Local TV News: The Scourge of God?

What's notable about local TV news is not just that it sucks, or that it's driven by advertising, or that its suckiness is nearly uniform from station to station. Certainly, this could almost as easily be said about most talk radio, local newspapers or, indeed, magazines. What's notable about local TV news is that it's near impossible to find anyone willing to defend it. From journalism professors to print reporters to media watchdog groups to those who work in the field, everyone is primed to denounce what passes for information on television. Just how bad is local TV news?"Really, really bad," says John Callaway, a thirty-eight year veteran of TV news and anchor of Chicago Tonight, a public television program that focuses on one issue per hour-long show."It's just a disgraceful field, (and) a terrible default on the part of people who ought to have a higher calling," says Michael Janeway, Dean of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "Journalistic skills count for very little," echoes David Berkman, professor of Mass Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a public media critic. "It's all superfluity that counts." Even so, the means of delivering the news which is the least sophisticated and the most amateurish, the least substantial and the most spectacular, the least concerned with delivering relevant information and the most preoccupied with turning a profit, is now the most popular form of "journalism" in the United States. According to Nielsen and Arbitron ratings and comparative studies by the American Newspaper Publishers Association, a majority of Americans get their news exclusively from the television set, and a majority of those watch only local news.Of course, to call these programs "news" at all is flattering those who produce them. In form and content, they more closely resemble variety shows -- think Circus of the Stars -- only slightly more earnest. Janeway says that local broadcasts represent "a cheapening of what news and information are supposed to be, that focuses on this small-town-gossip way of looking at the world." With only 22 minutes or less to report presumably the most pressing and essential news to viewers, it's nothing short of shocking to survey the stories that make the cut. Zoo animals cavort, beauty pageant winners cry and people from remote parts of the world die in random and utterly meaningless ways. Then, typically, the anchors make a sad face.It's tempting simply to write local TV news off as terrible joke. But because of its enormous reach and potential, its failure to adequately inform -- let alone educate -- becomes an issue of public concern, even for those who choose not to watch. At some point, the local TV news that airs from a thousand stations nationwide stops being merely laughable and starts being dangerous. Because action springs from information, a million misinformed people is doubtless worse than as many uninformed. And since the local news represents such a gruesome, violent distortion of life -- a world without context, just a procession of victims and perpetrators -- those watching develop a dark and twisted view of their surroundings, and a deep suspicion about those who share their streets. If, like their counterparts in Hollywood are fond of doing, TV news producers claim that they are simply holding a mirror to our violent and decadent society, then they need a new fucking mirror. GREED & BLEEDTV newspeople will tell you that they're just giving the people what they want, that all their market research surveys have told them that blood and celebrities (and, whenever possible, bloody celebrities) sell. Indeed, the "news" has become a cash cow for local broadcast affiliates. Since stations don't have to share advertising revenue from news programs with the networks (as with other programming), the news is the single greatest generator of income in local television -- often providing between 40 and 60 percent of a station's profit, according to Peter Herford, a professor of broadcast journalism at Columbia University's School of Journalism. Ever since the industry was deregulated during the Reagan revolution, fewer and fewer stations are locally owned; instead, what should and should not be news in a community is increasingly determined by the profit margins of an out-of-state corporation with similar financial interests in other stations, other markets, and other media. And what the corporations are concerned with, avers Herford to absolutely no one's surprise, "is money. Any diminution or increase in their ratings goes straight to bottom line, so the pressure to perform is intense."Fear of failure, of the slightest dip in ratings, determines the near-identical style and feel across the spectrum of commercial news, whether it's in a large market or small. "It's very human not to want to crawl out on a limb and do something untried," Herford continues, "but there are no people willing to break the mold, and then stick with it long enough to see whether it (succeeds)." The instant gratification of the overnight ratings system lets stations know exactly where they stand, whether last night's team coverage of a homicide segueing into live weather reports fell within the boss' projections. "When you walk in every morning and see the numbers on your desk, you become increasingly insecure," Herford says. "If you're doing OK, you're not gonna change. Doing it differently means it's gonna take a while to build an audience, and nobody will live with that."The general manager of San Francisco's KPIX, Harry Fuller, says he faces this dilemma every day. "We need to tell people what they need to know, what they ought to know," Fuller says. "But on the other hand, we have constant pressure and have to respond to what people are interested in. Those can be contradictory." But does it have to be so dumb? Doesn't the prolonged success of national