Anchoring the 2020 Electorate: The Need for Quality Local TV News Storytelling

Reinventing Local TV News
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Originally published at RTDNA.

Local TV news could help inform and enlighten the electorate in 2020 — and maybe even decide the election. We’re not kidding.

We all know local television news has its critics — even people in the industry cringe at the overabundance of formulaic storytelling, sensational reports about irrelevant topics, and nonsensical anchor happy-talk.

Yet for all its downsides, television still ranks first as a news source for Americans. Local TV news attracts more viewers than network and cable news sources. And people trust local television at a time of declining trust in news media.

The next 18 months in American politics will no doubt be intense, with anxieties running high over whether voting on Nov. 3, 2020, will be tainted by the same sorts of rampant misinformation that flooded the 2016 election.

The remedies considered over the past few years to prevent a repeat of that kind of election information calamity have been all over the map. Moves by social media companies to vanquish the specter of false news look like they made some headway, even as new problems will inevitably emerge. Journalists have ramped up fact-checking efforts, and formed coalitions to fight misinformation, while professional media organizations of all kinds have tried to rebuild trust.

But for a variety of reasons, we believe local TV news can make the real difference this time. It will require a major commitment by station managers, news directors, anchors, producers, and reporters in the 703 TV news teams across the country to cover politics and policy deeply and fairly, in a way that many have not before. And it requires them to up their game in terms of their storytelling.

We recently conducted in-depth experiments with more than 600 news consumers across six major television markets to see if we could improve audience engagement around news stories and attract larger audiences. On hard news stories — the stories that dig into issues and hook into public policy — it appears there is a strong appetite for better storytelling.

It’s the little things sometimes that matter to audiences. We found that the strategic use of innovative storytelling elements — everything from incorporating different animation and sound elements to providing more context and background on stories — may resonate powerfully, allowing local television news outlets to attract new audiences. Throwing out the formulaic and often corny aesthetics and story structures that local TV has used for decades is key to appealing to new viewers. Not every story needs to conform to the standard minute-and-a-half format. American consumers crave context and depth; the news just has to be done right, in a way that is neither boring nor patronizing.

Local TV news also needs to catch up with the new sensibilities of web-native video. The way local television does news can often seem cheesy to people under 40; it’s likely a major reason that local TV news content has such a graying audience. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way.

Should every local station’s product look like Vice News, with its hipster-cool sensibility? Probably not, but local TV should see it as part of its mission to help anchor the electorate in rock-solid, hard news storytelling about why policies, and the vote in 2020, matter greatly for the future of the country.

Local TV news stations have a lot of strengths, from business models that are doing well in many markets to brands that are still trusted in local communities across the country. And although there are plenty of broadcasts that seem devoted to superficiality, stations are also filled with professional journalists who would jump at the chance to radically raise the bar on quality. Another strength local stations have is their deep roots in communities. They are familiar faces, with professional journalists known in their communities — the opposite of the anonymous swirl of dubious content circulating on social media.

TV affiliates can localize federal policy and big campaign issues in ways that no national outlet can, making everything from tax policy to immigration, sea level rise to small business regulations, more relevant to specific communities. They can root the national-level partisan arguments in the lived experience of local persons and give voters a better shared sense of reality and why policies matter. And they can do it at mass scale, in a way that the emerging generation of news startups still cannot.

If local TV commits in this direction, we think there is real room for growth and success, not just in the context of the 2020 election, but over the long run. It just might be what democracy needs — a stabilizing source of quality news at a time when the public is confused, anxious, and bereft of credible sources, with 1,800 newspapers having disappeared over the past two decades.  

Everywhere our news culture is changing. Subscriptions are up at many quality outlets. Consumers are inching back toward greater consumption of traditional media, and toward greater trust in such traditional sources. The opportunity is there.

TV news reporters and producers and the voting public have a duty to step up this election, both in terms of being better informed and more vigilant about the spread of misinformation. Let’s do this. The ratings for democracy hang in the balance.

Mike Beaudet is an investigative reporter at WCVB and a Professor of the Practice at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism. John Wihbey is an assistant professor at Northeastern University School of Journalism and the author of “The Social Fact” from MIT Press.

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