Broadcast News vs. Newspapers: Who Better Informs the Public?

FumoInq

Can you compare the information provided by newspapers to the information covered by broadcast newscasts? Brian Donathan investigated by comparing one day’s worth of news, and then by looking at how two different media outlets covered the Vincent Fumo scandal.

Part 1:  Single Day’s Coverage

Comparing a single day’s worth of coverage from a newspaper and television station can be tricky at best.  For one, the two outlets operate on distinctly different time tables.  A newspaper, distributed in the wee hours of the morning contains the latest or developing stories from the previous day, whereas an evening newscast typically contains the very latest from that particular day.  Often times the coverage provided on television centers on events that took place long after the same day’s newspaper hit the stands.
For the sake of argument however, I have examined a single day’s worth of news coverage from The Philadelphia Inquirer and Fox29’s 5 o’clock news.  The date: Wednesday, April 8, 2009.

In order to evaluate as accurately as possible I began by placing a boundary on what elements from the two outlets should be compared.  For this purpose sports and weather were taken out of the equation.  As for The Inquirer, only the first two sections of the paper — the A-section and B-(local news) section — were analyzed.  These two sections represent the primary focus in regard to the paper’s reporting and manpower.  Narrowing the evaluation to these two sections also provided an approximate balance to the number of stories covered in Fox29’s hour-long newscast.  The Inquirer ran 35 stories in its first two sections.  Fox29 covered 27 stories.

As a starting point to this evaluation I looked at the stories each outlet placed at their respective top.  I examined the front page of the Inquirer and the first block of Fox29’s newscast.

The Inquirer ran five stories on its front page.  Three of the five were written by Inquirer staff writers.  The other two were national stories written by writers from The Washington Post and the Associated Press.  The stories covered on page one, and written by Inquirer staff, involved an organization working to vaccinate uninsured or under-insured children, alleged misuse of school funds, and a quirky law in New Jersey about placement of business signage.

Fox29 ran 10 stories in its first block.  The top two stories — most time allotted — involved an FBI investigation into the murdered family of a drug informant, and the pirate hijacking of a U.S. ship off the coast of Somalia.  The remaining eight stories in the first block were much shorter — approximately 20 – 30 seconds on average — and were mostly voiceovers by the anchor with b-roll and some sound on tape (SOT) incorporated.  The first block ended with a live shot from the news chopper in North Philadelphia where an apparent carbon monoxide poisoning sent three people to the hospital.

None of the top stories from one outlet matched the other’s.  Examining the front page and first block only confirmed the outlets existed in the same city, nothing more.   In an effort to form some aspect of comparison I evaluated the top (lead) stories from both the front page and the top of the hour.

The topics of the two lead stories significantly different, but both reports were informative, engaging, and local. The Inquirer’s story about vaccinating children was loaded with statistics and information to help the public get both a sense of the problem, and what was being done to combat it.  The story was engaging because it incorporated a personal aspect; the staff worker going door to door to educate or even transport prospective parents and their children.

Fox29’s lead story discussed an FBI investigation into an arson leading to the death of five, including three children.  The FBI charged three in the case, including a convicted drug kingpin (currently in prison) for the arson murder of the family of an FBI drug informant who had connections to the drug ring.  This story had all the elements necessary for television.  It had b-roll footage of the burned rowhome.  It had mugshots of the informant and supposed kingpin. It had b-roll of the other two suspects in police custody.  It contained SOT of FBI agents as well as a sound bite from the attorney of the accused.

Again, both stories were informative and engaging, but obviously packaged differently.  One of the qualities for good journalism we’ve discussed in class is engaging reporting.  Engaging can have two slightly altered definitions for print and broadcast.  The Fox29 story had a bit of a Hollywood quality to it — drug kingpin allegedly orders death of informant’s family prior to trial.  It’s tailor made for television.  All of the visual elements mentioned above combined with the one and only Dave Schratwieser and you’ve got one hell of a package.  It does not mean, however, that it was not informative or relevant.

Understanding the nature of the news medium is important when attempting to define engaging reporting.  Both the paper and broadcast station will approach this in obviously different ways.  What is not and cannot be separated between the two outlets is the responsibility to inform the public with relevant and balanced news.

Only two stories out of 62 were covered by both the paper and the television station.  The first story warranting dual coverage involved the man charged with attempting to break into actor Jamie Foxx’s center city hotel room.  The story from the Inquirer was a short article regarding a Philadelphia Judge’s order that a mental-health evaluation be conducted on the suspect.  Fox29’s report was a short — approximately 20 seconds — voiceover (with suspect’s mugshot) stating the evaluation had been conducted, and the suspect had been found incompetent.  The Inquirer’s version ran in the B-section on page 2.  Fox29 ran the story in their first block.  It was the actually the sixth story out of ten.
The second story covered by both the paper and the television station involved a failed bank robbery in Camden County.  Both outlets provided very similar information.  Neither provided anything of substance over the other.  The robber had apparently handed the teller a note demanding money at which time the teller promptly turned her back on the would-be robber leaving him standing there dumbfounded.  He attempted to get her attention, yelling “hey” three times, but she ignored him.  The empty-handed robber left, and was still at large.  Fox29 provided surveillance camera footage from the bank showing the suspect, and ran the story  fourth in their first block.

