Does local news have to be so low quality?

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The conventional wisdom about local TV news is that quality journalism does not sell and that only by focusing on crime, disasters, and other “soft news” can newscasts get good ratings. Political scientists have decried the poor quality of TV news as a betrayal of the press’s mandate to inform citizens of the important policy issues of the day so that they can hold government officials accountable. This study tests the proposition that audiences prefer low effort, tabloid journalism by looking at external measures of commercial success—the Nielsen ratings data. Utilizing data from a 5-year study matching the content quality of 33,911 local news stories from 154 TV stations in 50 TV markets nationwide to corresponding ratings success, we show that solid reporting and a focus on significant issues actually produce better ratings than slapdash or superficial tabloid journalism. Additionally, we find that strategy-oriented coverage of political campaigns that focuses on the horserace does not build an audience. These surprising results have practical implications for democratic practice and local TV news production.

Source: “The Local News Story: Is Quality a Choice?” from Political Communication, Volume 25, Issue 2, 2008, Pages 194 – 215

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