The release of last month's Project for Excellence in Journalism study that proclaimed TV news in Pittsburgh the worst in 20 cities evaluated sent local station executives into a tizzy.
Thursday they had a chance to respond to the study and one of its authors, Carl Gottlieb, who came to a panel discussion at the Station Square Sheraton sponsored by the Pittsburgh Radio & Television Club. We think he made it out of town alive.
Gottlieb's study, based on two weeks of viewing 11 p.m. newscasts, scolded local stations, concluding they didn't fare well based on criteria such as source expertise, enterprise, number of sources and focus. The study, which is affiliated with Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, also found 38 percent of TV news stories in Pittsburgh were 20 seconds or less, compared to 15 percent in New York City.
After the panel, Gottlieb said recent focus groups revealed viewers don't care about helicopter reports, slogans or who reported which story first. He said focus group members laughed at such things because they've become clichés.
Along with Gottlieb, panelists included Howard Affinito, spokesman for KDKA (station got a D in the study); Jim Hefner, general manager of WTAE (got an F-minus in the study); Jennifer Rigby, news director of WPXI (got an F in the study); Tom Burke, news director of WPGH (not included in the study), and myself.
Each of the station representatives tore into the study, saying it was biased against large market stations, unjustly compared small and large markets, and by studying only 11 p.m. newscasts, Pittsburgh stations were judged unfairly.
That last charge is the only one that holds much water with me. Local stations do offer more lengthy, better-sourced reports during the evening newscasts. And our local stations aren't all bad.
WPXI's "11 Listens" campaign has come up with worthwhile stories, including one this past week about North Side residents upset about the lack of a nearby fire station. All three stations have solid consumer reporters who can do good work when they're not following the directives of a consultant. And KDKA is least likely to use scare tactics to draw viewers or blather on about its exclusive reports. It also benefits from the largest reporting staff in town.
At Thursday's panel discussion the local news folks huffed and puffed and tried to blow the study down.
Hefner promised to keep his comments to 20 seconds, "since that's all the hell we can do at WTAE." His snarky explanation for why Pittsburgh stations scored so poorly: "All the stupid people in television news congregated in Pittsburgh all at the same time."
He also chided the study for focusing on 11 p.m. newscasts when stations try to give a brief overview of the news of the day.
WPXI's Rigby said the report "is an affront to the viewers of this city. It says they have sub-standard values."
Puh-lease. The report says no such thing. It says local stations could do a better job if they cut the gimmicky crap. The rankings and letter grades are less important than the study's list of TV news "bad habits" that are prevalent on some local stations:
1. Video without relevance - TV is a visual medium, but why waste time on car crashes, airplane smashes and other sundry footage that comes in on a news feed from around the world but means absolutely nothing to local viewers?
2. Sending reporters on location without purpose - A TV station can spend its money however it likes, but having a reporter stand in front of the U.S. Capitol to tell us the same things he'd know back here is a waste. Stations would do better to invest in sending reporters places they could actually report a story.
3. Relying on consultants - One person asked panelists how stations in different cities that use the same consultants could get such different grades. That's because different stations use consultant advice to varying degrees, but don't news directors want to think for themselves? I'm not sure they do, given the formulaic sweeps features we often see. Forget what the consultants say and go with your gut. Better yet, stop "giving the audience what it wants" and start acting like journalists again.
4. Too many gimmicks, not enough people - We don't need a 24-hour bird's eye view, live shots from a place news happened hours ago or contests that promise thousands of dollars. Take the money you'd normally spend on these things and invest in more reporters who can write more substantive stories with multiple points of view.
5. Too much hyperbole - Someone asked the news directors to define "breaking news," which they attempted to do in a literal sense. But I think the question really was asking why TV stations slap the "breaking news" label on a story that happened hours before the newscast.
Rob Owen can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-2582.