programs of serious journalism like 60 Minutes and Nightline demonstrate that people are willing to watch smart news? Why conspire to perpetuate this lie, that the sex and violence of the rest of TV programming must carry over into the news in order to draw viewers? Because, as with most things, it's cheaper to stifle innovation than take a risk and change. Once one program offers video taped off a satellite of every school bus accident and train derailment from the four corners of the globe, other channels (and, indeed, reality) seem tame by comparison. Soon everybody's doing it. Herford points to the armadas of satellite trucks driving to the site where something may have happened several hours ago ("Well, Judy, there's nothing going on at this liquor store now, but last night" and "That's right, Bob, it's windy here too!") as the perfect example of this cycle of repetition."The idiot live shot has taken over a lot of local news for a simple reason," says Herford. "If you can do it, do it. And the other reason is, if the other guy does it, do it. It's a quality which transcends all of television: you get one hit show of a certain kind, and everyone clones it. That's the history of TV, and news is not immune from it.""It's much larger than an industry problem or a ratings problem," says Janeway. "What's brought us to this are larger problems of how we think about culture and information and education in this country, and how the entertainment industry works." In Hollywood, Janeway continues, "You try to make as much money with one formula as possible." That ideal has been transposed onto news programming, he suggests. "Then you add advertising, and the deregulation of an industry that was once sharply regulated, and (the public's) sense of discouragement about what the news is bringing, and a sense of hopelessness regarding the state of the cities." SALIVATION AT SIXOne media watchdog group insists that there's more than stifled creativity and a Hollywood mentality behind the obsession with bleeding leads and celebrity fluff."There's a manipulative reason," says Paul Klite of the Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a Denver-based media watchdog organization. "When emotions are high, we're more susceptible to advertising; propagandists know and use this to get to an audience."Klite and co-authors Robert Bardwell and Jason Salzman documented this reality in their sad-but-true report, "Pavlov's TV Dogs: A Snapshot of Local TV News In America, 9/20/95." Klite and company analyzed 100 newscasts in 58 cities across the U.S. on the evening of September 20, 1995. And the picture isn't pretty."Tabloid tricks are seeping into every part of local TV newscasts," states the report. One major result of the study is a "Pavlov Index," a number from 1-100 which quantifies the emotionally charged content of violent stories, tabloid journalism, and sports in local news broadcasts. A rating of 51, for example, means that for more than half the newscast (save for ads and weather), viewers' emotions were highly stimulated or "aroused" (the term of choice by marketing experts). In all, 92 of the 100 stations surveyed scored over 50 percent on the Pavlov scale. An emotionally charged viewer is a marketer's dream, and the report posits that producers know this and tailor their newscasts to please their advertisers. The big winner in local TV news is crime. Crime stories dominate half the newscasts in the survey. At Louisville's WLKY, crime coverage made up 84 percent of the news; WGNX in Atlanta devoted more than three-quarters of its newscast to crime. "Stories focus on the dramatic events of (a crime)," states the report. "Rarely do newscasts explain the context, consequences, patterns or solutions that surround the events."Not satisfied only to cover crime more than any other issue, local news covers violent crime more than any other type of crime, and murder more than any violent crime -- even though it's one of the least frequent crimes committed. Stories about congressional legislation and economic news -- how, for instance, the Federal Reserve uses unemployment as a hedge against interest rates -- don't stand a chance. For example, white-collar crime accounts for just two percent of crime stories in the RMMW study. The details of corporate corruption impart all the video drama of one of Ross Perot's charts; crime stories, meanwhile, conveniently provide gritty, emotional video of grieving families, bodies on stretchers and bloody sidewalks. Disasters do nicely on local TV news, perhaps for the same reason; earthquakes, plane crashes, floods and the like clock in at 10 percent of the news. Taken together and dubbed the "Mayhem Index," stories about crime, disaster, and war averaged 42 percent of the news on the stations surveyed. Fifty seven of 100 lead stories were about mayhem. As Klite explains it, this, like so much of the news, "serves a function for advertisers, though it doesn't serve much of a function for an informed public."KPIX's Fuller dismisses such studies as an ivory tower conspiracy: "Academics have a particular axe to grind about popular media and commercial TV," he says. "They see us as the enemy of education, but people are more informed now than they were fifty years ago, and they didn't learn it in a classroom. Schools can't deal with AIDS, smoking, and other issues as well as we can, and I think there's a resentment." Carol Marin, news anchor for WMAQ-TV in Chicago, rejects the notion that the industry is responsible for providing more in the way of context. "We don't do tutorials," she says. By the way, stories about AIDS accounted for .3 percent of news time in the RMMW study, appearing on only four stations.CONSEQUENCES The skewed focus of local TV news can mean more than just bad television, even more than bad journalism. The problem with people believing that crime constantly threatens their back porches-when the FBI reports