Skip to main content

Survey Scrutinizes Chicago News

Chicago stations do a good job of keeping viewers informed but are less successful at standing out from one another, a new study finds. And all could use more diversity in newscast sound bites.

Those and other findings were revealed in the 91-page study “The Local TV News Experience: How To Win Viewers by Focusing on Engagement.” The report, released July 20 by Medill/Media Management Center at Northwestern University, polled 1,400 local-news–watching adults in the Chicago metropolitan area. They watched a total of 46 late newscasts on five stations in fall 2006: WBBM (CBS), WMAQ (NBC), WLS (ABC), WFLD (Fox) and WGN (The CW).

Overall, respondents displayed a favorable view. On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being Strongly Disagree and 5 Strongly Agree, a mean of 3.77 believed that local TV news “Makes Me Smarter,” while 3.59 cited watching as a Positive Emotional experience. Those categories surpassed the Hype category (too much talk) at 3.10 and Negativity (too much bad news) at 3.07.

All told, a mean of 3.49 claimed “Engagement” with local news, while 3.21 ticked off “Disengagement.”

Chicago is Nielsen's No. 3 DMA. The market grossed $911 million in 2006, according to BIA Financial, with the ABC-owned WLS grabbing the largest share. Each of the Big Four stations is network owned-and-operated; CW outlet WGN is owned by Tribune.

The study—available at http://media—asked respondents how the stations stacked up against other media. Station general managers were heartened to hear that local TV was deemed “substantially more trusted” than newspapers in general. “Like any news organization, credibility is very important to us,” says WLS VP/News Director Jennifer Graves.

However, both the “Online” and “Magazine” categories outclassed TV in trust. That's due in part to the narrow focus of the Web and magazines, say local-news execs, which allow people to seek out topics and viewpoints that closely match their interests and beliefs.

TV news led the pack in terms of Positive Emotional experience. “Television news does a very good job of providing this experience,” the study stated.

Alarmingly, respondents failed to see stations' newscasts as distinct; a mean of 3.46 (out of 5) said the newscasts were “All the Same.” “No program causes its viewers to react or feel differently than the others,” read the study results.

WFLD VP/News Director Andrew Finlayson wishes the study had included his aggressive 10 p.m. news, launched after research was completed. “We've made changes so that we are very different,” he says, “reinforcing the Fox attitude.”

None of the five stations' newscasts devoted even half their airtime to “stories” (news and features), with 25%-34% devoted to commercials, the rest to sports, weather and promotion. (Not surprisingly, crime was the leading story category with 19%.) WFLD had the most “story” content, with 49.8% of its total program time; WBBM was last with 41%.

The study also offered intriguing insights into the roles that race and gender play in a newscast. Medill identified 811 newscast sound bites—“audio of a person speaking who is seen speaking or heard over video”—and found that 69% were made by men, 31% by women.

In sound bites in which race was identifiable, 75% were made by whites. In political stories, 89% of bites were delivered by males, 90% by whites.

The Chicago TV market is 66% white, according to BIA, and 18% black.

Non-whites had a substantial presence in stories about fire and accidents (45%) and education (50%), but a meager one in political (10%) and health/science/environment stories (15%). Station execs say there's room for better diversity; WFLD held a “very heartfelt discussion” in the newsroom after seeing the study, Finlayson says, that focused on finding more-diverse speakers. Says WLS' Graves, “We can all do better at being more representative.”

Station managers felt the study offered lots to learn. “All the stations here think we're engaged with viewers,” says WMAQ News Director Camille Edwards, “but clearly, we need to do better.”

Email comments to