Sunday, October 14, 2007

I've Thought of a New Crime

After this terrific story today in the Boston Globe on recent research: criminal malfeasance of media.

The research consisted of two studies, one designed to measure industry attitudes, and the other to see how different shows fared. The first used exercises in which producers, correspondents, and news managers were given several possible stories and told to construct a newscast from them. The second compared the content of five years' worth of local news shows, from 1998 to 2002, with their ratings.

The results were published in the book "We Interrupt This Newscast: How to Improve Local News and Win Ratings, Too." They showed that most people in local TV journalism tended to be driven by what's frightening, recent, and visually assaulting. In explaining their priorities, TV producers and journalists said things like "People are always drawn to yellow tape and flashing lights" and "urgent stories are the attention grabbers. . . .Urgent trumps important." Others repeated the familiar tabloid mantra, "if it bleeds, it leads."

But the other half of the study suggested that this is not, in fact, how best to grab the audience. Just, Rosenstiel, and their fellow researchers found that, while breaking news and crime and accident stories did draw and keep viewers, more substantial pieces did just as well, and often better, ratings-wise. By slim but statistically significant margins, stories on public policy beat out stories on celebrities, and stories about health issues did better than stories on crime. And giving the prize lead spot in a newscast to a story on economic issues turned out to be the best way to retain viewers from the previous program - a key ratings indicator.

In addition, the study found that what mattered more than topic was how it was treated. In their analysis of the ratings data, the researchers found a strong correlation between high ratings and high scores in a set of "good journalism" categories they had defined beforehand - attributes like original reporting, depth, expert sources, and diversity of viewpoints. Thoroughly reported, balanced, detailed stories with a true local hook, no matter what the topic, tended to beat everything else.

It's cheaper to bleed and lead so they scare people into unrealistic visions of their world, undermine sensible policymaking (especially in corrections sentencing), and righteously push the blame off on the people they're abusing. I've wondered for years who had the most sincerity and integrity, local tv newsreaders and morning tv celebrities (local and national) or used car salesmen. I'm waiting for the used car research, but I think I'm ready to vote.

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