest for the trees. For example, on Jan. 24, 2004, the newspaper reported a police raid on a San Francisco brothel. While TV reporters lined up in front of the crime scene to report the salacious details, Chronicle writers Bill Wallace and Jim Heron Zamora took a step back to take a broader view of "a trade that smuggles an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 undocumented sex workers into the United States each year."

But the Chronicle didn't always take the wider view, as evidenced by a story on Nov. 8, 2003. "Dead baby was not slain" was the headline above the fold on the front of the local section, a story about a police investigation that determined that a mother who lost consciousness was not responsible for her child's death. That story, which directly affected perhaps a hundred people but had dramatic appeal, got better placement than a story of much greater import: "3 big unions endorse Newsom for mayor."

In another case, on Aug. 13, 2003, a "news" report on the front of the local section promoted a $160,000 Lamborghini Gallardo. The story read like car porn: "From its opulent leather interior to the roar of its 10-cylinder engine to its vision-blurring acceleration, the Gallardo is, in every way, an assault on the senses. It sits low and wide, like a cheetah ready to pounce, its roof barely above your waist. Inside, the car fits like a glove, its seats snug and firm. Everything smells of leather and wool."

Prominent display of such interesting, but not widely important stories explains why the paper's newsworthiness score trailed the newspaper we evaluated in 2003 as a quality standard for this study, the Washington Post.

San Francisco Chronicle:
Percentage of space by topic for front-page and local news section front-page stories

Core topcis
%
Core topics
%
Politics
15
Major fires, accidents
0
Government action
14
Weather
0
Natural disaster
1
Military
9
Education
7
Consumer reporting
0
Economics
4
Total core*
86
Crime/justice
14
Peripheral
%
Medical
5
Human interest
5
Environment
4
Celebrities
3
Housing
1
Sports
3
Transportation
6
Minor fires, accidents
2
Science/tech
2
Other stories
1
Other social issues
6
Total peripheral*
14

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.



SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

www.mercurynews.com

News-
worth-
iness

Local
rele-
vance

Civic
contrib-
ution

Overall
  C+
  B+
  A
  A
  A
  A
  A
  B+

 

The San Jose Mercury News has received its share of plaudits, especially for its efforts to diversify its newsroom and coverage, and its periodic crusades to reform local and state government. The paper has been recognized repeatedly as a world leader in graphic design. Our subjective opinion is that the Mercury News is the best-written and most thoughtfully edited paper in the region. Its journalists are very good at anticipating reader questions.

In the period we studied, the paper produced much praiseworthy work. On Nov. 14, 2003, the paper ran a story about child abuse cases, going beyond the dramatic angle typically used in such articles, to elaborate on the trends and also explain carefully why social workers are important. The story was thorough, including reports from the civil grand jury and a Santa Clara County auditor.

Nevertheless, it seemed during the study period that as often as the paper went big with a consequential story, it went big with a trivial story. On too many occasions, the front page of the Mercury News was dominated by the Scott Peterson murder trial. And there were other sensational crimes from which the paper couldn’t avert its gaze.

On Aug 13, 2003, the paper featured a huge photo accompanying a story about child molester Brian DeVries, who was being considered for release from prison. Below the fold, with a smaller headline, was a story that about U.S. carmakers dropping a suit against the state Air Resources Board for fuel-efficiency regulations they said would cost them millions of dollars in profits. The latter story directly affected millions of people. But the former was sexier and more marketable, so it got top billing.

Another story we couldn't help but flag for its lack of substance consumed nearly half the front page on Feb. 6, 2004. It revealed everything citizens needed to know about Northern California finalists on "American Idol."

San Jose Mercury News:
Percentage of space by topic for front-page and local news section front-page stories

Core topcis
%
Core topics
%
Politics
10
Major fires, accidents
1
Government action
16
Weather
1
Natural disaster
0
Military
11
Education
8
Consumer reporting
0
Economics
5
Total core*
87
Crime/justice
12
Peripheral
%
Medical
5
Human interest
3
Environment
3
Celebrities
6
Housing
3
Sports
3
Transportation
6
Minor fires, accidents
1
Science/tech
2
Other stories
0
Other social issues
4
Total peripheral*
13

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.


