Public Journalism and Commercial Local Television News: In Search of a Model

Article excerpt

This research examines how commercial local television news operations alter organizational routines by changing coverage expectations. It is a case study of eight top television news organizations in small, medium, and large television markets. This research provides a better understand ing of how news managers can change work routines without upsetting the journalistic normative structure. It looks at how television stations can operate within a profit-driven system to achieve goals of value to the civic community.

Introduction

Some commercial television news operations around the United States are moving toward a public journalism model of coverage. Public journalism is a model in which media organizations structure coverage in ways that encourage the democratic process and create connections to diverse communities. "It begins with the understanding that journalists have a fundamental responsibility for strengthening civic culture."' It is about making public life go well?

The concept of community is used as it is in social network analysis where community means the interconnected relationships among people who share a common goal, neighborhood, and/or relationship. Communities overlap and individuals may be members of multiple communities. For instance, a person can be an active member in a neighborhood, coach little league baseball, and work as a professor. All of these roles make that person a member of different communities. Thus, diversity of communities can be thought of in racial and ethnic terms, geographically, professionally, and socially. Here communities are developed in the way Fisher studied the network connections among individuals in his book on community structure.3 Fischer's view of communities is important to public journalism because it facilitates journalists within this structure in thinking about the almost endless ways to represent diverse communities in the news.

Local Television News

Underlying the broad goals of public journalism is the desire to improve the marketplace of ideas through dialogue among citizens; government; and media, in this case television news. In Iyengar terms, it is moving the coverage of a community from the episodic toward the thematic.4 This involves changing the professional practices of journalists.

Bernstein and Lacy studied the contributions of local television news to the marketplace of ideas and found a fairly high amount of government coverage, much of it imported from outside the coverage area.' Kaniss found that spot news tended to push government and issues out of coverage patterns.6 Bernstein and Lacy also found smaller television markets tended to provide less contextual information compared to larger markets, though it is not clear what the level of contextual information was for large market stations.7

Kaniss said journalists know where to find stories to meet professional values.8 Tuchman developed the news net metaphor for news coverage to describe how journalists meet professional norms through their routines. She noted that the size and quality of the net determines the size and quality of the stories captured by that net.9 Gans said ideology is generally excluded from news coverage.10 However, Fishman points to ideology as an idealized road map for journalists in their work.11 In many ways, what public journalism attempts to do is improve the quality of this idealized road map.

Money also enters the equation for coverage. McManus found the greater the station's available resources, the more active the journalistic discovery. He noted that even stations with great resources primarily rely on passive means of reporting.12 But money is not the only concern. Journalists also tend to have different concerns about content than citizens. Crane found television journalists focus more on story format than on quality of content,13 Berkowitz also found news judgments based on technology concerns, like having good video, in addition to resource concerns. …