The same story was buried on the seventh page of The Inquirer’s B-section.  This obvious difference in judgement between the two outlets for both stories could be attributed to the limited information in the story.  The lack of substance warranted the Inquirer’s to push both back.  Fox29 likely pushed them up for the exact same reasons (short story fits nicely into the standard 20 second voiceover).  Add actual footage of the crime and/or suspect, and suddenly it is a much better fit for television.

By examining the overall coverage on the day it is easy to see the stories were vastly different.   It should also be noted however, that comparing a single day’s worth of coverage doesn’t provide enough context to determine whether one outlet does a better job than the other.  By it’s nature, television cannot cover news without video or sound incorporated into the story.  In a similar fashion, a newspaper reporter relies on as much information as possible to write a story, because the visual element is not there to assist.  Perhaps through the examination of one major story over a period of say, three days, can we gain better insight into how the outlets should be judged.

Part 2:  Fumo Coverage

State Senator Vincent J. Fumo was officially indicted on February 6, 2007.  The news of Fumo’s indictment and resulting trial continued to be a top story in Philadelphia for more than two years.  Cameras, microphones, digital audio recorders, and notepads were continuously thrust into the faces of defendants, attorneys, agents, friends and foes throughout the entirety of this case.  To say the story sparked a media frenzy would be putting it mildly.

In an effort to determine how well the media covered the Fumo extravaganza I examined a few critical days in the events.  Starting with the date the actual indictment was handed down, I have examined three total days of coverage from The Philadelphia Inquirer and Fox29.  I have poured over nearly 30 articles and viewed more than 7 hours of news tape from 2007.

The coverage began on February 6, 2007.  The city was already abuzz with news that Senator Fumo had stepped down as ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee in anticipation of the indictment coming as early as the following day.

The February 6th edition of The Inquirer covered Fumo’s press conference where he made his announcement and addressed the charges that would reportedly be made against him.  The Inquirer produced four articles.  The primary article focused on the press conference detailing not only the Senator’s comments, but also what he was giving up by stepping down.  It brought the perspective of not only the announcement, but also the consequences.  The Inquirer ran three more articles including one reporting on what Fumo’s absence from government would mean to the city and state, including what his absence could mean for Philadelphia’s ongoing mayoral primary and his support for candidate Bob Brady.  The other two pieces focused on what benefit (if any) Fumo’s preemptive presser might have for him, as well as an article that focused on what people around the city — mostly supportive of Fumo — thought about the impending indictment.

Fox29’s coverage spanned three newscasts starting with its 11am show.  Fox29 had a reporter live in Center City who reported just receiving official word the indictment had been handed down.  This provided an instantaneous and current update on the developing story.  At that time Fox29 had little more to go on other than the indictment had been make official.

Fox29’s 5pm show provided the bulk of their reporting.  The package — 3 minutes in length — was by far the most detailed and original report from Fox29 for the entire three day period.  The report provided an overview of the charges being leveled at Fumo.  It provided information illuminating the scope of the investigation — “40,000 documents and 100s of witnesses.”  The report included several sound bites from U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan as he read the charges.  Many of the sound bites used in the package were of an accusatory, non-fact-based sort.  Examples were Meehan saying Fumo’s actions were “way out of bounds,” and that he used “deception, greed, and rampant obstruction.”  Dave Schratwieser injected the facts — Fumo was charged with defrauding the Senate and the Alliance out of $2 million to support his lavish lifestyle, etc.  The package also contained a few sound bites from previous day’s Fumo press conference.
Fox29’s ten o’clock news featured the same package, only slightly shorter — just under 3 minutes.  By the time the 10pm rolled around, the Fumo package had slid to the sixth story from the top of the hour.  It had been the third story at 5pm behind a “fiery” semi crash on I95 and the developing story of Eagles’ Coach Andy Reid’s troubled teens.

By the time February 7 rolled around, the Inquirer seized its opportunity to dig through the indictment and put their reporting skills to the test.  A search of the Lexis-Nexis database found The Inquirer ran approximately 17 stories dealing with the Fumo indictment on February 7 (2-3 stories may have come directly from Philly.com and not the print edition).  Articles that could be clearly identified as original print reports combined to include the efforts of six Inquirer staff writers and more than 7,000 words.

The Inquirer staff went through the Fumo indictment with a comb.  The amount of information and context (to put it into one of TUJR’s ideas for quality journalism) “facilitated the understanding of issues” in a way that Fox29 clearly did not.  The Inquirer produced articles detailing almost every dollar investigators claimed Fumo spent illegally from yachts and SUVs to biscotti and cashews.  Anyone who took time to read the Inquirer’s articles could not help but walk away with a clearer understanding of what the indictment alleged, what the impact of Fumo’s absence would mean, and what people — friend and foe — thought about the charges and Fumo both personally and professionally.  The Inquirer also produced an article entirely focusing on Ruth Arneo — also indicted — detailing her relationship with Fumo, and her former position with Citizen’s Alliance.  Fox29 did little more than mention her by name in any of their reporting over the three day period.

