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

Posted September 22, 2003

Measuring Newsworthiness

On Easter Sunday evening while a few jellybeans still lurked under the plastic grass of Easter baskets, Bay Area residents who tuned in to NBC 11 for news saw accused murderer Scott Peterson’s parents angrily defend him. Then the tears of throngs mourning his pregnant wife. Followed by the discovery of a San Jose girl’s body. Then the funeral of a slain Pittsburg police officer. Followed by “not guilty” pleas from three people charged with torture and murder. And finally, before the first commercial break, a Fremont boy attacked by a pit bull.

It wasn’t just NBC 11.

Channel 2 in Oakland launched its newscast with Scott Peterson languishing in jail, the San Jose girl’s body and the policeman’s funeral. Channels 5 and 7 both led with Scott’s parents and Laci’s memorial, the girls’ body and the pit bull attack. Channel 4 began with the Petersons, passing mention of an investigation of abuse at the Santa Clara County juvenile hall, the girl’s body and a CNN story about a man on the East Coast abducting his niece.

Each of these stories evoked fear or sadness. But they provided little for Bay Area residents trying to make sense of the pressing issues of an extraordinary time for the nation, the state and the region — the purpose of journalism, according to ethical codes like that of the Society of Professional Journalists.

To be sure, the next morning’s San Francisco Chronicle played the Peterson story prominently. But the other top local stories explored patronage in the state assembly, why another slain mom who happened to be Latina and poor got so little media attention, the new Millbrae BART station connecting with Caltrain and the airport, and the new clout of Bay Area renters. While one or another of the episodes of mayhem described above made the display pages that morning in the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News, the mix of top stories skewed more toward issues than isolated events than any of the newscasts the previous evening.

Newsworthiness Index

Quantifying newsworthiness may seem as hopeless as nailing Jell-O to a wall. But we relied on two assumptions — on average:

1) Some story topics, such as government, crime, weather, environment, economics, education, health, transportation, etc., advance the purpose of news more than others — celebrity couplings and break-ups, fender-benders and sports. Even if many are interested, whether Barry Bonds hits a homer or the ’Niners or Raiders win is less likely to affect the quality of our lives over the long run than the state budget crisis, who — if anyone — replaces Gov. Gray Davis, or even a school board’s decision to cut teachers and enlarge class sizes.

2) Stories with the potential to affect large numbers in a significant and non-transient way are more valuable than stories with only brief impact or consequence for just a few.

Core topics — virtually all but celebrities, human interest, sports and minor mishaps — rated 2 points while the peripheral topics just mentioned got 1 point.

Stories with wide impact rated 2 points, narrow impact 1 point. With seven million residents, the odds are good that tragedy will strike someone in the Bay Area every day. While that accident, shooting, fire, rape or abduction will have incalculable impact on the family and friends, perhaps even the entire neighborhood of the victim, for most of us the effect is likely only to be sympathy.

We set the threshold for wide impact at 10,000 people or more. That may sound like a lot. But it’s less than a fifth of 1% of local residents — about the population of the smallest Bay Area city. We chose 10,000 to give full credit for any story affecting an entire municipality or even a moderate-sized school district.

Grades are computed for each story by multiplying topic by impact rating.

We recognize that news is a business and stories that are merely interesting may deserve prominent display to sell the newscast or newspaper. So we set grades to allow a station or newspaper to spend up to 15% of its most valuable time or space --the front page or first segment -- on the lowest-scoring stories and still earn an A.

Letter grades for each news department are as follows: A perfect score would require all top stories to be core and have wide impact. But 90% or more space or time devoted to such stories merits an A; 85-89% receives a B+; 80-84% rates a B: etc.

Because this index underlies all of the rest, we count it twice in computing the overall grade. No matter how fully-sourced, local, fair, well-explained or enterprising a story might be, if the topic is peripheral and few people are affected in a significant way, the story is unlikely to maximize public understanding of current issues and events.

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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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