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TV News—How Much of It Is Really News?

After analyzing 102 local TV newscasts from 52 metropolitan areas in the United States for content and presentation, a media-watch group found that only 41.3% of the programs contained news. What makes up the rest of the newscast?

On an average, 30.4% of airtime of local TV news consists of commercials. In fact, some of the stations surveyed devoted more time to commercials than to news. In addition, news airtime is often filled with fluff, states the report summarizing the findings of the study Under the heading “Fluff,” the report groups “the cumulative air-time given to chit-chat between anchors, promotions and previews of upcoming stories, the ‘soft’ or silly news and the items about celebrities.” A sample of some fluff stories: “Terrible Tenors Contest,” “Reporter Takes ‘Awesome, Incredible, Astounding’ Ride on Roller Coaster,” and “More People Buy Sandwich Spread at Supermarkets.”

What stories make up the actual news? Crime stories dominate the TV news, comprising 26.9% of the news airtime. “‘If it bleeds, it leads’ remains a truism on local TV news . . . Crime rates may be down across the U.S. over the last few years, but not on local television news.” Why? According to the authors of the study, “crime events are dramatic and gain people’s attention.”

Next to crime comes coverage of disasters, such as fires, car crashes, floods, and explosions (12.2% of the news), followed by sports news (11.4 %). Then comes coverage of health (10.1%), government (8.7%), and the economy (8.5%). Such topics as education, the environment, the arts, and science receive little attention (from 1.3 to 3.6%). Weather reports, on the other hand, average 10% of all newscasts. “Everyone likes to talk about the weather and TV news is no exception,” comment the researchers. They add: “Any type of weather, good or bad, hot or cold, wet or dry, can elicit extensive TV news coverage.”

On a positive note, the report states that a growing number of journalists and viewers see the need for change. However, the study admits that such a change will not come easily because “market forces and greed may always threaten quality journalism.”

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