National Survey Finds Local News Avoids Issues Of Education, Race Relations

May 09, 1997

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A survey of local news programs in eight television markets conducted by Northwestern University and seven other universities found that education and race relations -- arguably two of the most critical issues facing Americans -- are all but ignored in local television news coverage.

On average the survey by the Consortium for Local Television Surveys (COLTS) found that a meager two percent of local TV news coverage was devoted to education and an almost nonexistent 1.2 percent was devoted to issues of race relations.

"Our study demonstrates that local news is moving away from difficult issues and issues important to our community. Instead of doing complex stories, local television news focuses on easy-to-cover stories like weather or breaking news," says Patricia Dean, associate professor and chair of broadcast journalism at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism. "Unless there is a crisis or a national celebrity gets involved, we see little coverage of education or race relations."

Conducted by university researchers during a four-month period, the COLTS survey is the first known attempt to sample the news content of television newscasts on a national scale. Researchers intend to continue their random surveys of television markets in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, Syracuse, Indianapolis, Eugene (Oregon) and Austin (Texas).

The survey confirmed that local TV is fascinated with crime-related stories which, on national average, consumed almost 30 percent of the surveyed newscasts and outnumbered by two-to-one the six other news categories studied by the researchers.

Government and politics -- once the mainstay of local television news -- on average was found only to account for 15 percent of the time devoted to news coverage. In the four largest markets surveyed -- Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami -- government and politics was allotted even less coverage. Smaller markets Eugene and Austin, in contrast, devoted an average of 28 percent. In the eight markets surveyed, calamities and national disasters on average accounted for 10 percent of the news. Arts and leisure accounted for almost nine percent while health and medicine coverage accounted for almost seven percent.

In Chicago, coverage of crime and criminal justice at 10.8 percent was remarkably low compared to the national average of 20.3 percent. However, the relatively low amount of crime-related news failed to open space for coverage of either education or race relations. Chicago's coverage of education accounted only for 2.5 percent while race relations coverage amounted to 1.3 percent.

"It is shocking in a major metropolitan center like Chicago that news about education and race relations is barely mentioned," said Northwestern's Dean, a former local TV news producer and executive. "The issues that appear in the news help to determine public discourse and set the public agenda. By failing to cover these issues, local television is letting down its audience."

The Northwestern professor also says the trend toward team coverage of news stories is crowding out issue reporting. "In the past only the biggest stories, such as a plane crash, merited more than one report. In Chicago we're seeing team coverage of relatively minor stories, such as an ordinary snow storm," says Dean. "The result is TV news has even less time to cover major issues of the day."

The Consortium on Local Television Surveys was established by the University of Miami under the direction of former NBC News Senior Vice President Joseph Angotti. It includes Columbia University, Syracuse University, University of Southern California, University of Oregon and Ball State University as well as Northwestern.

The survey examined four randomly selected half-hour local news broadcasts that appeared before or after the affiliate station's national network news program in November, January, February and April. By continuing its random day surveys of local television, the consortium expects to get an even truer picture of television news trends over the long haul, Dean says.


Northwestern University

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