 

CONTRA COSTA TIMES

www.contracostatimes.com

News-
worth-
iness

Local
rele-
vance

Civic
contrib-
ution

Overall
  B
  B
  A
  A
  A
  A
  A
  B+

 

The Contra Costa Times has capitalized on its ownership by Knight Ridder, the company that owns the Mercury News and dozens of other titles around the country. The two papers share a Sacramento bureau and swap coverage of sports and some other stories. But the Times, which covers one of the fastest-growing suburban areas of California (Contra Costa County's population just last year passed the one million mark), has not caught up with its larger sibling to the south in terms of resources devoted to reporting -- not even relative to its circulation.

The strength of the Times lies in the quality of its coverage of Contra Costa County. Its focus on holding power to account on a local level -- the meaning behind the "civic contribution" index -- is impressive. A particularly worthy project that was not in our sample but caught our attention afterward was an article about compliance with the California Public Records Act by staff writer Thomas Peele. The paper surveyed more than 85 local agencies and found that fewer than half immediately relinquished public records, as required by law.

The Times' writers generally go out of their way to seek independent expert sources for their stories from the ranks of academe, government and business. They also pay close attention to basic fairness. Our coders found that "the other side" was given a chance to respond equally in 93% of controversial stories. On Nov. 27, 2003, for example, reporter David Whelan was sure to be fair to a suspected thief of bank data. He called the man's home. A woman who answered the suspect's phone, he wrote, "declined to give her name, but said she lives with [him] and knows that he is not very computer savvy."

While the Times scored well across the board in our basic quality measures, readers paid a price for its small, under-compensated staff. Compared with the Mercury News and Chronicle, articles often seemed to lack depth and scope. It's a subjective judgment, but the writing and editing at the Times appeared to us to fall below that of the larger adjoining papers. The Times also runs fewer stories on the first local page (page A3) because the bottom of that page is often occupied by advertisements.

Contra Costa Times:
Percentage of space by topic for front-page and local news section front-page stories

Core topcis
%
Core topics
%
Politics
11
Major fires, accidents
0
Government action
20
Weather
0
Natural disaster
0
Military
8
Education
11
Consumer reporting
0
Economics
8
Total core*
87
Crime/justice
9
Peripheral
%
Medical
3
Human interest
7
Environment
2
Celebrities
2
Housing
6
Sports
2
Transportation
5
Minor fires, accidents
2
Science/tech
1
Other stories
0
Other social issues
3
Total peripheral*
13

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.


 

KTVU CHANNEL 2 (Fox)

www.ktvu.com

News-
worth-
iness

Local
rele-
vance

Civic
contrib-
ution

Overall
  C
  C+
  C
  A
  B+
  C
  B
  C+

 

Oakland-based KTVU Channel 2, owned by Cox Communications and affiliated with the Fox network, shared the lead among broadcasters with KGO Channel 7 and KPIX Channel 5 in our quantitative measures. But subjectively we think it's the smartest newscast in the Bay Area. KTVU reporters tend to more experienced than competitors. While physical appearance seems to be a prime hiring consideration at many stations, at KTVU brains trump beauty. Channel 2's stories not only are allowed to run longer and include more sources, but it also appears that reporters and editors have more time to think them through and generate more answers to viewer questions. No station did a better job covering government at all levels or in overall newsworthiness.

On March 22, 2004, for example, the Air Force staged a media event so that local reporters could meet military personnel returning from the conflict in Iraq. While KNTV, the NBC station, focused on the drama of the individual reunions, KTVU used the event as an opportunity to educate viewers about post-traumatic stress disorder. The reporter even interviewed a psychologist with independent expertise to explain why troops might be afflicted with a mental disorder long after they resettle into civilian life. Channel 2 caught the joy of the soldiers' return, but then went deeper.

