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Can Local News Take On Watchdog Role?

Some observers think the Web is better-placed to report on civic issue

Can local TV news really fill the watchdog role in the 21st century that local newspapers did in the 20th?

CBS news anchor Bob Schieffer advanced the theory at this year’s National Assn. of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas, but other media analysts are skeptical.
Schieffer, it seems safe to say, spoke from an idealistic perspective about local TV’s ability to keep tabs on civic events as newspapers consolidate and in many cases evaporate.

“I believe broadcasters can become that entity,” Schieffer said at NAB. “I think there’s an opportunity there for all of us that simply was not there before. Broadcasters will be the entity that local communities will more and more depend on to get an accurate version of events.

“There is no question we are in midst of a communications revolution. No one knows where things are going. The journalism world has been turned upside down,” he added.

As part of his theory, Schieffer suggested developing more original and analytical reporting by “not worrying so much about hiring good-looking anchors as much as solid, highly qualified investigative reporters to cover government.”

Some who watch local news coverage don’t agree with this solution. As far as Los Angeles is concerned, L.A. Observed site editor and publisher Kevin Roderick says he doesn’t think local stations are prepared or even want to fill that role.

“Percentage-wise, they have cut as much or more than the papers and had fewer journalists to begin with,” Roderick says. “They invest little time or money in local watchdog or politics coverage. I haven’t seen local TV in L.A. pick up any role from newspapers — but I have seen radio stations start to expand to fill more of that role, and websites and blogs.”

Schieffer is troubled, though, by the prospect of blogs taking the watchdog role, because of the potential lack of accuracy in reporting.

“There’s so much information out there that is simply not true on the Internet,” he says. “The mainstream media follows a certain standard. We don’t publish or broadcast anything until we’ve made an effort to find out if it’s truthful. The need for accurate information is greater than ever with the online world.”

Roderick offers the counterpoint: “Plenty of blogs these days have larger staffs and comparable editing processes to newspapers. In general, the accuracy argument is weaker now than at any time in the past. News consumers today are used to getting some of their news from blogs, and have become wise about filtering the good ones from the bad ones.”

Media blogger and journalist Jim Romenesko sees flaws within the structure of television news that could hamper its success as a government overseer.

Local news is superficial — often written by consultants, as Conan O’Brien regularly shows — and few TV journalists have the reporting chops or resources to do the kind of work that newspaper journalists have traditionally done,” Romenesko says. “We’re in big trouble if we start relying on local TV news to keep watch on government.”

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