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Cincinnati News Media Grades: Average-to-Failing

December 18th, 2006 · 9 Comments

The news celebrates it watchdog role, keeping an eye on government malfeasance and consumer products gone awry. But, who is the watchdog of the watchdog? How do we know if the news is doing good journalism?

That was the question behind a pilot study conducted by the Journalism Program at Miami University. A team of 24 students and I graded the news of six Cincinnati metro area news outlets.

The results were not encouraging: the best grade was the “C” earned by the Cincinnati Enquirer. The Journal News, WCPO (Ch. 9), and WRKC (Ch. 12) received “D’s”, and WLWT (Ch. 5) and WXIX (Ch. 19) got failing grades. [See table below.]

Assigning the Grades
The model for the project is the work of the award-winning San Francisco Bay-area organization Grade the News. The guiding principles of Grade the News are to encourage a “socially responsible journalism” that helps “as many people as possible make sense of the issues and events happening in the world around them.”

Six teams of four analysts from my Journalism 101 class evaluated the performance of the Cincinnati-area news media during five consecutive weekdays, from Monday, November 13 through Friday, November 17, 2006. Broadcast news teams recorded and analyzed each day’s nightly broadcast; newspaper teams analyzed the news stories of the front and local sections each day. Groups used the Grade the News scorecard to tally each day’s stories.

The Grade the News criteria are tough, and are weighted in favor of substantial news that affects the region’s citizens. Core stories about politics and government, natural disasters, education, economics and business, environment, health, major fires and accidents, weather, and consumer reports score higher than peripheral topics such as celebrity reports, lesser fires and accidents, and sports. The knowledge impact of a story makes a difference as well. High knowledge impact stories that affect more than 10,000 people in a direct, lasting way score higher than low knowledge impact stories that are just a snapshot or an episodic report.

The Grade the News requirements for story sourcing are also stringent, as more sources suggests a wider range of viewpoints in the report. TV reports with three or more named sources score highest; for newspapers, the standard is five or more named sources. The news analysts also recorded the gender diversity of named sources, and the apparent racial/ethnic diversity of the named sources.

Hyping Sports and Crime
The week of news analyzed came just after the recent milestone election, but political stories were all but forgotten. Instead, this was the week of the Ohio State-Michigan football game, a story that each outlet continually hyped.

In fact, one of the weaker moments for the Enquirer was a tired front-page feature about fans of the Big Game. Under the title “‘The game’ divides spouses in these houses,” a large photo and article detailed how some family members cheer for opposing teams–and even watch the game in different rooms, appropriately decorated in scarlet and grey or maize and blue. On the plus side, the Enquirer had very good coverage of high impact stories, such as US Airways’ possible takeover of Delta Airlines. Unlike other news outlets, the Enquirer also covered politics and government, with ten such stories fronting the newspaper and local section for the week compared to only three crime/justice/prison stories.

On the TV news channels, crime led the way.

One Grade the News team analyst noted “the typical news segment began with an overly dramatized crime story” followed by “a few stories on shootings, rape, burglary, and murder, all of which were low impact, local crimes.” She was describing a week of news at WLWT (Ch. 5), but could have easily been describing any of the news stations.

All of the stations put a premium on “breaking news,” which means small stories often get overemphasized so the stations can have their requisite breaking news that day, replete with a live shot from the scene of the event.

Typical of this genre was WKRC’s (Ch. 12) “Breaking News” report on a pit bull attack on Tuesday, Nov. 14. Reporter Shawn Ley was live on the scene where two people sustained bites (not life-threatening) from a dog they claimed was a stray. The dog attack happened hours earlier, nevertheless the live report elevates this to “breaking news.” With such an assignment, Ley couldn’t give us much more than hype: “Just wait until you see the videotape that we just shot here,” he enthused. The station cut to video of a semi-sedated pit bull yelping as animal control workers led it out of a yard. There was nothing to give the story larger impact: for example, the problem of stray dogs, or dog attack rates in the metro area. Instead, the viewer is momentarily engaged by a few seconds of marginally interesting videotape, and then it’s on to the next tale of crime.

Some Worthwhile News
There was some good reporting during the week, too. For example the Journal News (the newspaper serving Hamilton and other areas north of Cincinnati) carried an excellent story by Candice Brooks Higgins on new voting machines in Butler County. But a major shortcoming of the Journal News was the brevity of most stories, resulting in inadequate sourcing. As one analyst team member observed, “In over 40 stories, only one had five or more sources in it.”

The TV news stations had some commendable reporting as well. For example, WCPO (Ch. 9) carried a well-sourced and thorough investigation of hospital emergency squad response times in the Cincinnati region. WLWT (Ch. 5) generally had good health and consumer reporting, including a package warning that flu treatment Tamiflu may cause hallucinations, deliria, and even death.

Remedial Work
But overall, the six news outlets performed poorly in a number of areas: a focus on chiefly peripheral stories, reports with low knowledge impact, and inadequate story sourcing. Moreover, all six scored badly in terms of gender diversity of sources–ranging from two-to-three male sources for every female source–and had a similar ratio of white to nonwhite sources in television news.

The study’s approach has certain limitations, and captures only simple, comparable measures of news quality according to topics, impact, sourcing, and source diversity. It doesn’t evaluate photo or video aesthetics, or writing skill.

