More Fluff, More Crime and More Copycat Newscasts?

It’s another record-breaking year for TV news, at least according to a recent survey from the Radio Television Digital News Association. Regrettably, the real story is a lot less exciting— and it raises a lot more questions.

According to RTDNA’s annual survey of television news directors, the average TV station aired around five and a half hours of news every weekday. This record-breaking high reflects a 12-minute increase over the number of news minutes reported in RTDNA’s 2011 survey.

On the surface that sounds great. But what kind of news coverage are you actually getting in those 12 extra minutes? The RTDNA survey doesn’t tell you.

Quantity ≠ Quality

Let’s begin by flagging the obvious caveat that surveys are not the most robust or objective form of research. The self-reporting of information can lead to respondents providing self-serving information.

But let’s put that aside for the moment and accept at face value that TV stations are adding more minutes to their newscasts. What kinds of coverage are those minutes devoted to? Are stations adding groundbreaking news stories? Are they informing viewers about noteworthy developments in their communities?

There are important questions — but the RTDNA survey doesn’t answer any of them. The survey doesn’t distinguish between news minutes dedicated to local election coverage or those spent on puff pieces featuring the latest reality show rejects.

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that the extra news minutes likely feature sensationalized crime coverage and fluffy exposés rather than hard news. A comprehensive report from the Federal Communications Commission notes that “investigative reporting is on the decline at many stations.” One veteran reporter cited in the FCC study lamented that members of the public “[are] not getting the kind of information they need from television news to hold the government accountable, and the powerful accountable, and to be informed citizens in a democracy.”

A Whole Less Than the Sum of Its Parts

It’s clear that news “quantity” is no guarantee of news “quality.” And in the local TV news business, news quantity doesn’t even guarantee news quantity. Those extra 12 minutes actually may not involve more news at all. They may consist of “more of the same news” re-run over and over again on one or more TV stations.

Here the RTDNA survey does shed some light. But its finding is not very flattering.

The survey found that 967 stations air local news, but one quarter of those stations don’t produce any news reports themselves. They just run news produced by other stations. This news outsourcing artificially inflates the amount of news reported: The minutes of news coverage rise as more and more stations re-broadcast identical news stories, but the number of independent and distinct news stories remains the same — or in some cases, drops.

As one news executive put it, “Turn on the local news and it all looks the same, times four.” In other words, you can try to change the channel, but all you'll see is the exact same newscast.

Here at Free Press we've been tracking these shady practices with our Change the Channels Campaign. In communities across the country, stations that were once competitors have cut staff and merged their newsrooms, in many cases airing the same content on multiple stations in the same market. If you want to see whether this dynamic is at work in your community, check out our interactive map.

If you believe local communities should have access to truly local news, please consider a donation to the Free Press Action Fund.

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people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good