The Inquirer really got into the meat of the indictment, whereas Fox29 provided more of a broad overview.  By the time February 7 rolled around, Fox29 had already presented their initial — most informative — report.  The February 7th 11am show provided a package that ran 1:30.  It included footage of Fumo walking to turn himself in, as well as a sound bite from his attorney, Richard Sprague.  The reporter also noted that as part of his surrender, Fumo was required to relinquish his passport and the more than 100 firearms he owned.
The 5pm show allotted another package running 1:30 in which it was reported Fumo plead not guilty and that his attorney planned to hold a press conference the following day to formally address the charges.  No new information was provided.  It was packaged to show Fumo walking, surrounded by press, and his attorney’s comments, “Leave my client alone.”

The 10pm show brought with it a newer package, but no new information.  This time the package included more SOT from the attorney who made a comment connecting his handling of the Allen Iverson case.  Schratwieser said, “Fumo left vowing to fight the charges.”  He also noted that Fumo had beaten two cases before during his career.  Schratwieser pulled a question from the press conference in which a reporter asked U.S. Attorney Meehan if he was intimidated by Fumo’s or Sprague’s reputations.  I did not particularly like this package.  It did little more than attempt to spice up the drama.  There was essentially no new information.

On February 8, the Inquirer slowed down from the previous day and instead honed in on a couple of particulars.  One being Fumo’s not guilty plea, in which the reporter highlighted the charges once more.  The paper also narrowed its focus onto one of the charges involving Fumo’s alleged use of Senate money to spy on his ex-wife, former girlfriends, and political enemies.  The reporting on this singular topic produced two articles including a report on the man, Frank Wallace, whom Fumo had allegedly hired to do the spying.  The Inquirer also ran another story that focused on what people were saying on the street.  The paper did this on all three days, which helped keep the overall reporting balanced and provided multiple levels of sources and information — qualities we’ve highlighted in Temple Journalism Review.

By the last day of this evaluation Fox29 was still recapping the story for the most part.  Of course, they were still spicing it up a bit as well.  Schratwieser, standing outside the courthouse said, “It’s cold outside, but the legal war of words is heating up.”  This 11am package recapped the events over the previous three days and essentially announced they would have more at 5pm after Sprague held his presser.

The 5pm slot devoted more than 3 minutes to the Sprague press conferences with multiple sound bites from the attorney.  The report likely matched the press conference, which was an effort by Sprague to vilify the government’s handling of the investigation and the charges against his client.  This report essentially mirrored the press conferences, which isn’t to say it was packaged poorly.  Good journalism is often referred to as a mirror.  This angle simply builds upon the story line, not so much the context of the news itself.

This appears to be the significant differences one sees when examining the coverage over a period of days.  Where the Inquirer was methodical in its reporting of the details, Fox29 relied more heavily on the sound bites of the key players.  This says a lot about their two distinct styles of news reporting.

Part 3: Conclusion

After going over a full day’s worth of coverage and three days worth of Fumo-media-mania, I believe I can more clearly convey my opinion.

The standards by which we judge good journalism are constant, but how we define some standards may alter depending upon the medium from which the news is disseminated.
The editors at the Inquirer may define an engaging, worthwhile article based on the amount of information and sources available to the reporter.  A television producer may define an engaging story based on the quality of video or sound available.  These are different sets of judgements that are established by the way in which is the story is told — print versus television.

A diversity of sources for a newspaper may include the state official down to the man on the street, but for a television station, a diversity of sources also includes black or white, male or female.

Providing depth and context to reporting is another quality than can be defined differently.  By its visual nature, television news provides a depth that print organizations cannot achieve as easily.  A viewer at home watching the news can see a community event or crime scene and realize it is going on in their neighborhood.  Through use of video and sound, the viewer receives multiple bits of information streaming all at once.  The report on television may be short compared to the detail of the newspaper’s version, but it doesn’t necessarily lack in context.

The question of whether it is fair to compare a single televised report to the printed version is more difficult to answer.  The public has acclimated itself to these different mediums.  A poll on the street would surely provide a testament to this notion.  People expect the most detailed reporting from newspapers.  At the same time, the expect the very latest information from their favorite news station.  Perhaps it is not comparing the two mediums that is important, but focusing on how they supplement the public’s demand.

The obvious difference between the Inquirer and Fox29’s Fumo coverage was in the amount of information and detail presented.  Clearly Fox29 chose not to go into line by line details of the Fumo indictment, but to say they did a poor job in reporting is a stretch.  They made the decision that their audience would not want to listen to Dave Schratwieser go over the indictment with a fine tooth comb.  Were they right?  Probably.  It goes back to the idea of supplementing.   A Fox29 viewer gets the immediate overview before the Inquirer has even had a chance to report.  By the next day the newspaper has joined the fray and the details are available.   It’s really an issue of time — immediacy versus “shelf life,” as you put it.

The standards of journalism, regardless of how they may be defined for each particular medium, must be adhered to in every report.  The goal of providing the public with relevant and balanced information should be constant throughout.  Understanding the way in which they reach their audience is the key reaching this goal each and every time.

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