- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

A five-year study released yesterday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that television stations owned by smaller companies produced higher-quality newscasts than those owned by large groups "by a significant margin."
Fourteen local TV reporters and producers throughout the country weighed in on 23,806 news stories from 172 stations evaluating content, community interest and whether stories showed "enterprise and courage" or were "fair, balanced and accurate," among other things.
Their opinions, in turn, were sorted through by academics and compared with Nielsen ratings; the entire report can be found on the group's Web site (www.journalism.org).
The findings are particularly piquant in their timing.
This spring, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to relax regulations that prohibit giant media companies from buying up too many local broadcast outlets and dominating the marketplace.
Viewers could get shortchanged in the process, the study found.
"The data raises serious questions about regulatory changes that lead to the concentration of vast numbers of TV stations into the hands of a few very large corporations," the study stated.
"The findings strongly suggest that this ownership structure, though it may prove the most profitable model, is likely to lead to further erosion in the content and public interest value of the local TV news Americans receive."
The study examined 61 station owners in five categories based on size, location and other factors. They included owners with three or fewer stations, those with TV stations and newspapers in the same region, independent network affiliates, publicly traded companies and conglomerates with dozens of properties.
Data revealed that little stations did better jobs on the heavily watched 11 p.m. Eastern newscasts.
"Smaller owners were 20 times more likely as large owners" to receive an A grade from evaluators on their late-night news, a fact that confounded researchers.
"Larger companies are capable of producing high quality newscasts. Yet for some reason, they often fail to do that when most people are watching," the study stated.
Researchers theorized that media conglomerates were so big that they simply couldn't monitor the broadcast quality at dozens of their properties. The big owners also could pressure their stations to produce one-size-fits-all stories that could be used elsewhere and thus "subsidize" sister properties.
Meanwhile, smaller stations earned higher marks for their substance. They tended to offer longer stories, included reporters rather than video footage alone and offered better sources for their material.
The study also found that local ownership did not necessarily guarantee higher-quality newscasts. Locally owned stations sent slightly fewer reporters to the scene, aired more wire stories and actually covered fewer local stories than those with owners from out of town.
The reasons for these tendencies "may lie in the pressures associated with operating in one's hometown," the study said. "Perhaps having the boss nearby is a kind of inhibition. … Station management may be more likely to hear from these owners about news content."
The research might be a cautionary tale as well.
"Taken together, the findings suggest the question of media ownership is more complex than some advocates on both sides of the deregulatory debate imagine," the study stated.
Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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