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Public Attitudes

Public Attitudes

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Local TV news was the subject of many public surveys in 2006. And despite the problems with ratings, it came out looking relatively strong in all them.

Most Popular News Destination

Local TV remains by the far the most popular choice to get news. That was true irrespective of age and income.

The Radio & Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) survey on the “Future of the News,” released in October 2006, found that 65.5% of the public gets news from Local TV. That was far ahead of the next most popular choices, the local newspaper and network TV news (both approximately 28%).

Most Popular News Destinations

News Source Percentage of People
Local TV News
Local Newspaper
National Network TV News
Local Radio News Programs
National Newspaper
Someplace Else

Source: RTNDF Survey of the Future of the News, October 2006
Note: Percentage of respondents citing the news source as their major source of news

People say, among other things, that local TV news does not mix opinion or talking heads with news. When asked to rank all the different news media depending on whether they thought it was “definitely news,” local evening TV newscasts came out on top again (a rank of 4.4 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 meant that the program was definitely news). The score was comparable to that of network news, the cable news channels and local radio newscasts.1

Earlier in the year, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press biennial news consumption survey, which looks at local TV news consumption going back more than a decade, also found local TV is the most regularly watched news source among all the television news media. At 54%, more people regularly watch Local TV than Cable TV news (34%), network TV nightly news (28%) or network TV morning news (23%).

Why is local news more popular than other sources of news? Part of the answer may lie in the topic areas that people go looking for when they want news. News about the weather tops the interest scale in the RTNDF survey, scoring 4.2 out of 5, and that is one area that local news is tailored for. Other topic areas people care about are features about the community they live in and stories about crime — both local TV specialties. Those two categories scored 3.5 and 3.4 out of 5 on the interest scale that asked them how much they really cared about the subject area.

The Pew survey also found, as we saw in ratings, a slow decline in viewership over time. In 2006, the 54% of people who said they watch local TV news reflected a drop from 59% in 2004, and a sharp decrease from the initial survey, in 1993, when 77% of those surveyed were regularly watching local TV news.

Questions on Credibility

And in what could be bad news for the local news marketing efforts, most of the public can’t tell the difference between their local newscasts. Most also haven’t noticed the tactics stations have used to entice them or changes in staff or coverage in the newscasts they watch the most.2

Indeed, more than 60% of those surveyed said TV newscasts look pretty much the same. Only about 11% noticed any changes to staff or coverage, and 75% said they had noticed no new efforts made by their stations “to get their attention.”

The public is also concerned about the impact of advertisers and business on their TV newscasts. Instances of sponsored segments posing as genuine news stories have recently been the subject of much discussion (see sidebar), and that seems to be reflected in the survey responses as well.

Nearly half (48%) of the people surveyed said that it would make “a big difference” to them if they thought that advertisers were playing a role in deciding what people see in their TV newscasts. Close to three-quarters (72%) said that they would be “less likely to watch” stations where there was product placement. (As a caveat, only 21% actually recalled seeing a sponsored segment on TV news).

Such attitudes are reflected in the credibility of local news outlets as well. Most Americans are increasingly skeptical about what they hear on TV news.

The number of people who said they believe most or all of what they hear on their local newscast has gone down from 34% in 1998 to 23% in 2006.

Believability of Local TV News
Percent of public rating Local TV news as highly believable, 1985 to 2006
pie chart sample
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press biennial consumption survey, “Online Papers Modestly Boost Newspaper Readership,” July 30, 2006.
Survey question: ’’How would you rate the believability of [item] on [a] scale of 4 to 1?’’

While local news used to stand apart from the other news sources, it now commands about the same level of credibility (23%) as the other broadcast and cable-news media sources.

And while people do believe what they hear on the news, what is possibly more worrying is that the share of those who are skeptical (believe almost nothing) has been rising steadily. In 2006, about 10% of respondents believed nothing on local TV news, up from 9% in 2004 and 7% in 2002.

Who is Watching Local TV News?

If one looks deeper into who is watching local news, it seems to offer something to everyone.

The average local TV news consumer, according to the Pew Research Center’s biennial survey3, is middle-aged, with a mean age of 48 years. That does not mean that only the middle-aged like local news. Indeed, according to the RTNDF survey4, it seems to be quite popular with young people; 18-to-24-year-olds were most likely to say Local TV was their source of news (74.5%) compared to other age groups (who ranged from 62% to 67%). And women, more than men, named it as their main source for news.

The same survey reflected an inverse relationship between education and local news consumption. Local TV popularity declined among people with higher education. Among those who did not finish high school, 71% cited local TV as their major source of news. The figure was 41% for those with post-graduate degrees. According to the Pew Research Center, the regular consumer of local news has a median education of 14 years.

Both the Pew and RTNDF surveys also show that local-news consumers are middle-income. According to Pew, regular viewers of local news earn a median income of $45,000. The RTNDF survey corroborates that to an extent. It found that people of all income groups watch local news, but that those with incomes of $30,000 and under were the most likely (74%) to say it was their major source for news.

Regular local news viewers are less likely to consume a substantial amount of news. They report an average of 83 minutes of news on a given day — less than any network news viewer (93 minutes) or even cable news viewers (90 minutes).5

Ideologically speaking, regular viewers of local TV news tend to self-identify themselves as moderates (as do regular viewers of any television channel other than Fox News). When asked about their political affiliation and political ideology, local news consumers mostly called themselves independents.

Most of them aren’t very technologically savvy. Less than half (40%) own an iPod or Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or Digital Video Recorder (DVR). That is still more than regular viewers of network news (only 38% owned those new technological devices), but behind cable news viewers (49%).