Assessing News Quality: A Comparison between Community and Student Daily Newspapers

By Bodle, John V. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Assessing News Quality: A Comparison between Community and Student Daily Newspapers


Bodle, John V., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This study quantitatively compares community (private-sector) daily newspapers to student dailies to determine the relative quality of the newswriting and news content. Findings indicate that in the areas considered - readability, interest level, and thoroughness - the news in community dailies was not significantly better than that produced by students.

Daily newspapers have long been considered one of the best sources for interesting and thorough information on local events. Stempel documented that more Americans turn to their local daily for local news than to any other source,' but no study has quantified the relative quality of the news content received. How readable, interesting, and thorough is the newswriting found in American dailies? This study compares the newswriting in six midwestern general circulation community daily newspapers to that found in six daily student newspapers to determine whether the quality of the writing and the information are similar or whether commercial dailies provide readers with better content.

Admittedly, such qualitative concerns as readability, interest level, and thoroughness do not easily lend themselves to quantification. Yet quantification is needed if journalists are to perform self-examination as they seek to serve (and thereby keep) their readers.

Readability measurement has received quantitative legitimacy through the work of Rudolf Flesch and others? General acceptance of his readability measuring techniques allows Flesch some standing with researchers when they discover he also created procedures for measuring how interesting a story is.3 While quantitative procedures for measuring story thoroughness are absent from the literature, previous researchers have adopted strategies for measuring the inclusion of specific information elements by the sentence unit and have considered rates of attributionS and story length.6 The Flesch methods were adopted and an adaptation of the thoroughness-related procedures was employed in this study to determine whether the quality of news content in community newspapers (also referred to in this study as privatesector newspapers7) was significantly different from student dailies.

Literature Review

Newspaper readers primarily seek local news and advertising.8 McCombs and Winter defined local news as topical and in terms of its geographical proximity to the reader.9 They argued that ultimately "local" must be left to the residents of the host community to determine. Procedures described in the methods section of this study on news content quality assured only local stories were considered.

The effect of competition on news content has been widely studied.10 However, little is known about the extent to which student newspapers compete with private-sector newspapers.11 As detailed in the methods section, the six student newspapers were chosen to reflect a diversity in city and university population as well as publishing form (laboratory or independent status) to control for the possible effects of competition.

Procedures developed by Flesch in 1949 have been adopted by many researchers to determine the readability of writing.12 By counting the average number of words in each sentence and the number of syllables and sentences contained in the first 100 words, Flesch quantified readability. Flesch indexed his "reading ease" to academic grade levels, making it possible to scale the audience's ability to read what is printed.

Blinn, Davis, and Stempel determined that among college students there was no statistically significant relationship between the reading ease of a story and the percentage of those who finished reading it.13 While the three researchers contributed initial evidence regarding reading habits and readability of news stories in student newspapers, their study was limited to twenty articles from one Ohio university.

Using a computer-aided evaluation of news writing samples, Porter compared the readability level of a student daily newspaper to general circulation dailies and major wire services. …

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