Channel 2 also scored well on fairness. On Oct. 25, 2003, for example, reporter Ken Wayne interviewed Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, who was moving into a neighborhood and vowing to clean it up. Mr. Brown pointed out one man on a videotape whom he said was a fugitive from justice. Rather than take the mayor's word for it, Mr. Wayne found and interviewed the man, giving him a chance to respond to the mayor's accusations.

But KTVU's broadcasts were far from perfect. One weakness was the number of stories that were about peripheral topics (fender-benders, minor fires and accidents, celebrities, "human interest" and sports stories outside the sports report). Those types of stories consumed almost one of every six minutes of the broadcasts we watched. The station may not have put Scott Peterson at the top of the broadcast as often as other stations, but it never went more than a few days without a report on the story.

KTVU:
Percentage of time by topic for stories in premier evening newscast

Core topcis
%
Core topics
%
Politics
12
Major fires, accidents
1
Government action
10
Weather
4
Natural disaster
2
Military
10
Education
3
Consumer reporting
2
Economics
5
Total core*
84
Crime/justice
19
Peripheral
%
Medical
5
Human interest
4
Environment
3
Celebrities
4
Housing
0
Sports
2
Transportation
2
Minor fires, accidents
7
Science/tech
3
Other stories
0
Other social issues
5
Total peripheral*
16

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.



KRON CHANNEL 4 (independent)

www.kron.com

News-
worth-
iness

Local
rele-
vance

Civic
contrib-
ution

Overall
  D+
  F
  C
  A
  C+
  B+
  C
  C

 

KRON Channel 4, the independent San Francisco station, featured a high number of enterprise stories -- those created to answer questions that viewers might have about a topic, rather than responding to press releases and events. But those stories were obscured by the most intensive coverage of mayhem -- crime and disaster -- of any news outlet studied. KRON's grade remains the same as in the last report, a C.

KRON journalists did perform well when we counted the stories they produced on their own, instead of reacting to events. One such "enterprise" story came on June 28, 2004. Tomas Roman produced a comprehensive report on the first day of fireworks sales. In what could have been a dull report about Independence Day troubles, Mr. Roman listed all the towns in the region where fireworks can be bought, and the differing attitudes toward safety -- information both timely and useful to viewers.

But in our sample, KRON also relished mayhem. Consider a March 9, 2004, report about a shooting on the beach in San Francisco. The reporter, standing by "live" many hours after the incident, still sounded like he was out of breath: "Screaming crowds! Surges of excitement! Screeching sounds! All of it beginning as just another day at the beach."

Stories were often lit with swirling police and fire strobes or shot in courtrooms. On Aug. 25, 2003, for example, the first eight minutes of the hour-long 9 p.m. newscast featured these stories:

  1. Psychiatrist-murderer pleads guilty, 2 min. 7 sec.
  2. Dog attacks girl; she gets stitches, 2 min. 27 sec.
  3. Three-alarm grass fire in Novato; no one hurt, 25 sec.
  4. San Jose man accused of road rage pleads not guilty, 23 sec.
  5. String of auto burglaries in East Bay parks -- lock your doors! 1 min. 29 sec.
  6. Two cops safe after car chase and crash in San Francisco, 29 sec.

The gubernatorial recall campaign, among other pressing issues at the time, was relegated to the second half of the newscast.

At KRON, sources were few and far between in newscasts, so multiple perspectives were left out. The station earned an F on context (number and quality of sources). Only one station, KNTV Channel 11, averaged fewer sources per minute of news.

KRON also rated the least fair among Bay Area news providers. In 21% of story time, only one side was reported.

