Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Local News Analysis

This week's assignment was to watch a half-hour local news program (5, 6, or 10 o'clock news) and to keep track of every story and commercial as well as how much time was spent on them.

Naturally, I put off doing this until the night before it was due (tonight), because I had a recording from back in September of an episode of news that I thought had something interesting on it. Lo and behold, I had made a mistake in my recording, so I only got the last 14 minutes of the program (from 10:18 to 10:32). I will have to analyze the first 18 minutes of a news broadcast another day, but for now I'll just report my findings for the segment that I had.

I watched an episode of the 10:00 news on KARE 11, our local NBC station. KARE 11 is owned by Gannett Broadcasting, which also owns things like USAToday,, and the Gannett Healthcare Group.

Here's how the evening progressed (and I apologize if you become as bored reading about it as I did watching it):
  • 10:18 - pre-commercial teaser for a story tomorrow about etiquette breaches when using electronics; teaser for post-commercial story about a baseball player getting hit in the head with a baseball
  • COMMERICALS - Dekalb crop insecticide, Crest toothpaste, Gander Mountain clothes, Acura cars, Hefty odor-neutralizing garbage bags, Bryant hearing & cooling system, Home Service Plus/Centerpoint Energy
  • 10:22-10:26 - National League baseball scores (visual only), anchor discussing baseball scores, Twins game summary (including the player who was hit in the head), Vikings rankings with clip of coach press conference, Wild game summary, two high school "atheletes of the week" with clips and interviews, and information about online "crowd-please" poll of what team viewers think KARE11 should film next week
  • 10:27 - banter among the anchors about online voting, pre-commercial teaser for story after commercial about a Fergus Falls newspaper "confession" and the night's lottery numbers
  • COMMERCIALS - Cadillac cars, Empire carpets, U of M Amplaz Children's Hospital, Comcast sports lineup, personal injury law firm, NBC - Tonight Show & Jimmy Fallon, - bipolar depression information, Twin Cities Hyundai
  • 10:30 - Anchors admit they don't really have the lottery numbers, "Before we go" segment about a photo in the Fergus Falls newspaper that ended up on the Jay Leno show
  • 10:32 - closing banter, ad for
Whew. All told, I calculate that I spent seven minutes watching the "news," such as it was, and seven minutes watching commercials. That's a pretty miserable breakdown, and I didn't even get to see the segment that I'd originally tried to record!

The only obvious connections I saw between who holds power over the station and what content was shown were the NBC programming ads during the second commercial break, and the Fergus Falls newspaper story about the Jay Leno show. I probably wouldn't have noticed the latter as being an NBC "product placement," so to speak, if we hadn't been doing this assignment.

On the subject of news, the death of newspapers, the 24-hour news cycle, etc., I just encountered a really interesting concept in a letter to the editor written to my alumni publication, the Pomona College Magazine. The letter writer, Betty Fussell (class of '48) of New York, NY, wrote (in part):

"Just as fast food is its own kind of beast, so fast journalism, with its gulp-it-down-quick-and-move-on news, does one kind of thing but not another. Slow Journalism recognizes the deep pleasure in lingering over double-page spreads, leafing pages forwards and backwards, letting fingertips respond to the texture of glossy paper, examining at leisure the significance of photos and illustrations... At whatever speed fast journalism moves in its takeover, it may displace but it can never replace the slow, any more than a Coke and fries can replace the experience of a slowly cooked and savored meal, where time is one of the essential ingredients."

I don't know if Ms. Fussell invented the term "slow journalism," but as soon as I read it it made perfect sense to me. This is the kind of journalism found in the New Yorker, the Smithsonian magazine, The Atlantic , etc. etc. Here's the link to an Atlantic story about the "journalism" behind some of the background stories about Justice Sotomayor when she was nominated to the Supreme Court. Just about any good investigative journalism (the kind people get awarded Pulitzers for but can't afford to work on anymore) qualifies as "slow journalism," and just about anything you get on CNN at the airport or on the news page does NOT.

Personally, I definitely find slow journalism more satisfying (the analogy to fast food can be extended with the point that fast journalism may be tasty to consume at first, but eventually gives you indigestion and has poor nutritional value). I think a lot of the stuff on NPR qualifies, which may be one reason I enjoy listening to it.

Anyway, back to our main topic: the assignment of the week. We are also supposed to make a list of all the media we generally consume during a week, and who owns it, the point being how few companies own so much of the content we consume. In my case, it breaks down something like this (and here's the handy-dandy website that is the source of a lot of this information):
- TV: various shows, mostly on ABC (Disney), NBC (GE), CBS (CBS Corp), Fox (News Corp), and USA (GE).
-Reading: Entertainment Weekly (Time Warner), Star Tribune (Avista Capital Parners[?]), books (Simon and Schuster is owned by CBS, HarperCollins is owned by NewsCorp, etc.)
-Radio: NPR (public, but with corporate & non-profit sponsorships announced on air)
-Internet: (GE), (Time Warner)

Finally, we are supposed to develop an activity "for teaching critical analysis of news." Inspired by the above-mentioned Atlantic article, I would have students pick one recent national story (e.g. the passage of the House health care bill; the Heene family balloon escapade, the aborted Afghan runoff election, etc.). Then I would have them compare as many news stories as they could about that one event: multiple examples of network news coverage, radio, internet stories from various sites, etc. I would have the students discuss how similar or different the stories and images are, whether they think the journalists did independent research or were all drawing from the same sources, and what those sources were.

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