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Comparing KDTV Channel 14 to English-language newscasts

Local TV news in Spanish: big stories but big problems

Posted February 2, 2004
KDTV covered immigration well.

The Bay Area's most popular Spanish-language newscast covers important topics and keeps an eye on government, but quotes too few sources, often does not get the other side in controversies and passively follows news others break.

Grade the News' first analysis of a non-English newscast ranks KDTV Channel 14 in San Francisco below all English-language newscasts but NBC-owned KNTV in San Jose. The Univision-owned station earned an overall C on an A to F scale during the week studied, Jan. 2-8.

KDTV did a better job than most of its TV competitors covering important topics like immigration, crime and public health. The station earned a B or better on indices such as newsworthiness, local relevance, explanatory power and civic contribution.

But offsetting those promising efforts were problems that typically affect news organizations with small, thinly stretched staffs: frequent lack of fair coverage in controversial stories; few sources interviewed; and reliance on breaking "ambulance-chasing" news instead of more enterprising or investigative stories. The station rated an F in each of those categories.

Grade the News analyzed KDTV on a trial basis, alternately recording its early and late evening broadcasts. In the past, Grade the News has used nearly identical criteria to scrutinize the English-language media: the three largest circulation Bay Area newspapers and five most watched television stations.

A week-long analysis is not as representative as the six-month random samples GTN has conducted of other Bay Area media. A major story can affect coverage in a shorter time period. A week provides a useful snapshot of performance, however, since reporting routines and quality control tend to make one night's newscast similar to another.

Spanish-language newscasts -- KDTV and Telemundo's KSTS, Channel 48 -- have become important news providers in the Bay Area. Latinos comprise 19% of residents in the nine-county Bay Area, about 1.3 million people, according to the 2000 census.

KDTV stood out from other Bay Area news providers in scoring either at the top or bottom of the heap on seven measures of basic news quality:

(All proportions refer to time spent covering general news. We excluded commercials, teases of upcoming stories and shows, and "happy talk" between anchors.)

New with this analysis is the exclusion of the final sports and weather stories from general news time. GTN does not include the weather page or sports sections of newspapers. This should help level the field between print and broadcast.

To compare KDTV fairly to English-language stations, we re-calculated our January-to-July-2003 analysis of those stations, dropping the final sports and weather. That improved their scores somewhat.

Newsworthiness

KDTV appears dedicated to providing news of vital importance to the Spanish-speaking community, specifically immigration and the government's attempts at reforming it.

On Jan. 7, KDTV devoted the first 11 minutes of the program to President Bush’s proposal to grant temporary legal work status to immigrants. Though most of the report was from the station's network, Univision, KDTV added a story in the middle in which a reporter talked with a bracero, an early guest farm worker from Mexico, asking him how he felt having very limited worker rights.

The station also doggedly covered breaking developments on the mad cow disease scare and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget. On the last day of the sample, reporter Beatriz Ferrari presented an evenhanded view of school closures in the Oakland school district, what the community is doing about it, and examples of how it would affect students. Solid, straightforward and informative reporting, in our view.

Context

Unfortunately, few stories carried multiple points of view. In one-third of news time, no sources were quoted at all. Not a single story quoted more than four people.

Further, sometimes the sources quoted did not appear qualified to answer the questions they were asked.

On Jan. 2, a reporter questioned a source to help explain the budget deficit, a self-assured Spanish-speaking woman apparently found in a library. She was eloquent, but the only credentials provided concerning her qualifications to explain the chasm in the budget were "Resident of Sacramento."

Part of the problem, say some prominent Latino journalists, is that it is difficult to find Spanish-speaking sources.

Marina Hinestrosa, editor of Nuevo Mundo, the free weekly Spanish-language newspaper run by the San Jose Mercury News, said that journalists writing and reporting in Spanish are at a disadvantage if they constantly have to translate from English.

But Juan Gonzales, chair of the journalism program at San Francisco City College and founder and editor of the bilingual newspaper El Tecolote, said the language issue is a non-starter, even on television, where it really matters what language the interviewee is speaking.

"If you're a professional organization and there's a need to get the information out, you make adjustments to get the information out," Gonzales said. "It means voiceovers or words on the screen. To use [the language barrier] as a crutch, I have some real problems with that."

