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

Rating Bay Area reporting of the Schwarzenegger budget

The budget and the mountain lion



posted January 15, 2004

Around noon on Jan. 8, a bicyclist was attacked by a mountain lion in southern California. A day later Arnold Schwarzenegger released a $99 billion crisis budget, promising unprecedented financial pain statewide.

How Bay Area editors played the dramatic tale of a tug-of-war over the fallen cyclist between her companion and the cougar -- versus an explanation of a complex and dry, but enormously important, spending blueprint -- created a test of commitment to news that matters.

Mountain lion attacks possess a primal appeal, but how important is such news locally? A cougar hasn't attacked a person in the Bay Area in nearly a century.

The governor's budget, on the other hand, threatens to close health clinics, throw city and county workers out of work, limit access to college classrooms and delay BART improvements that would unclog highways -- just to name a few potential effects on the lives of readers and viewers of Bay Area news media.

We did not assign formal grades to their budget coverage, but the San Jose Mercury News belonged in a class by itself on Jan. 9's most important story. The San Francisco Chronicle performed well, but signaled readers on its front page that the biggest story of the day was the Southern California cougar attack. Channel 2's reporting gave viewers a good sense of the Schwarzenegger budget and the process that lies ahead.

Channel 7's and Channel 11's reports passed muster, but neither were strong. Channel 4 and Channel 5 failed to serve their viewers well on the budget in the newscasts we watched.

Overall, the second-day cougar story got much more attention in the Bay Area than it deserved.

We analyzed evening newscasts and next morning newspapers in the first news cycle after the governor presented his budget on Friday morning, Jan. 9. We measured quality four ways:

We also tracked the comparative attention given to the cougar attack as a gauge of each news organization's commitment to the core mission of socially responsible journalism -- helping the local community makes sense of those current issues and events that most directly affect them.

News organization
% Time/space on budget
Anal-ysis
Demo-
cratic response
Local
K-12
Higher educa-tion
Health
Wel-fare
City serv-ices
Trans-porta-tion
Hous-ing
Correc-tions
Envi-ron-ment
San Francisco Chronicle
35%
7
3
 
6
8
1
 
 
 
KTVU (Channel 2)
27%
3
 
 
2
 
2
 
 
 
San Jose Mercury News
58%
3
4
1
2
 
4
2
 
 
 
KRON (Channel 4)
18%
 
 
 
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
KPIX (Channel 5)
16%
 
1
 
 
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
KGO (Channel 7)
24%
 
2
 
 
1
4
 
 
 
 
KNTV (Channel 11)
25%
3
 
 
 
 
2
1
 
 

Notes:

1. We calculated percentage of space devoted to budget stories in newspapers by adding up the square inches of all front and local front page budget stories, including associated stories inside and dividing that by the total of all stories beginning on those two pages. Photos and graphics were included with the stories.
For television, we added all budget story time and divided it by total general news time. We excluded commercials, teases of upcoming stories and shows, as well as the routine end-of-newscast weather and sports sections.
2. A check mark indicates discussion of local effects of the budget plan in a particular issue area. The numbers indicate the number of sources quoted -- a measure of the depth of the reporting.
The Contra Costa Times was not included because our mailed copy had yet to arrive.

 

The range of commitment to explaining the budget was striking.

The San Jose Mercury News excelled, throwing 16 reporters at the budget story, and devoting 58% of the total space of stories beginning on the front page and local front page. Budget stories filled almost four complete pages, including nearly all of the most important page, 1A.The mountain lion was relegated to one-fifth of page 3A.

The San Jose paper also provided an analysis of the budget. Dion Nissenbaum pointed out its fragile underpinnings, such as banking on uncertain Indian gaming money and bond measures of dubious legality. The Democratic opposition got its say. And the reporting team localized budget impacts for city and county services, for kindergarten through 12th grade and community college education, for colleges and universities, for health care cuts and transportation projects such as BART.

The Mercury News' superb graphics team used more than a full page to make the complexity of the spending plan easy to understand. Explanatory journalism doesn't get much better than this.

KPIX Channel 5 and KRON Channel 4 occupied the other end of the spectrum.

On its 11 p.m. newscast, Channel 5 devoted more news time to an air leak in the International Space Station than the deflation of California's finances. The budget received less than two and a half minutes.

In such a short time, Channel 5 could only bring home the potential Bay Area impact of cuts to a single health program. Roz Plater quickly summarized the statewide numbers and recorded a response from one Democratic leader. No analysis was attempted, but the cougar attack rated a minute and 15 seconds.

