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We Interrupt This Newscast Cambridge University Press
9780521871150 - WE INTERRUPT THIS NEWSCAST - by Tom Rosenstiel, Marion R. Just, Todd L. Belt, Atiba Pertilla, Walter C. Dean and Dante Chinni


Local television newscasts around the country look alike and are filled with crime, accidents, and disasters. Interviews with more than 2,000 TV journalists around the country demonstrate that news looks this way because of the ingrained belief that “eyeball grabbers” are the only way to build an audience. This book contradicts the conventional wisdom using empirical evidence drawn from a five-year content analysis of local news in more than 154 stations in 50 markets around the country. Correlating the content of local news with ratings success shows that news stories on a wide variety of substantive topics draw viewers and that audiences reward good journalism with high ratings. The book shows that “how” a story is reported is more important for building ratings than what the story is about. Local TV does not have to “bleed to lead.” Instead, local journalists can succeed by putting in the effort to get good stories, finding and balancing sources, seeking out experts, and making stories relevant to the local audience.

Tom Rosenstiel designed the Project for Excellence in Journalism and directs its activities. He also serves as vice chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. A journalist for more than 20 years, he is a former media critic for the Los Angeles Times and chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek magazine. Among his books, he is coauthor, with Bill Kovach, of The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect (2001).

Marion R. Just is Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College. She is a coauthor of Crosstalk: Citizens, Candidates and the Media in a Presidential Campaign (1996); Common Knowledge: News and the Construction of Political Meaning (1992); and The Election of 1996 (1997).

Todd L. Belt is currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo. He has published articles in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Campaigns & Elections. He also coauthored the book Getting Involved: A Guide to Student Citizenship (2000).

Atiba Pertilla is currently a MacCracken Fellow in the Department of History at New York University, pursuing a doctoral degree in U.S. history. As a research associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, he has published articles in the Columbia Journalism Review and Electronic Media (now Television Week).

Walter C. Dean is a 35-year broadcast news veteran who is a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism and director of broadcast training for the Committee of Concerned Journalists.

Dante Chinni is a senior researcher for the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor. He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post Magazine and has written for The Economist, the New York Times Magazine, the Columbia Journalism Review, Salon, and ESPN the Magazine, among others.

We Interrupt This Newscast


Tom Rosenstiel
Project for Excellence in Journalism

Marion R. Just
Wellesley College

Todd L. Belt
University of Hawai’i at Hilo

Atiba Pertilla
New York University

Walter C. Dean
Project for Excellence in Journalism

Dante Chinni
Project for Excellence in Journalism

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press
32 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10013-2473, USA
Information on this title:

© Tom Rosenstiel, Marion R. Just, Todd L. Belt, Atiba Pertilla, Walter C. Dean, Dante Chinni 2007

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2007

Printed in the United States of America

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

We interrupt this newscast: how to improve local news and win ratings, too
/ by Tom Rosenstiel…[[et al.]].
  p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-13: 978-0-521-87115-0 (hardback)
ISBN-13: 978-0-521-69154-3 (pbk.)
1. Television broadcasting of news – United States. I. Rosenstiel, Tom
II. Title.
PN4888.T4W37 2007
070.4’33 – dc22 2006025896

ISBN 978-0-521-87115-0 hardback

ISBN 978-0-521-69154-3 paperback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication and does not guarantee that any content on such Web sites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.


Acknowledgmentspage vii
1A Prologue: What This Book Is For
Tom Rosenstiel and Dante Chinni
2The Knowledge Base
Tom Rosenstiel and Marion R. Just
3“I-Teams” and “Eye Candy”: The Reality of Local TV News
Walter C. Dean and Atiba Pertilla
4The Myths That Dominate Local TV News: The X-Structure and the Fallacy of the Hook-and-Hold Method of TV News
Walter C. Dean, Atiba Pertilla, and Todd L. Belt
5The Magic Formula: How to Make TV That Viewers Will Watch
Todd L. Belt and Marion R. Just
6Steps to Better Coverage
Todd L. Belt and Marion R. Just
7Putting It All into Action: Techniques for Changing Newsroom Cultures
Walter C. Dean
8The Road Ahead: The Future of Local TV News
Tom Rosenstiel and Dante Chinni
Appendix A. Design Team Members191
Appendix B. Quality Grading Criteria and Value Codes193
Appendix C. Content Analysis Intercoder Reliability Analyses196
Appendix D. Sample of Local TV News Stations198
Appendix E. 2005 Follow-up Study204


This book is based on nearly a decade of research and teaching. That journey has involved dozens of researchers, scores of broadcast news managers, and hundreds of local TV journalists. It began with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Five Year Local TV News Project, which was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. We cannot name everyone involved here, but many deserve special mention.