overall crime having gone down each of the last three years (and violent crime down four percent in '94)-is that when a public is fed an interminable diet of violence, fear and paranoia are inevitable by-products. And a public with an increasingly paranoid view of its city, state or country is not idle. It feeds on itself. Policies change, walls are erected, things get ugly. And just who does local TV news imply we should be afraid of?Robert Entman, a professor of mass communications at North Carolina State University, has studied how the news in Chicago covers crime and portrays African Americans in these contexts. Entman and his students watched 55 days of local TV news in Chicago during late 1989 and early 1990 and concluded:* "Every case of difference (in images of blacks accused of crimes) appeared likely to stimulate negative emotions toward blacks among whites;"* "Blacks accused of violence receive(ed) significantly less favorable visual treatment than whites (similarly accused);" and * "Exposure over time to local TV news presents viewers with an accumulation of images that make blacks appear consistently threatening, demanding and undeserving of accommodation by government."Entman says other studies on news in Philadelphia and Los Angeles made similar findings, and that his own study of Chicago news in 1993-94 showed no significant change since 1989-90. "It's pretty clear that the tendency to emphasize blacks in a criminal role is a very common feature" of local TV news, he said. Media critic David Berkman echoes the report's findings: "This creates a climate of racism. And what is particularly disturbing is that, ironically, an awful lot of the black newspeople give this credence. The political outcome is that the right wing wins."BLOWING ITMore than anything, local TV news represents a missed opportunity. In Chicago, half the TV households watch one of the late local news programs on a given night, while only a quarter watch any of the three network evening broadcasts. Consider that this half constitutes several million people, and one begins to grasp the magnitude of any single station's reach and potential influence on its community. The fact is that when people sit down to watch the news, they know they are not sitting down to watch Friends. They are prepared to learn, to whatever extent they can in 22 minutes, about the events happening in their community and their world. But stations are not giving these viewers a chance to prove that they're not stupid. Because it's been so bad for so long, audiences don't seem to know the difference between what is the news and what they're watching at 5, 6 and 11. The Boston Globe last November polled local news watchers and found that 84 percent rated their local newscasts as "good" or "excellent," and that viewers were almost evenly split -- 42 to 37 percent -- on whether they'd like fewer stories in greater depth, or more stories in less depth.The two Boston stations included in the Rocky Mountain Media Watch study, WHDH and WCVB, ranked among the worst stations in the country in terms of how much news they run compared with other content, and how much of that is hard news. (Seventy-five percent of WHDH's "news" on the randomly chosen day of the RMMW study covered soft news and celebrity stories.) Yet, asked their opinion of WHDH, 44 percent of Boston viewers in the Globe's poll agreed that WHDH is merely "a more modern visual representation of the same news subjects." (Thirty-one percent didn't know.)"The public can have a lot of influence on what goes on the news," says Harry Fuller. "But if lots of people watch crime coverage, it's hard to tell them to stop. TV stations watch very closely what people watch and how long they watch and what they're interested in It's not my job to say, 'This isn't good for you.'"WHAT'S NEWS?Should we care that a man killed himself and his family in Yuma, Arizona? That a house burned down across town? That a storm in Burma killed six people and a herd of cattle? Maybe. But is it news? Probably not. Does it mean anything to our lives? No."The day in/day out diet of reporting crime and fires is a crutch based on not enough people coming in with ideas about what is going on in their own community," says Columbia's Herford. "All communities have a certain level of crime, and unless you go above or below that, it's not news."Random acts of violence, car accidents that tied up traffic six hours ago, weather anomalies in South America -- these things occur, and then they're over, producing no lingering effects that impact viewers. (These stories never merit a follow-up because there's never anything on which to follow up.)To blame viewers for tuning in is unfair because the lack of significant variations on television in most markets forbids people from rejecting the odd combination of doom and fluff by voting with their remote. So the only remaining option is that newspeople assume responsibility for informing the public. The airwaves that carry their broadcasts are a public trust; the government has granted them the right to air, just as it allows regulated logging in national forests or mining on public lands. In return for reaping profits off the airwaves, broadcasters should serve their community for a half an hour a day by providing solution-oriented information that directly pertains to the community. If some viewers find soft news, mayhem and celebrities so savory, let the local TV people produce an entire program of it. Just don't call it the news.Still, it's difficult to imagine an industry of people -- whose idea of public service is encouraging citizens to neuter their pets -- suddenly explaining complex issues, their root causes and means of getting involved. Especially when their very livelihood depends on a nation of people sitting on their asses within arm's reach of a Bud Light and a can of Pringles.

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