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Good news for news watchers

Tampa Bay area TV news viewers are seeing some of the highest-quality journalism in the country, according to a study released today by the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.

NBC affiliate WFLA-Ch. 8 came out tops among local stations, and it ranked fourth among 43 stations evaluated in 14 cities by the project, a journalism think tank affiliated with Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

WFLA was followed closely by WTVT-Ch. 13 ( sixth), WTSP-Ch. 10 (eighth) and WFTS-Ch. 28 (14th).

All stations but WFTS received an "A" grade, based on an analysis of 6 p.m. newscasts during a week in February and in April. WFTS received a "B.".

Stations were judged on their stories' focus, enterprise (did the station initiate a story or just answer a police scanner call?), use of credible sources, number of sources, mix of viewpoints and relevance to local issues.

Overall, Tampa area stations ranked second nationwide, behind Billings, Mont., a much smaller market with two stations offering news. Cable news outlets such as Pinellas Park-based Bay News 9 were not evaluated.

"Nothing is imitated more than success . . . (and) if a dominant station like WFLA makes money taking a high-road approach, why not copy that?" said Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the project and supervisor of the study, explaining the quality of news among Tampa Bay area stations. "(And) viewers there probably will not tolerate a more tabloid approach."

WFLA's news director, Forrest Carr, didn't join the station until March. He credited predecessor Dan Bradley, who forced the station to abandon more sensationalist approaches in 1993.

"It says something about the people here that they would earn this while in between news directors," Carr said. "Over time, we've developed a consistency . . . (that) I think has made the difference (with viewers)."

Though WFLA was mistakenly lauded as the only station that presents investigative stories (WTVT also did them then), WTVT was complimented for featuring the most stories on ideas, issues and public malfeasance.

WTSP was recognized for offering the most stories with three or more sources, though it also featured the most stories on everyday crime. And though WFTS was hailed for featuring the most stories on substantive societal trends, 75 percent of its pieces centered on noncontested subjects, such as fires or car accidents.

Some area news directors criticized the study, saying it focused on too narrow a slice of time. Because of that, for instance, the study failed to see WTVT's investigative reports, which often air in its 10 p.m. newscasts.

And since the study period, three of the four stations have hired new news directors, meaning the study documents a snapshot of approaches that already may have changed significantly.

"This study probably would been more valid 15 years ago, when we weren't doing so much news," said Phil Metlin, vice president of news at WTVT. "We're doing eight hours of news a day. You can't judge a station's entire news product on one half-hour."

This is the fourth year the Project for Excellence in Journalism has presented its study, evaluating a different mix of stations each time.

Despite the criticisms, Gottlieb said, the study has proven that stations practicing quality journalism _ those doing stories that show enterprise, that cover a broad range of topics and that avoid exploitive crime coverage _ do best in the ratings and financially.

"If you're a station executive and you believe the lousier you make your newscasts, the more popular they'll be, you're wrong," he said. "We've proven it, over four years of research."