That a project of this magnitude was ever undertaken is due to the intellectual leadership and financial support of Rebecca Rimel and Don Kimelman.

The project itself was the idea of Tom Rosenstiel. Marion Just joined almost immediately as academic adviser and has helped shepherd things from early on. Todd Belt joined soon thereafter as statistician. Atiba Pertilla was with the project next in duration, first as a research associate, then later as project manager. Wally Dean came next, filling the role of TV news professional on the project, and finally, to help transform the work into a book, Dante Chinni joined as editor and coauthor.

Carl Gottleib, now at WCBS in New York City, helped supervise the Five Year Local TV News Project at the Project for Excellence in Journalism from 1998 to 2002, offering the experience of a local TV news veteran during the five years of initial data collection.

Several scholars contributed to the content analysis design, including Michael Robinson, Ph.D., formerly Professor, Department of Government, Georgetown University; Professor Ann Crigler, Chair of the Political Science Department of the University of Southern California; and Professor Sherri Mazingo, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Minnesota.

Princeton Survey Research Associates carried out the content analysis coding under the creative and effective leadership of Lee Ann Brady. Lee Ann provided the first round of content analysis statistical results and helped prepare reports on the content published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Tami Buhr of Harvard University gave us practical and sophisticated statistical advice in the analysis of the content analysis data.

Our News Directors Surveys relied on the dedication and persistence of Rosalind Levine to produce an excellent response rate. Kathleen Regan was the stalwart data manager of mountains of survey questionnaires. Both Rosalind and Kathleen contributed to the analysis of the surveys and to reports about the study published in the Columbia Journalism Review. In addition, several Wellesley College students worked on the data collection and statistical analysis of the news directors’ surveys. We would like to thank in particular Christine Yi and Grace E. Kim. Wellesley College and the National Science Foundation Social Science Summer Research Grant program provided support for student assistants and partial funding for Marion Just’s participation in the project.

The project received invaluable support from Unju Chi and Jeffrey Polachek at Nielsen Media Research. We are grateful to Bob Olson for teaching Todd Belt “everything he knows” about ratings and to Nicole Simmons of the University of California, Riverside, for research assistance.

In addition, a Design Team of news professionals helped develop the criteria and methods that were used in this analysis. The titles and affiliations of the Design Team members are listed in Appendix A. We are grateful to the Design Team for their work in the early stages of the project, but members of the team are not responsible for the interpretations of the data or the conclusions of this book.

Throughout the five years of the Local TV News Project study, the staff of the Project for Excellence in Journalism contributed their advice and energy, including Amy Mitchell, Nancy Anderson, Stacy Forster, and Chris Galdieri.

The newsroom teaching that further informed our research was made possible by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to support the Committee of Concerned Journalists’ (CCJ’s) “Traveling Curriculum.” Hodding Carter spotted the potential in conducting an ongoing dialogue about the purposes of journalism, and Eric Newton directed Knight’s journalism initiatives.

Bill Kovach, CCJ chair, provided his always-thoughtful guidance, as did Tom Avila and Carrie Brown. Deborah Potter, Scott Libin, Paul Friedman, John Martin, Deb Wenger, Brooks Jackson, Charles Beirbauer, Bill Damon, and the late Marty Haag worked with the CCJ staff to conduct the newsroom training sessions. Brett Mueller, who undertook an assessment of the project, gave valuable feedback. Jennifer Fimbres provided logistical support.

We especially want to thank the almost 100 news directors and general managers who invited the CCJ into their newsrooms. Lane Michaelsen, Scott Libin, John Cardenas, Kay Miller, Wayne Lynch, and Dan Weiser were news directors at the first group of stations visited.

Finally, we want to thank the many hundreds of broadcast journalists who spoke candidly with us about their work and beliefs. Like many others in journalism, they told us they got into the profession because they wanted to make a difference. Our greatest hope is that this book will help them do just that.

© Cambridge University Press
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