Explanation

KDTV did better than most stations presenting big-picture stories that transcend a particular event. After three days of telling viewers that meat possibly tainted with mad cow disease had been recalled from a local supermarket, reporter Edgardo Quijano broadened the story by explaining that government rules prohibit the federal Food and Drug Administration from telling county health officials about meat recalls. The story broke the day before in local newspapers, but Mr. Quijano, who usually covers sports, provided a good background on the controversy.

Other stories were presented as issues with broader public policy or cultural implications than simple events. Overall in the sample, 61% of story time at KDTV was devoted to "big-picture" stories, rather than episodic ones. Studies have shown that the public learns more from thematic reporting than coverage of unconnected events.

Local Relevance

Although only 50% of story time in KDTV's newscasts was produced by the local station, editors did a good job of localizing content from other news organizations and Univision network reports. Of all story time, 59% either occurred in the Bay Area or was otherwise related to the Bay Area.

Civic Contribution

The focus on national immigration policy and the state budget the first week in January helped to boost KDTV's score as a watchdog on government. One-third of story time was devoted to government action, indicating that viewers were well positioned to understand public policy choices.

Marcelo Ballve, an associate editor specializing in ethnic media and Latino issues at Pacific News Service, a multicultural news bureau in San Francisco, has written extensively about Univision, KDTV's parent corporation. He said KDTV has made up for the lack of staff by spending more time on newsworthy stories such as immigration:

"They take their responsibility of serving their audience more seriously than the mainstream English-language media because they understand that their audience needs and wants to connect to U.S. civic life and the larger community," he said.

Enterprise

A few times during the sample period, KDTV generated its own stories. As a public service, the station does a regular question-and-answer forum on immigration issues, as it did on Jan. 2 with reporter Lorena Dominguez.

But, disappointingly, most of the broadcasts were overwhelmingly breaking news -- 83 % of the story time. Light features about things like hot musical bands took up 10%. By contrast, self-originated serious stories constituted only 3% of news time. No investigative stories were observed.

The station apparently operates on a tighter budget than its English-language competitors. KDTV has six reporters and six photographers to cover seven days in two bureaus, one in San Francisco and the other in San Jose. By way of contrast, KRON, for example, lists 18 reporters on its Web site. At KDTV, on a good day, three reporters cover each bureau, so there's very little room for error. There's also little opportunity for reporters to explore larger stories that take more time to develop.

Mr. Ballve said financial resources are more limited in Spanish-language television because advertisers pay lower rates to attract Latino viewers. Latinos with limited facility in English, he explained, are not as wealthy as other groups. That means fewer reporters: "From my experience in Spanish-language media in general, that's where they're pinched. They don't have the staff; they don't have the bodies to fill the newsroom."

But Luis Arteaga, executive director of the Latino Issues Forum, pointed out a more subtle staffing problem: high turnover. "A lot of fresh faces come in constantly," Mr. Arteaga said. "They are constantly rediscovering Latino Issues Forum as a resource. They don't know the policy issues, don't know the resources."

Fairness

KDTV did worse than any other television station analyzed by Grade the News on the issue of fairness. In general, the station presented few stories that were controversial in nature. But of those that were, only about half the stories, weighted by length, asked more than one side for its views.

One particularly unfair report from Jan. 5 quoted firefighters in Richmond who lost their jobs due to budget cuts. The reporter interviewed aggrieved firefighters and community residents who said the cuts would disproportionately affect Latinos. But no response was reported from those blamed for the layoffs: the city’s government.

Net news content

The final graph represents a new index -- "net news content" -- that we have not yet incorporated into the grades. It represents the average number of minutes a station actually spent reporting general news. KDTV scored second-highest, at 18.5 minutes.

Sandra Thomas, KDTV's news director, said she could not comment without the approval of her general manager, Marcela Medina. Ms. Medina did not return calls for comment.

How the study was done

Each of 105 stories was measured against the eight yardsticks of news quality mentioned above. All measures are based on the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. To be fair, stories were weighted by time. So a three-minute story with lots of sources is counted six times as much in our indices as a 30-second story.

One caveat: unlike the larger study of English-language stations, the KDTV sample was graded by only one analyst, the project's most experienced. Because the sample was small, no independent cross-check of his coding was attempted.


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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.

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