KRON:
Percentage of time by topic for stories in premier evening newscast

Core topcis
%
Core topics
%
Politics
14
Major fires, accidents
1
Government action
6
Weather
6
Natural disaster
0
Military
8
Education
4
Consumer reporting
2
Economics
5
Total core*
85
Crime/justice
26
Peripheral
%
Medical
5
Human interest
3
Environment
2
Celebrities
6
Housing
1
Sports
2
Transportation
2
Minor fires, accidents
4
Science/tech
1
Other stories
1
Other social issues
4
Total peripheral*
15

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.


 

KPIX CHANNEL 5 (CBS)

www.kpix.com

News-
worth-
iness

Local
rele-
vance

Civic
contrib-
ution

Overall
  D+
  C
  C+
  B
  A
  C+
  B+
  C+

 

KPIX Channel 5, the CBS-owned station in San Francisco, improved particularly on the measures of civic contribution (stories with politics and government angles) and context (number and quality of sources).

During the period we studied, the station had committed to having the Bay Area's only full-time Sacramento reporter, John Lobertini. Over the year, it also had the highest proportion of political reporting -- 17% of the news time we measured. Other stations, however, surpassed KPIX in the period before elections. See our March 2004 and November 2004 election studies.

A typical Lobertini political story, on Sept. 7, 2003, followed Howard Dean as he dropped into a local African American church. Instead of just relying on the visuals or a good "whoop!" sound bite, the 2-minute-20-second piece outlined Mr. Dean's positions on the Iraq war, health care, race, voting and the recall of California's governor.

Among broadcasters, KPIX had among the highest scores on our fairness index. Reporters represented other sides in controversies equally 82% of the time and unequally another 6 percent of the time. (Unequal presentation means one side was on camera while the other was not.) For comparison, all three newspapers were judged to have given other sides equal weight at least 92% of the time.

KPIX was the least Bay Area-oriented of all local news media. Just 68% of the time in stories was focused locally, compared with a high of 80% for KGO. More than competitors, KPIX relied on network reports to fill its newscasts, even though its 6:30 p.m. newscast directly follows the CBS network news.

Channel 5 tied KRON and KNTV for least newsworthy story selection, with a D+. Too often, irrelevant or feel-good stories sucked up much of the 18-20 minutes of news time after commercials, tease and anchor banter are subtracted from a half-hour program. On May 1, 2004, for example, a KPIX reporter spent 2 minutes 18 seconds on a story that started out looking like spot news about synchronized swimming at Stanford, but ended up focusing on the reporter himself, who dove into the pool and tried to keep up. With two half-hour news shows bracketing prime time, KPIX devoted the least time among sampled stations to covering a broad range of important issues. So it could least afford to have its reporters go off the deep end.

KPIX:
Percentage of time by topic for stories in premier evening newscast

Core topcis
%
Core topics
%
Politics
17
Major fires, accidents
0
Government action
9
Weather
4
Natural disaster
0
Military
12
Education
5
Consumer reporting
1
Economics
5
Total core*
85
Crime/justice
16
Peripheral
%
Medical
9
Human interest
2
Environment
3
Celebrities
5
Housing
0
Sports
2
Transportation
2
Minor fires, accidents
5
Science/tech
2
Other stories
1
Other social issues
3
Total peripheral*
15

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.


 

KGO CHANNEL 7 (ABC)

abclocal.go.com/kgo/

News-
worth-
iness

Local
rele-
vance

Civic
contrib-
ution

Overall
  C
  D+
  C+
  A
  B
  C+
  B+
  C+

 

KGO Channel 7, the ABC station in San Francisco, qualified as "most improved" -- it rose on several measures: Newsworthiness (topics and the impact of stories), level of explanation (thematic reporting), civic contribution (politics and government reporting) and enterprise (newsroom initiative). The station also tied KPIX for highest fairness grade among broadcasters.

The station covered pocketbook and economic issues best among broadcasters. On October 1, 2003, for example, the station ran a story by financial reporter David Louie about suburban malls out-competing downtown stores in San Jose. He talked to a jeweler who was making that move. The story presented a microcosm of the difficulties of doing business in cities that have spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to revitalize their cores.

