If you didn’t watch the local TV news Wednesday evening, you missed all of this

December 22, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More

I have long been disheartened by the offerings that pass for “news” on local TV news shows, but I thought it might be interesting to carefully monitor a newscast, and to log the content, minute by minute. I invited my 10-year old daughter to join me watching a videotape of the local news of Wednesday evening’s news on St. Louis NBC affiliate KSDK, Channel 5. I had recorded the 30-minute show ahead of time so we could carefully track the time and content, stopping and starting the tape as necessary to be accurate with our note-taking.

We got lucky because there was a mild sleet storm in the forecast, which would give us a chance to see how much the station would play up a bit of weather. It turned out that we weren’t disappointed with the winter storm hyperbole. We were sorely disappointed with what passed as “news,” however. Here is the “news,” minute by minute:

0:00 – Intro: Welcome to the News
0:25 Winter Weather Watch (There might be some sleet and ice tonight).
2:10 Breaking News: the police are investigating a crime-a woman was murdered in Illinois
3:28 More weather – (There might be some sleet and ice tonight).
4:22 Stock videotape of the city salt trucks. The “story” is that these trucks are ready to go if necessary.
4:31 A local organization provides meals for the elderly. The accompanying video features an elderly woman who is for the frozen meals.
6:22 More weather: Take care of your pet when it’s cold and icy outside.
7:25 Today, there was a student protest at a radio station run by a University. The police arrested a student who was allegedly unruly. The student blames the police and the police blame the student. No serious injuries.
9:02 Several police officers were laid off in one of the municipalities of in the St. Louis area.
9:22 An ex-police officer who had been arrested for corruption regarding an automobile towing operation goes to prison.
10:19 There was a shooting at a school board meeting in Florida. The story includes security video of the shooter being attacked by a woman who used her purse to smack him. He did not shoot her; he was much bigger than her, and swatted her away. She is interviewed afterward and states she didn’t know why she hit the man with her purse.

Seven minutes to warn us about sleet.

11:03 A preview of upcoming news.
11:30 Commercials
13:13 A video of a small airplane making an emergency landing (without landing gear) at the Springfield Missouri airport. No injuries.
13:35 A bandit in Las Vegas steals $1.5 million in casino chips. The story includes a video of the disguised robber walking out of the casino.
14:10 A mother sues McDonald’s for offering Happy Meals to lure children to the restaurant. McDonald’s says is proud of its happy meals.
14:50 A skunk breaks into a warehouse and sprays some toys. Many of these stinky toys can no longer be distributed to children.
15:12 More weather. There might be ice and snow tonight.
15:36 Commercials
18:15 More Weather. There might be ice and snow tonight.
21:30 Promos for the local news. We keep you informed.
22:11 More commercials.
24:30 Merry Christmas message from the station.
24:57 Sports.
28:00 A short story about Twitter.
28:20 More commercials
30:00 End of the “news.”

[Epilogue: Despite all of the attention on the weather, only a few schools closed in St. Louis the following morning and there was only a modest amount of ice on the roads].

Here are a few statistics based upon this news monitoring session:

– Total time of commercials: More than 8 minutes.
– Total amount of weather: About 7 minutes.
– National news: None
– Investigative reporting: None.

Stock salt-truck footage

– Speaking truth to power: None.
– Information that would allow viewers to become better citizens and voters: None.
– Number of stories about skunks, frivolous lawsuits or non-fatalities involving small airplanes: 3 (Note: In my experience, if there had been deaths, the station would have shown videos of the airplane crashing for 4 days straight).
– Total amount of important information (This is an estimate by my 10-year old daughter): one minute. She said, “People might need to know that it might be icy tomorrow, but that would only take a minute.”
– Ratio of important information to non-important information (using my daughter’s estimate): 1/30 = 3%
– Ratio of time spent on commercials to time spent giving important information: 800%

This pathetic rendition of “news” is nothing unusual in my experience. And based on information I’ve heard at media reform conferences, this is typical of the “news” provided by most local stations in most large metropolitan areas across the U.S.

What’s disturbing is that surveys show most people still get their “news” based on local television “news” shows and local newspapers. If you would ask most people whether they keep up with the “news” they will say “yes.”

We’d make some significant national progress if only we would convince these local television “news” shows to rename themselves, e.g., “The local not-news” or “The nightly entertainment and freak show.”  Imagine if you watched the local “news” every night.  That would be 182 hours ( = 22 work days) of nothing much of anything.   Actually, it’s worse than nothing, because watching this schlock gives many people the illusion that they are well-informed.   It invites the Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias.

I plan to monitor a few more local “news” shows in the near future, and I’ll link those posts to this post.

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Category: Journalism, Media

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Tony says:

    And *what* was this student protest about? Did they even mention it?

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    The balance of content to (explicit) commercials hit 2:1 in the 1970's and has held steady since. That is, 22 minutes of content per any half hour show, 44 in an hour, or 88 in a two hour movie. This is obvious if you get shows on commercial-free video. You see more of the show in those 22 minutes than you see in syndication.

    The neatly packaged format of fixed-time news shows forces them to fill in with cheap content on those 360 days of the year when there is really not 12 minutes worth of local news. I figure they dedicate the other 10 to sports, weather, and business reports unless there is a major disaster.

    I'm guessing that local news stations don't report on bigger stories that aren't locally generated in order to not-step on network toes. If they'd be reporting on Congressional antics at five, who'd bother with seeing it again at 5:30?

    Feel relieved that there was a chance of icky weather. Otherwise, they'd have had to report on celebrities or pets.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Dan: I believe that there are many hours of quality local news in any big city every day. It costs a lot of money to create high-quality thoughtful reports of this news, however, much more than local stations are willing to pay.

    And why bother, since hundreds of thousands of people will look at the celebrity/sports/crime reports/extended weather night after night, spurred on by the drumbeat of the local news sound track. The bonus, as I sneeringly added above, is that by watching this schlock, those who view local "news" shows can privately and publicly consider themselves to be "informed." Informed about what? If they watch the news 365 days a year, they will have heard hundreds of crime reports, days worth of weather, and thousands of sports scores. With that confidence, they strut up to the voting booth every year or so and vote with great confidence that they know what's going on.

  4. Rick Massey says:

    The concept of news as part of a network's moral (and at one time legal) obligation to include public service in its daily programming is completely dead.

    When there is no goal other than to promote capitalism, the last thing you want to dish out to the peasants is information about how the kingdom is falling apart or what the king may be up to. When the first Gulf war started and the government was able to keep journalists out with the exception of the chosen ones it sent along with the PR arm of the military, we all should have known it was over.

    That's why the latest FCC ruling should be no surprise. There are no public service responsibilities because there is no "public" to serve – there are no people – just consumers whose only value is determined by the corporate bottom line.

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