Just How Bad Is Television News?

Every year, the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism releases a huge report called "The State of the News Media," and this year's installment contains some surprising results, far beyond what you'd expect about declining newspaper revenues and the generalized slow death of journalism (though there's plenty of that). In particular, television news is undergoing some rapid changes, most of which are driven by finances and many of which look seriously problematic.

Let's start with local TV news (we'll get to cable in a moment). For decades, it has been the most-used of all news media, despite the fact that it provides the sorriest excuse for journalism you can find anywhere. Why has it been so popular for so long? For starters, it's easy; you can just turn the TV on while you're cooking dinner or working on your toothpick sculpture of the Taj Mahal, and it won't require any concentration to keep up with. Second, it's on all the time; since news is the central profit engine of most TV stations (it's relatively cheap to produce, and they own it so they get all the ad revenue, as opposed to sharing it with the network or syndication companies the way they do with other programming), they put it on for six or eight hours a day. Third, it does provide information people want, like what the weather will be like tomorrow, or how your local sports teams did last night.

Which explains why, as the Pew report shows, local TV news has just in the past few years dramatically cut back on the actual "news," and made its programming basically traffic, weather, and sports with some filler around it:

Thus, when sports, traffic and weather are combined, the airtime time devoted to these subjects rose from 32% of local TV newscast studied to 40% of local TV newscasts studied—a 25% increase. Indeed, Pew Research’s examination of 48 evening and morning newscasts in late 2012 and early 2013 found that 20 of them (or 42%) led with a weather report or story.

At the same time, several significant areas of local news coverage have diminished.

Crime stories have traditionally been among the largest component of local newscast, but in the two periods studied, there was a marked reduction. In 2005, crime accounted for a full 29% of the newshole. Five years later, that number had fallen to 17%.

The same basic trend was seen in coverage of politics and government. In 2005, those topics accounted for 7% of the airtime studied. By 2012/2013, that coverage had been more than halved—to 3% of the airtime. For some time, television consultants have been advising local television stations that viewers aren’t interested in politics and government, and it appears that advice is being taken.

Over the same time, there has been significant growth in several other topic areas. The airtime devoted to accidents, disasters and unusual events increased from 5% in 2005 to 13% in 2012/2013. One possible reason for that jump is the increased use and sophistication of satellite technology that makes it easy to air compelling or eye—catching video from anywhere in the world. Another is that viewers are often encouraged to share their video of dramatic events.

Here's how that looks in visual form:

The drop in crime news is a good thing, since local news has always given an exaggerated picture of how much crime occurs. But the fact that coverage of politics and government is basically non-existent on local TV news (an absurd 3 percent of airtime) means that the millions of people who don't read newspapers have no idea what their local governments are up to.

I suppose one could argue that what we have here is a salutary specialization. If you want to hear what's going on in politics, you can turn to cable news, where you'll get plenty of it, and you can turn to local news for traffic, sports, and weather. The problem is that the audience for cable is tiny compared to the audience for local TV news, and not only that, cable news looks like it's turning away from reporting:

In 2007, CNN spent far less time airing interviews and far more time running edited packages than either Fox or MSNBC on prime time. But that had changed markedly by 2012. The percentage of CNN evening programming filled with interviews jumped from 30% in 2007 to 57% in 2012. At the same time, the airtime for edited packages plunged from 50% to 24%

A separate analysis of cable in late 2012 finds that, over all, commentary and opinion are far more prevalent on the air throughout the day (63% of the airtime) than straight news reporting (37%). CNN is the only channel to offer more reporting (54%) than opinion (46%), though by a small margin. By far the highest percentage of opinion and commentary is on MSNBC (85% to 15% reporting). Fox was in between at 55% commentary and 45% reporting.

But is this such a terrible thing? Obviously, the world isn't made better by hearing what Sean Hannity has to say every night. But it would be a mistake to assume that edited packages are essentially good while interviews and opinion are essentially bad. You can (and do) have crappy packages and illuminating interviews and opinion. Nevertheless, we expect that most of what a news organization does is go out and gather the news. On cable in general, and particularly on MSNBC, that's no longer the case.

But maybe, especially when it comes to any individual outlet, that's perfectly fine. If MSNBC decides that analyzing, discussing, and debating the news is going to be their thing, and people watch it, that doesn't do any harm. And indeed, you'll learn more from an episode of one of MSNBC's better talk shows than you will from a dozen reported packages about this week's Trial of the Century or the latest snowstorm moving through the Midwest.

Because most of what passes for news isn't investigations where new facts are uncovered. Let's take a recent big story, the ascension of the new Pope. If you watched reported packages, you would have seen lots of pictures of St. Peter's Square, and heard sound bites from people standing there ("I'm like, so totally excited about the new Pope! He's awesome!"), and before the choice was made you would have gotten baseless rumors from "Vatican insiders." Would that have told you more than, say, an in-studio interview with a scholar of religion who could talk about the role of the Catholic Church today? No, it wouldn't have.

So if the cable networks said that they were going to restrict their investments in real reporting to investigations where they might produce something valuable, as opposed to "We sent our camera crew to record the President's spokesperson evading questions today, and here's that report," the news might improve.

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