KGO’s biggest weakness was in under-sourcing stories and short-changing viewers on the additional perspectives they might bring. A story on Oct. 1, 2003, begged for an expert source. It concerned a teenager who died shortly after using RU486, the abortion drug. While the story targeted an important issue, it offered viewers only emotion. No medical expert was consulted to answer two obvious questions: whether the drug could have killed her and whether it threatens other women. Instead, the cameras were turned on the enormous grief of her father. Given the opportunity to employ the dramatic to serve the informative, the station used the story simply for its audience appeal.

KGO:
Percentage of time by topic for stories in premier evening newscast

Core topcis
%
Core topics
%
Politics
12
Major fires, accidents
0
Government action
8
Weather
6
Natural disaster
1
Military
9
Education
4
Consumer reporting
3
Economics
10
Total core*
86
Crime/justice
17
Peripheral
%
Medical
8
Human interest
2
Environment
1
Celebrities
2
Housing
1
Sports
3
Transportation
2
Minor fires, accidents
5
Science/tech
2
Other stories
1
Other social issues
3
Total peripheral*
14

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.


 

KNTV CHANNEL 11 (NBC)

www.nbc11.com

News-
worth-
iness

Local
rele-
vance

Civic
contrib-
ution

Overall
  D+
  F
  D+
  A
  C+
  D+
  C+
  D+

 

KNTV Channel 11, the NBC-owned station in San Jose, again trailed in overall news quality with a grade of D+.

With few sources in stories and an over-reliance on police and emergency news, the lowest-ranking station is the one for which we, perhaps ironically, have the most hope.

KNTV, like KRON, was heavily reliant on breaking news in the study period, to the detriment of thematic "think" pieces about local issues. And yet the station has provided some leadership on political reporting. KNTV earned high marks in our updated study of campaign reporting in the month preceding the Nov. 2 general election.

But in this sample, from mid-2003 to mid-2004, the station lagged its peers in choice of newsworthy stories. It also performed poorly on our enterprise index, relying on press releases, the police scanner and newspaper to develop stories 76% of the time, rather than on its own staff.

On Nov. 17, 2003, for example, the first 11 minutes 48 seconds of the evening news were devoted to nothing but to random episodes of mayhem, with a dash of sports crime: A mother was videotaped beating her child; a San Francisco high school student was shot; an auto repairman was arrested and charged with kidnapping and molesting a girl; a corpse found floating in San Francisco Bay was identified; a famous sprinter testified behind closed doors in the BALCO sports doping scandal; a high school football season was ended abruptly by a principal for an unspecified locker-room incident, a gun was brought to a middle school; the trial of an accused cop-killer was delayed.

The lowest component score for KNTV was an F for context (the number and quality of sources). An example occurred on October 18, 2003, when the station told of "a report from two universities," Stanford and U.C. Berkeley, about media bias toward Arnold Schwarzenegger. The 28-second story might have been referring to a report by Grade the News and a similar but separate one by Berkeley's Policy Analysis for California Education showing that the movie star-cum-politician grabbed most of the headlines, both positive and negative, even before he was the front-runner. But there was no way to tell, exactly, what they were referring to, because neither analysis was named or quoted.

KNTV:
Percentage of time by topic for stories in premier evening newscast

Core topcis
%
Core topics
%
Politics
10
Major fires, accidents
1
Government action
9
Weather
4
Natural disaster
2
Military
10
Education
4
Consumer reporting
1
Economics
6
Total core*
83
Crime/justice
21
Peripheral
%
Medical
5
Human interest
3
Environment
1
Celebrities
4
Housing
0
Sports
4
Transportation
5
Minor fires, accidents
5
Science/tech
3
Other stories
1
Other social issues
3
Total peripheral*
17

*Totals may not add up due to rounding.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

WEEKLY UPDATES

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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