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FCC Media Study: Local News Has Too Many Fires, Crashes, and Shady Deals With Advertisers

I mentioned last week that the newly released FCC report on media and news showed that stations are easily the first place people go to for local news, with 78% of Americans getting news from local TV. Reading “Information Needs of Communities” further, it appears that people are tuning in to news despite some serious shortcomings from stations in terms of their obligations to the public.

The FCC makes the case that way too many stations are going with way too many crime, crash and fire stories, at the expense of more nourishing content.  Surprise surprise–a recent study showed that “crime, fire and disasters” made up 77% of the lead stories in local newscasts.

The study quotes Charles Gibson addressing a roomful of news directors back in 2006:

“What truly matters to people are their local schools, garbage collection, road repair, water quality, hometown healthcare. Those things are much more important to people than our regular fare on Good Morning America or World News Tonight. So why don’t you cover those things? Why do you lead night after night with crime and fire?” 

The FCC study also raises the issue of pay-for-play at stations, where local businesses receive outsized–and favorable–treatment from stations’ newsrooms for spending some marketing cash. Says Stacey Woelfel, news director at KOMU in Missouri and former RTDNA ethics committee chairman:

“Pay-for-play is still an issue. It’s the station looking for a dollar here or there where they did not have to worry about it before. What do they have to offer? Well…airtime.”

The study also gets into the issue of video news releases and the outsourcing of stations’ news operations. All of the above are likely to become bigger problems in local TV as station groups increasingly focus on the bottom line amidst the shrinking profit margins at stations.

One can’t help but wonder if much of this report will be used as ammunition against local broadcasters by the FCC when it comes time to haggle over broadcasters’ spectrum.