In a letter written to Richard Price on January 8th, 1789, Thomas Jefferson said, “…wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.”
What Jefferson meant by this, I believe, is that in order for a democratic government to function as intended, the people subject to its rule must be informed enough to not only recognize when their elected representatives have failed them but also recognize who is best suited to replace them and repair the damage their failure caused. To put it more simply, voters need to be able to see that there’s a problem and know who to elect in order to solve it, and Jefferson believed this can only be achieved if the voters are well informed, which itself can only be achieved if the voters have easy access to information.
For the democratic nations of the early modern and late modern periods of history, this easy access was provided by newspapers, thanks to the spread of the printing press, with radio broadcasts entering the picture around the end of the late modern period. For the democratic nations of today, however, it’s television that serves as the primary medium through which we inform ourselves about the world around us. According to a report published by the Pew Research Center in September 2017, about 50% of Americans still claim they often get their news from television compared to 43% who claim the same of the Internet. The gap between the two sources is closing rapidly, and the Internet may have already supplanted television since the publication of the report, but television still plays an immense role in disseminating information to the American people.
Local newscasts, in particular, still enjoy a special place in the hearts of Americans, with 37% claiming they often get their news from local television stations, according to the same report. A different report published by the Pew Research Center, this one in July 2016, shows that 22% of Americans claim to trust local news organizations “a lot” while 60% claim to trust them “some”, for a net total of 82%. That net total is higher than for any other source of information, even friends and family, and while “local news organizations” refers to all mediums, not just television, it still shows that Americans still have a great deal of trust in local newscasts. To understand why this is the case, one must look back to the early days of television news.
Steven Waldman, a former Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the FCC and co-founder of Report for America, published a report in June 2011 on behalf of the FCC titled The Information Needs of Communities. The report is quite large and discusses the media landscape as a whole, but the part most relevant to this article begins on page 72, where Waldman explains how interest in television exploded following the end of World War II. Much of this interest actually came from newspaper companies that assumed this new medium would eventually come to dominate the media market and wanted to beat their competitors to it. Obviously, this assumption was correct and by the time the 1960s came around, about 90% of American households had a television set, according to the Library of Congress. Television quickly grew to become the dominant medium for news propagation and it was during this time period, from the end of World War II to the 1960s, that many of the formats and techniques we’re familiar with today began to take shape, such as breaking news and special events coverage.
It was also during this time period that local newscasts began to come into existence, starting in major metropolitan areas like New York City and Washington, DC during the early 1950s. The format was initially very simple, usually nothing more than a single news anchor reading some announcements about local events, but local newscasts proved to be far more popular and profitable than expected. Not only was self-made, community-focused content cheap to produce, television stations didn’t need to share the advertising revenue generated by this content with the corporate network they were affiliated with, or even owned by. Audiences also loved it because, being members of the very communities being reported on, the content was far more relevant to their lives than content produced by national networks.
The massive, unexpected success success of these early local newscasts prompted stations across the United States to begin creating their own community-focused content. From major metropolitan areas to sparsely populated farming regions, the entire nation was soon peppered with local newscasts and it wasn’t long before the bland, “man-on-camera” format of reporting was abandoned in favor of the far more engaging and entertaining formats we’re familiar with today. Stations began focusing more of their attention and resources on their local newscasts, which improved the depth and quality of their reporting, and by the 1970s many stations were actually broadcasting more of their own, community-focused content than the generally national and international content provided to them by their network.
Television journalism during this time period was also far more fact-focused and upright than it is today, according to Ted Koppel, the acclaimed former anchor of Nightline. In an editorial published by The Washington Post in November 2010, Koppel, lamenting the death of “real news,” claims that, at the time, each network viewed their television news division as more of a public service than a business. Unlike the local newscasts produced by their affiliate and O&O stations, content produced by the networks themselves in the first few decades of television news was rarely profitable. Networks were happy with this lack of profit, however, as it allowed them to point to their television news divisions as evidence that they were fulfilling their promise to the FCC to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” as required by the Radio Act of 1927. By losing money on television news and maintaining a strict code of journalistic integrity and objective reporting, networks were able to keep the FCC off their back while they made insane profits from their entertainment divisions.
Koppel claims in his editorial that it wasn’t just a desire to mollify the FCC that preserved the integrity of television news during this time period, but a bit of ignorance as well. At the time, the networks didn’t think that there was much money to be made in the news industry, at least, not enough to justify the effort of expanding their divisions. In fact, as their fear of the FCC began to subside and the need to mollify it became less important, the networks began cutting back on their television news divisions. It was also around this time that the networks began to realize that there was actually quite a bit of money to be made from television news, just not with the more fact-driven, objective reporting they had so strictly enforced for decades. With their diminished fear of the FCC and realization that serious money could be made from television news if they were willing to sacrifice their integrity and objectivity, the networks began to transition their television news from, as Koppel describes, “a public service to a profitable commodity.” This descent into the cynical, single-minded pursuit of profit at the expense of, as Koppel called it, “real news” was actually predicted by Paddy Chayefsky in his 1976 film, Network, which seems borderline prophetic in hindsight.
Local newscasts, on the other hand, while far from immune to the general decline in journalistic integrity that has occurred over the past few decades, have largely maintained the focus on facts and objectivity that was instilled in them during the formative years of television news. The cause, and even the validity, of that statement, can’t be said definitively, but I believe it’s due in large part to the fact that, since local newscasts were always profitable, television stations didn’t need to make the same transition from public service to profitable commodity that their networks did. As for the validity of that statement, I think the amount of trust the American people have in local news organizations, as mentioned previously, lends a lot of weight to the claim that local newscasts are, at least in comparison to cable and network news, fairly neutral and objective in their reporting of the news.