Murder & Mayhem on the News

There's nothing like a dose of the local newscast to make you lose faith in society. Maybe it's because many of us don't watch it regularly that when we do tune in its sensationalistic idiocy shocks the system anew. But why does local news have to be so overrun with bleeding leads, bouncy babes, and pathetic puffery? How can the TV industry insult the intelligence of its viewers day after dreadful day? "There's a manipulative reason," says Paul Klite of the Rocky Mountain Media Watch. "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 a new report, "Pavlov's TV Dogs: A Snapshot of Local TV News In America, 9/20/95." Sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a Denver-based media watchdog organization, Klite and company analyzed 100 newscasts in 58 cities across the U.S. on the evening of September 20, 1995. A resulting "Pavlov Index" was developed for the study, 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 the marketing whores). In all, 92 of the 100 stations surveyed scored over 50 percent on the Pavlov scale. "Pavlov would be fascinated with how thoroughly the American public is conditioned to such an unbalanced and unhealthy diet," says Klite. Other news about the news that will make you want to kill your television: 57 of 100 lead stories were about "mayhem" (crime, disaster, and war); fluff (soft news, celebrity items, anchor chatter and that clever teasing the newsflaks are so fond of) averaged as much air time as news; commercials took up 31 percent of news broadcasts, while 15 stations had more advertising than news. Trends we are seeing more of include the use of foreboding music during terror stories, zooms, and lots of flashy graphics. Describing WSVN TV in Miami, one of the nation's guiltiest medium of news as mayhem, the authors write: "The station uses powerful music, whooshing sound effects and full screen blood-red graphics to highlight stories. If you ever get to Miami, take a good stiff drink and watch Channel 7 news. It's Local News From Hell." So much of the garbage thrown out onto the airwaves, explains Klite, "serves a function for advertisers, though it doesn't serve much of a function for an informed public." Not that this report is devoid of a few bright spots. In Minneapolis, researchers found an excellent nightly newscast at KTCA, a local public television station; KEZI in Eugene provided "a balanced show with interesting, in-depth stories; KDNL in St. Louis, WICD in Champaign, and KCRA in Sacramento also fared well. The report concludes with ways in which viewers can control the addiction and stations can break the cycle of mayhem, murder and fluff. More information on "Pavlov's TV Dogs' and the Rocky Mountain Media Watch can be obtained by writing to Box 18858, Denver, CO, 80218; call 303-832-7558.

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