Quality Local News Extinct

For many years, Bostonians have taken pride in the high quality of our local newscasts, in particular those of perennial favorite Channel 5, WCVB.

However, the introduction of flashy Channel 7, WHDH, into the market seven years ago has progressively eroded the substance of the newscasts on the other two major stations--WCVB and Channel 4, WBZ. In fact, a study recently released by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), an affiliate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, confirms what many Bostonians have recently begun to suspect: the quality of our local newscasts is in a sorry state.

The PEJ study examined 49 local newscasts in 15 cities during one week in February and one week in March of this year and evaluated the broadcasts on their topic range, focus, originality, source expertise, number of sources, variety of viewpoints and local relevance. Of the cities surveyed, Boston came in second to last for the overall quality of its newscasts. WBZ performed best among the city's three broadcasts, dropping to a high C from the B it received in a similar study conducted last year. WHDH improved from a D to a C, but WCVB, for so many years Boston's flagship station, dropped from a C to a lowly D.

Without a doubt, the survey is justified in its gloomy appraisal of Boston's newscasts. Lately, not only have the other two stations followed WHDH's lead and become preoccupied with fancy graphics and sound effects, but they have also adopted WHDH's flair for the melodramatic. Shootings, stabbings, drug raids, car wrecks, arson and incidents of domestic violence are not only reported on Boston's newscasts, but have come to completely dominate them.

While some coverage of local crime or tragedies is appropriate, Boston's newscasts are often indistinguishable from the prime-time dramas such as "Law and Order" that precede them, as the stations attempt to create the same type of excitement--and thus garner the same type of viewership--as network programming does.

Another major weakness of Boston's newscasts is that while all three stations have been devoting plenty of air time to political coverage this election year, most of that time has been spent on horse race reporting, coverage not of substantive issues but of which poll says what and who is ahead by what margin. Certainly, the stations believe that horse race reporting is a lot more enticing to the average viewer than coverage of complex issues.

As a result, you would have had no problem learning the latest presidential poll numbers from watching one of Boston's local newscasts, but you would have had some difficulty if you were curious about the substance and potential effects of the state's ballot questions. The PEJ survey gives credit to WBZ for having the least amount of horse race political coverage of Boston's three stations, but in Boston's market, relative success should not be mistaken for anything like actual success.

Of course, the problems that face Boston's newscasts are not unique. The PEJ study reports that, overall, local crime was the topic that received the greatest amount of coverage on the stations it surveyed. The study also notes that 93 percent of the political stories on the stations it surveyed were about campaign tactics, rather than how candidates' proposals might affect people. However, the study also found that while stations might turn to topics such as crime to generate interest and maintain their viewers' attention, the stations that received the highest marks for quality were also the ones that had the best luck adding to their lead-in audience. "The data show clearly that quality is the way to build loyalty," the study's authors remark.

The good news for Boston viewers is that things can only get better, and the good news for Boston's newscasts is that improvements will likely only augment their Nielsen showings, which of late have not been particularly rosy for WCVB and WBZ. The question is exactly how the stations ought to go about making improvements.

For each of Boston's stations, the PEJ study pinpoints a few specific areas of weakness which can certainly be used as starting points for change. But the most telling of PEJ's criticisms and the one that would yield the best results if acted upon is the one about poor enterprise. Boston's stations devote so much coverage to topics like local crime not only because they think that doing so attracts viewers, but also because they are lazy.

It is much easier for a station's news directors to listen to police dispatchers and send out a reporter when something juicy is happening than it is for them to create substantive story assignments about the effect of for-profit hospitals in the region or political patronage at the State House. WHDH does broadcast what it terms "investigative reports," but these reports very infrequently involve anything more than WHDH's reporter taking credit for someone else's research or placing a few calls in response to a viewer's complaint about being cheated by a business.

Local news directors and reporters need to overcome their inertia rather quickly if they want their newscasts to survive. In this age of the Internet, local television stations have to compete as fiercely as ever for an audience, and Boston's visually stimulating, melodramatic newscasts are not drawing viewers in but instead are leading even the most loyal ones away.

Elizabeth G. Frieze is a first-year living in Wigglesworth Hall.