Contrary to expert predictions, local television stations owned by large corporations are still pursuing investigative journalism, according to new research by a UO journalism professor.
Jesse Abdenour's recently published paper challenges the idea that corporate ownership threatens an important role of local news stations. But the study, which examined the state of investigative reporting at local television stations across the country, also found that investigative stories are the exception rather than the rule on local TV.
Experts have warned that major corporations threaten journalists’ ability to investigate important topics, but Abdenour found that television stations owned by publicly traded corporations produced more investigative journalism and were more likely to emphasize investigations.
“A lot of people think corporations are killing journalism and hurting news quality, but this suggests that they see value in investigative journalism,” said Abdenour, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication. “In some ways, corporations might be helping it.”
The study, one of the first to analyze local investigative television on a nationwide scale, showed that stations in competitive markets did more investigative reporting between 2013 and 2015 and that competition among stations seemed to be driving improvements in that type of journalism. Newsrooms that focused on profit were less likely to focus on investigative news.
Abdenour’s more recent research demonstrates that stations producing the best investigative journalism tend to get the highest and most profitable TV ratings.
“People sometimes wonder how traditional news organizations can continue to make money in the digital age,” Abdenour said. “Investigative news might be the answer.”
Despite that, the study showed low levels of investigative journalism quality and quantity on local television, which is the top news source for U.S. adults. Most stories that stations described as “investigative” were not actually investigative by definition.
On the other hand, about half of the investigative journalists Abdenour surveyed said investigative quality and quantity had recently increased at their television stations.
“I keep the drumbeat going for local television because people — especially academics — forget that TV news is still so popular,” Abdenour said.
He hopes his article will influence other academics to conduct research on TV investigative reporting because he believes the topic holds great significance for society.
“If you don’t have investigative journalism on local TV, the No. 1 news source,” Abdenour said, “then you’re not going to have a body of citizens that’s as informed on political decisions, which is required for a democracy.”
—By Eric Schucht, School of Journalism and Communication