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

Posted September 22, 2003

Measuring Enterprise

We measured the proactivity of the newsroom, its willingness to seek out answers to the public’s questions rather than simply react to events or others’ agendas

In the aftermath of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Robert Collier, who apparently disdains taking dictation from military authorities, ventured out on his own. He scrambled through the debris left by American bombs to see if he could find anything interesting to write about.

He did, repeatedly. In one story in our sample, on April 21, Collier dissected Iraq’s spy agency. On his own, he entered the partially collapsed headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service. He sifted through thousands of scraps of paper describing bugs placed in the U.S. embassy before the first Gulf War, and spy missions to Pakistan, Russia, France, Zimbabwe, Iran, China, Malaysia, Japan, Britain, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Sudan and Germany. It was a quick investigation, to be sure, but one that put some flesh on the kinds of skeletal and formulaic post-war stories that many foreign correspondents were banging out “over there.”

Say what you like about the Chronicle’s war coverage, but don’t call it purely reactive. The paper sent Mr. Collier, staff writers John Koopman and Anna Badkhen, and several free-lance writers to Iraq to look for new angles on the conflict. They often succeeded in showing the effects of the war and its aftermath in startling and unique detail.

Not every news organization in the Bay Area shined during the war. Most television stations merely ran repackaged network feeds they quickly disassembled, reassembled and then narrated, with little or no independent reporting. On occasion they attempted to make it appear as if a reporter was working for them. But every time we saw television journalists identify themselves on air as representatives of Bay Area stations, they turned out to be correspondents working for the networks or sister stations instead.

For many stations, the war represented a temptation to go for the most recent news, live if possible, without much effort to dig deeper and seek out a bigger story. Issue-based stories initiated by journalists themselves, either “enterprise” reporting or the more time-intensive genre of investigative reporting, help readers and viewers make sense of the world by presenting a story that’s more than just the snapshot of the events of the last 24 hours.

Enterprise Index

How the measure was constructed

We analyzed only stories produced by local news organizations, passing over stories provided by networks or wire services. We divided stories into categories based on how much initiative the newsroom showed.

At the passive end, we classified information typically learned from press releases or listening to the emergency “scanner” radio. In newsrooms this is called “spot” news — coverage of events occurring during the last 24 hours that are typically terse and focused on the basic elements of an event. While valuable, such reporting sometimes lets people outside the newsroom set the news agenda, those with deep enough pockets to arrange events.

At the active end, we identified enterprise reports — coverage decided upon in the newsroom. It usually takes a longer view than the past news cycle and often offers perspectives that are unique in the region.

No type of enterprise reporting demands more newsroom resources than the investigative story. Because the watchdog function of journalism is so important, time or space spent on investigative reports is weighted by a factor of 4. In other words, a three-minute investigative story is treated as if it lasted 12 minutes.

Even a news department well funded enough to develop enterprise stories must cover the top breaking news of the day. For that reason, enterprise rarely constitutes more than half of the top stories. The grading standard allows plenty of room for breaking news, while rewarding the big-picture reporting that journalists originate to tie events into comprehensible patterns.

Grading follows the same standard as the Civic Contribution Index: 40% or more rates an A; 35-39% rates a B+; 30-34% earns a B, 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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