What happened to TV news?

A study suggests quality journalism sells, and local stations have yet to capitalize.

TV news was once considered a service to the public, using its airwaves to inform audiences with in-depth investigative reporting. Since then, it has shifted into a spectacle of images and sensation, leaving the viewer in the dark on important local issues. Sensationalism and fluff have long been considered a sure way to attract an audience and increase ratings. However, a groundbreaking study published this year reveals that TV news stations have missed the mark when it comes to audience appeal.

“We Interrupt this Newscast: How to Improve Local News and Win Ratings, too” draws upon gathered data of 1,200 hours of newscasts from 154 local television stations, using more than 33,000 news stories. The study suggests that quality journalism still has its place in society. Although outlandish and paper-thin stories such as “Is Your Frozen Yogurt Making you Sick?” still attract an audience, viewers are statistically just as likely to tune in quality pieces of substantial journalism, and oftentimes these pieces rate higher. The study shows stories about government, education policy and taxes fair just as well as the conventional “bleed to lead” model TV news stations follow.

TV news station owners expect a profit margin of 40 percent, nearly four times as much as most industries. This, in part, is why TV news now looks the way it does. Following the assumption that the audience wants mindless chatter from face-painted anchors and end pieces about squirrels on water skis not only hurts the public, leaving them uninformed about important local and national issues, but it also may be hurting stations’ ratings, as they cater to a misunderstood audience.

This unprecedented study looks to serve as a guide for local television news stations, suggesting that they can rely on quality reporting and still maintain ratings. It might be wishful thinking to expect a change in local TV news, but it’s relieving to see such extensive research proving the American public still wants to be informed and there still is a market for quality journalism. Now all we need is someone to step up and fill that market.