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

Posted September 23, 2003

Measuring Context

Fifty years ago two social scientists discovered how vastly the perceptions of a simple college football game differed between fans of the two teams. The differences were so great, the scientists concluded, that partisans of Dartmouth and Princeton actually saw two different games. They paid attention, for example, to the rough play of the other team, but didn’t notice their own team’s infractions.

If people differ in their perception of an event as well defined as a game, played in broad daylight, in which everyone has a clear view and no other purpose at the moment, how much more will views diverge for news? What becomes news is complex; it describes life. And reporters are rarely there to record it firsthand.

Issues as complicated as the California budget crisis, the killing spree in Oakland and the gubernatorial recall, cannot be reduced to a single point of view. Yet local stations routinely did so. In our sample, stories with one or no source at all, comprised more than a third of airtime. In comparison, newspapers with fewer than two sources took up only 9% of measured column inches.

Context Index

Contributing to television’s scarcity of sources is the tendency of stations to offer no sources for weather reports, and — despite the relative constancy of Bay Area weather — to devote more time to weather than almost any other topic. One might argue that weather segments need not be densely sourced. So we examined how station context scores would change if weather forecasts were eliminated from the analysis.

If we had excluded weather, context grades for television would have improved slightly. In our sample, which does include weather, 22% of time was taken up by stories with no sources. Setting weather stories aside, that time would drop to 11% — still more than three times as much unattributed reporting as in newspapers.

Excluding forecasts would only increase the average television context grade from a D+ to a C. The largest change would be at KGO, whose context grade would rise from a D to a C+. That would raise Channel 7’s overall grade from a C to a C+. The effect on other stations would not change their overall grades.

How the index was constructed

This measure is based on the number and quality of sources in a story. Up to 150 points are assigned as follows: 40 for each named independent expert source, up to a total of 3 sources; 20 for each specific source, up to a total of 5 sources.

Caps on number of sources counted are designed to level the competition between print and television. A lengthy newspaper story with 20 named sources gets no more points than one with 5. Likewise, no story can earn more than 150 points.

Sources may be persons or documents. They may be quoted directly or paraphrased. They need not be on air. A specific source must be a particular person, never plural. He or she may be anonymous only if expressly granted anonymity in the report. Sources who refuse comment are counted just the same as those who are quoted.

Because stories vary in how many sources they need, stories with more than 100 points can make up for those with less. We estimated that the top stories of the day should average more than two identified non-expert sources.

To merit an A, a news organization needed to average 80 points or above. We assigned a B+ for averages between 75-79 points, a B between 70-74 points, etc.

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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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