What would be an appropriate time allocation?

Broadcasts journalists have to compress the news more than their print counterparts. Still, it's hard to imagine one could give an adequate summary of a document as dense as the governor's proposal in less than two minutes. If journalists interviewed Bay Area officials and families about just half of the budget categories listed in the table, they could easily use another eight minutes. A coherent analysis and comments from Democratic leaders in Sacramento might take another two to three minutes.

That sums to 12 minutes, minimum. In a half-hour newscast such as Channel 5's, that would leave only 10 minutes for other stories after commercials are deducted. At Channel 5, the budget seemed vastly underplayed.

KRON Channel 4 gave the budget just under six minutes during its 9 p.m. newscast. Despite detailed reporting on cuts in health care at the state level, Channel 4 only localized how the spending plan might affect Bay Area public schools. The station failed to get the other side of the story from Democratic Party leaders.

"Go with a buddy" "get big" "fight back"

Channel 4 gave the mountain lion more than five minutes, just a few seconds less than the budget. KRON sent a reporter to a Walnut Creek wildlife museum to photograph a captive mountain lion and bring back advice on how to avoid trouble with the big cats: "Go with a buddy." "Get big." "Fight back."

Of the Bay Area's five most-watched TV stations, we gave the highest marks to KTVU Channel 2. The Oakland station committed more than 10 minutes to the budget, including a savvy analysis by political editor Randy Shandobil who pointed out the shaky premises underlying parts of the new spending plan.

Channel 2 examined how the Bay Area would fare in health, local government services and transportation. It was the only news outlet to tell college students how many more dollars they'd pay in fees under the plan.

KTVU gave the cougar a minute and a half late in the newscast.

Big cat trumps budget on Chronicle's front page

In contrast, the San Francisco Chronicle devoted more of its front page to the mountain lion than to the budget, although both appeared above the fold. The cat snared two front-page stories, three photos and a map showing all attacks on humans going back to 1890. During that period only one had occurred within 100 miles of San Francisco. A woman and child were bitten in Morgan Hill in 1909 and later died of rabies.

Newspapers don't have to be as choosy as broadcasters. Paying great attention to one story may squeeze others off the front page, but there's more space inside.

Northern California's largest newspaper reversed the emphasis on cougars as budget stories beginning on the front page opened to two full pages of coverage inside. The Chronicle localized potential effects of the governor's new budget on higher and grade-school education, on health, welfare programs, city and county services and mass transportation. The paper gave room for seven prominent Democrats to respond. Christian Berthelsen and John Wildermuth provided a thoughtful analysis -- calling Mr. Schwarzenegger on his accusations that Gov. Davis's budget was a "shell game" while proposing the same technique of pushing the deficit into the future with a massive revenue bond.

Overall, the Chronicle spent 644 square inches on the budget, more than two and a half full pages. The cougar rated just over one full page -- 264 square inches. In percentage of news space, the Chronicle's effort was second only to the Mercury News'.

KGO in the middle

KGO Channel 7 allocated nine and a half minutes to the new budget during the 6 p.m. newscast. The station provided no analysis, but did explore the possible effects of the budget on Bay Area public health programs, welfare and local city and county services. The station also gave Democratic Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson and Senator Liz Figueroa, D-Fremont, a chance to respond.

KGO also aired a surprising story about how much the state is paying in fines for failing to comply with federal guidelines. Mark Matthews reported that California paid $208 million this year for failing to upgrade its computer system in the child support system. The biggest losses, however, come in the MediCal program, Matthews said -- $2.9 billion worth of fraud. But Matthews only gave "watchdogs" as the source of the startling allegation and offered no elaboration.

The cougar got 56 seconds.

KNTV and the exploding boxes

KNTV Channel 11 devoted almost seven minutes to the budget, including a commentary by San Jose State University Political Science Professor Larry Gerston. The San Jose station aired the reactions of three prominent Democrats, more than any station other than Channel 2. Channel 11 also localized potential impacts in transportation, housing and city and county services. In contrast, the mountain lion attack received less than two minutes.

Although Prof. Gerston is a respected political scientist, his commentary fell short, in our eyes, of those produced by Channel 2, and the two newspapers. Anchor Allen Denton asked Prof. Gerston a reasonable question, but got only a glib reply.

"Can he pull it off?" Denton asked of the governor's budget. After a video clip of the governor melodramatically promising to "blow up boxes" in the state budget rather than re-arrange them, the professor responded: "There will be some boxes blown up. And the question remains, in whose faces?"

 

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