But beautiful images and sharp writing go only so far when the meat of the news is less than newsworthy, of minor consequence to the community at large, and insufficiently sourced. If the point of a grade is to determine where there is room for improvement–well, the Cincinnati news media have plenty of work to do in 2007.

The Grades Are in for Cincinnati News Outlets

C Cincinnati Enquirer
D Journal News
D WCPO (Ch. 9, ABC affiliate)
D WKRC (Ch. 12, CBS affiliate)
F WLWT (Ch. 5, NBC affiliate)
F WXIX (Ch. 19, FOX affiliate)

Tags: Journalism Ethics · Television News

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Alex Parker // Dec 19, 2006 at 1:18 am

    Cool to see Miami getting some props on Romenesko. I’d love to see grade the media on student media. The Miami Student has lost some luster since my days at MU, just three and a half years ago. How does it measure up to papers at other schools Miami compares itself to? First in 2009!

  • 2 andrew martin // Dec 19, 2006 at 2:37 am

    This seems like an obvious question arising from this kind of research and perhaps it has already been done. If not, next semester Miami…
    It would be interesting to see how A newspapers or tv stations fare against C newspapers or tv stations in similar markets in terms of the overall economic health of the newspapers. I’d be curious if “socially responsible journalism” translates into more readers/viewers.

  • 3 Chris Kelley // Dec 19, 2006 at 6:14 am

    Great job on a worthwhile topic. It is late, and I may have missed it. Is there a link that takes us to the report? I have had my own battles with Cincinnati television news in two areas. First, the tendency to use political think tanks with an ax to grind without telling the viewer where the group’s politics lie–a favorite of a number of our local television news stations is the Buckeye Institute–a Libertarian think tank that can never find a good thing to say about taxes or regulations.
    Second, is the use of video news releases without letting the viewer know who produced the segment. The “Center for Media and Democracy” have released two reports on the use of VNRs–one by private companies and the other by government agencies–and Cincinnati television stations have been cited as chronic violators of the public trust.

  • 4 Lisa Warren // Dec 19, 2006 at 5:08 pm

    Thank you for your study of the media; we welcome criticism. As a recent journalism instructor at MU Oxford, and as the editor of the JournalNews & the Middletown Journal, I would enjoy talking with your class so we could have a fuller discussion and some give & take on local journalism.

  • 5 C. Aquino // Dec 20, 2006 at 2:39 pm

    I am shocked that you did not include The Cincinnati Post, which does strong work in covering local issues and writing clear, detailed articles that equip readers with information and background needed to form opinions and take action on important issues that affect us all.

  • 6 News Junkie // Dec 20, 2006 at 6:39 pm

    I definitely think The Cincinnati Post and Cincinnati City Beat should have been included in the review. As area news sources go, those are two of the best, in my opinion.

  • 7 Joe Wessels // Dec 21, 2006 at 1:36 am

    I have to agree: The study is incomplete – my biases noted – that you did not include a number of local Cincinnati news outlets, not only The Cincinnati Post and The Kentucky Post (where I’m earning most of my bacon these days), but CityBeat and the Business Courier.

    I think your study is a nice start, but you cannot randomly exclude news sources that (a) publish daily or (b) publish legitimate news, even if on a weekly basis. Heck, even Cincinnati Magazine – a monthly publication – has great news and scoops in their pages.

    Had you included these news sources I think your study would have been much more compelling and be a better barometer of local news. Without, I’m afraid, it actually borders on being a disservice to readers of your Blog.

    Like JournalNews Editor Lisa Warren who commented above, most journalists welcome criticism and would like to know how you think they rate. I know I would have.

  • 8 Brian Griffin // Dec 24, 2006 at 11:40 pm

    Also missing were WVXU and WLW to represent radio. WNKU could be included as well, I don’t listen to their news broadcasts much, so I don’t know how much news they are able to do at this time.

    Is adding in WMUB hitting too close to home for this study?

  • 9 Chris Martin // Dec 29, 2006 at 7:26 pm

    I appreciate the feedback. We had limitations in how many outlets we could cover (due to the number of analysts available), but I agree — we should have included the Post. A practical difficulty, though — the Post (in its paper version) doesn’t make it up to Oxford, at least not where I can find it. I know on Brian Griffin’s blog (cincinnati.blogspot.com) there is debate that the Post doesn’t deserve much discussion because it will be toast after the JOA expires, but even if that is so (please reconsider, Scripps), it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be giving it the credit it deserves. My initial sense is that it would have done well, grade-wise.

    We limited our analysis to daily news, although certainly the weeklies and monthlies have great merit in what they do. It’s just not as easy to compare them, and we’d have to develop a grading scheme beyond what Grade the News has to handle them.

    NPR stations do good work, too. I think local affiliates WMUB and WVXU (and WKNU, although we have a harder time of hearing it up here) deserve scrutiny, too. Personal gripe: I like WVXU’s local news, but it’s beyond me why they use taped news bits from Clyde Gray in the afternoon. Those reports belie the NPR style — they’re just an audio recap of the evening news crime block.

    Lisa Warren: I appreciate your invitation, too. I think the JournalNews does good reporting, subject-wise. The main thing that drew down the score was the generally short length of stories, which doesn’t allow for many sources.

    I recently communicated with Michael Stoll of Grade the News and they have a more sophisticated news grading method they have sometimes used (apparently different from the one linked above). We might take a look at that for next time we do this. As always, grading is a bit reductive (ask all of my journalism students!), so I worry about getting it right.

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