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Last week, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ)—a think tank affiliated with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts—released its latest study on local television news. The study examined not only the content of the local newscasts in 14 selected cities, but also recent trends in their ratings. Based on criteria ranging from the quality of story sourcing to the local relevance of the newscast, the PEJ gave stations letter grades ranging from A to F.

The PEJ’s argument is a simple one: Quality TV journalism attracts viewers. Yet the think tank notes that over four years of such studies, TV stations that have received A’s have increased their ratings only slightly more than half of the time. Over the same period, 42 percent of the stations receiving F’s have had successful rating trends. So it’s not such a simple equation after all. The upside, however, is that one can also read a “half-full” interpretation into these statistics: Quality can succeed.

Among the 14 markets surveyed in the PEJ’s 2001 study was Washington, D.C. The survey analyzed the 11 p.m. newscasts offered by WRC (Channel 4), WJLA (Channel 7), and WUSA (Channel 9). WJLA’s newscast received an A in the survey. Market ratings leader WRC received a B, and WUSA received a C. Overall, Washington was ranked the fourth-best news market in the study, but the survey did not include WTTG (Channel 5)’s one-hour 10 p.m. newscast. The omission was primarily a question of methodology (30 minutes vs. 60 minutes) and time slot, but it renders the survey as a less-than-complete picture of the market.

In a press release accompanying the study, the PEJ noted that “Washington was better than average in its source expertise and credibility, and in presenting a mix of opinions to viewers. It needs to work on its news focus, its enterprise reporting, and on being relevant to the viewing area.”

The study was conducted in February and April 2001, well before the injection of seriousness into the media brought about by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. WJLA News Director Steve Hammel—whose station topped the PEJ survey in this market—says, “In general, we’re a fairly serious news organization….But people’s priorities have changed, and we needed to reflect that in our news coverage.”

PEJ Deputy Director Carl Gottlieb—who oversees the study—takes a slightly different tack when I ask him if this year’s report is a snapshot of a now-vanished landscape. Gottlieb replies that this seriousness has “already faded” in local TV journalism. “They said that they were not going to be doing all the normal sweeps stuff,” he observes, “but they are.”

Last week’s late local newscasts provide an interesting test of this hypothesis. Breaking news forced D.C. stations to adopt a somber tone. It also made them less local than they should have been. Yet viewers could detect a fade in seriousness as well, especially when newscasts became commercials for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Predictably, the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on Nov. 12 swamped D.C.’s Monday newscasts. When the stations did serve up local news, much of what they offered was D.C. reaction to AA 587’s crash. The other local stories that got airtime also focused mostly on the war on terrorism, such as the diversion of a flight from Reagan National Airport to Dulles International Airport and an anthrax scare at Howard University. Only WRC and WTTG found time for stories on local crime and fire in the area on Monday night.

As the horrors of the latest air disaster faded, some stations seemed determined to keep the focus national. Tuesday’s late newscasts found the four stations split on their lead stories: WJLA and WTTG led with the stabbing of a child in Southeast, whereas WRC led with Afghanistan and WUSA went with the New York plane crash once again.

A fortuitous confluence of local news and a larger story dominated Wednesday’s lead stories, when Christian workers held by the Taliban in Afghanistan were rescued. Among the freed hostages was Heather Mercer, who grew up in Vienna, Va., and interviews with friends keeping vigil dominated coverage here. D.C. stations spotlighted another local angle to the terror war on Thursday night, when a snafu over the D.C. National Guard’s deputization to patrol the U.S. Capitol grounds emerged. Anthrax was back at the top of Friday’s local newscasts, when a letter addressed to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy was found in quarantined Senate mail, closing two Senate office buildings for the weekend.

One of the primary missions of local news is not to regurgitate what’s offered up on network or cable newscasts, and the PEJ’s assessment of the D.C. TV newscasts’ need to improve their relevance to viewers rang true last week. Local news about events not linked to the terror war vanished almost completely from screens at 11 p.m.—particularly at the front end of the broadcast—replaced by updates on the fall of the Taliban.

Amid all the plane crashes, the fog of war, and the anthrax, local stations had no trouble

making room for Harry Potter. The Potter-based stories ranged from boilerplate to banal. WTTG’s Wednesday-night piece on the merchandising of the film was the best example of the boilerplate. (Did you know Potter toys were “hot”?) Much of the coverage was an orgy of live-remote-from-the-movies schtick: See reporter at theater. See reporter talk to kids. See reporter hype tickets.

Though there were Potter excesses at all stations (WRC’s entertainment reporter Arch Campbell weighed in twice on the film), PEJ study winner WJLA was by far the most over-the-top station. The AA 587 crash bumped Potter from Monday’s Channel 7 newscast, but the young wizard worked his magic at the station every other night last week, including a Wednesday-night story about a look-alike, a Thursday-night Potter “poll,” and a Friday-night feature in which a little girl said she had been “jumping out of her skin all week” waiting to see the film. Chief meteorologist Doug Hill even posted a “Harry Potter forecast.”

When I ask Hammel about WJLA’s heavy dose of Harry, he says, “Our job is to reflect what’s happening in the community.” He also mentions the flick’s $93 million box-office haul this past weekend and observes, “Clearly, there’s a segment of our audience—a large segment: parents, kids—interested in this.”

But a segment of their audience also wants to see the meaty and locally focused journalism that the PEJ is rewarding with grades. All the local stations in the market did find time for a few of them last week. WRC had a nice follow-up on Wednesday on the much-ignored tornado that struck Laurel, Md. in September. On the same night, WTTG followed up its series on faulty streetlight bases with a close examination of what the District has (and has not) done about the problem. On Thursday, WJLA produced a fascinating feature with a local hook on the potential dangers of the anthrax vaccine. WUSA had a nice feature on its Tuesday newscast on the post-Sept. 11 struggles of local charities.

Any one of these stories should score an A with the PEJ, and with viewers. They’re the kind of stories that justify the PEJ’s overall high rating for the market. We need more of them. —Richard Byrne