STEAL THIS STORY: Broadcast Blues
"These days it doesn't matter if you have a home -- as long as you have an address in cyberspace," reporter John Blackstone jovially told KPIX-TV Eyewitness News viewers Feb. 1. Blackstone's conclusion wrapped up a segment on the 10 p.m. newscast about a Bay Area homeless man named Neal Berry who owns a computer and a modem. Berry, Blackstone noted, "doesn't mind being homeless, but he does mind not having a computer."Taken by itself, the story could be seen as a harmless, lighthearted feature -- even though it reinforced the stereotype of homelessness as simply a lifestyle choice. But if you had watched every local evening newscast at 10 or 11 p.m. on the four major Bay Area TV stations that week, you would have found that, except for the KPIX story, there were no other mentions of homelessness.Of course, if you were interested in O.J. Simpson news, there were 11 stories on that topic during the week beginning Monday, Jan. 29, including "Simpson Juror Poses for Playboy." There was also a wealth of random animal coverage that gave new meaning to the term endangered species, including "Goose Stuck in the Snow," "Elephant Rescue," "Deer Rescue," and "Susie the Bear Dies of Cancer" -- not to mention stories about an ostrich convention, infectious iguanas, a baby koala, and a giant squid found off the New Zealand shore. And no violent crime or disaster anywhere in the world seemed safe from the local news.This emphasis on tabloid-style journalism, at the expense of real news and community-oriented coverage, was one of the clear trends revealed in an exclusive new survey of local TV news coverage conducted by the Bay Guardian in conjunction with Denver-based Rocky Mountain Media Watch (RMMW).At a time when more and more people rely on television as their primary news source, the results are alarming. Among the survey's findings:* All four stations focused primarily on crime, "soft" news, and disasters, while paying little attention to state and local government, politics, and economic issues.* The "fluff index" -- which compares the amount of trivial news, celebrity stories, anchor chatter, previews, and promos in a telecast to the amount of hard news -- amounted to a whopping 36 percent locally. The fluff count on two of the stations, KGO and KRON, actually exceeded the national average.* Although statistics indicate that the crime rate in the Bay Area is down, crime was the most common news topic on all stations, with murder the subject of more than 50 percent of all crime stories. Taken together as the "mayhem index," stories on crime, disaster, and war averaged 34 percent of newscasts (see "The Fluff/Mayhem Index," facing page).* Stories on the environment accounted for only about 2 percent of news time, while coverage of education, science, civil rights, poverty, and children's issues was virtually nonexistent.Author and syndicated media columnist Norman Solomon, in reviewing the study, said that the results make a mockery of local news stations' claims that they are keeping the public informed about current events. "I suspect there's no city in the country with a larger gap between the diversity of political outlooks and the conformism of local television news," Solomon said.RMMW's Paul Klite, who recently compared the newscasts from 100 television stations in 58 U.S. cities, said that while San Francisco stations offer more total news per show than the national average, local newscasts clearly suffer from what he calls "tabloid fever.""This survey replicates what we've found all over the country in every one of our studies," Klite said. "Violence dominates the news, with a healthy amount of trivia. What gets choked out are all the important topics. It's great for ratings and terrible for democracy."Local TV news directors maintain that they are just giving the people what they want to see. They say the types of stories they air are the inevitable result of the visual nature of the medium. But critics contend that it is simply bottom-line journalism, the consequence of letting massive, out-of-town media conglomerates put profits above the public interest (see "Who Controls Your News?" page 18)."The logic is dominated by commercial considerations rather than journalistic ideals, and the two are often at war with each other," said John McManus, journalism professor at St. Mary's College in Moraga and author of Market Driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware? "So what happens in local TV newsrooms is for the most part a search for stories not on the basis of their importance but their ability to generate large audiences at the lowest cost."If it bleeds, it leadsFor the survey, a team of Bay Guardian reporters and editors monitored and analyzed the 10 and 11 p.m. broadcasts on San Francisco-based KPIX (Ch. 5), KRON (Ch. 4), and KGO (Ch. 7), and on Oakland-based KTVU (Ch. 2) from Jan. 29 to Feb. 2 -- a week in which there was no single dramatic event to skew the results. We picked the late newscasts because they reach more viewers than the earlier news programs. The survey was conducted using methodology and software developed by RMMW, which won a 1995 Alternative Media Heroes Award from the Institute for Alternative Journalism at last week's Media and Democracy Conference in San Francisco.There were a few bright spots during the week we watched, but they were drowned out by the flood of fluff and mayhem. KTVU stood out for offering substantially more news, less fluff, less hype, and fewer ads, but the station presented essentially the same types of stories as the others. KRON had the best arts coverage that week, devoting more than 9 percent of its news to arts- and humanities-related subjects.Coverage of crime overall was lower locally than nationally, but more than 20 percent of the news stories were devoted to murder, assault, and other mayhem. Crime coverage is an important part of any balanced newscast, but Klite said an obsessive focus on body bags and grieving families undermines its value. "It's a lot easier to film violence than it is to explain it," he said. "When the average news story is under a minute, there's very little time to go into depth, into the consequences and the solutions."Disaster was the second-most-popular news topic (after crime), accounting for an average of 14.6 percent of each program's coverage. If there wasn't a fire, earthquake, or bombing in the Bay Area on any given day, channels typically found a nonlocal catastrophe to fill the slot. A Feb. 1 train derailment in southern California was the top story on KPIX and was given more than five minutes, enough time for 14 different shots of the burning wreckage.One of the week's most popular stories, featured prominently by all four stations, concerned the plight of dogs that had been used as bait to train pit bulls in San Francisco housing projects. The ubiquitous pit-bull story, which KRON claims to have broken, was immediately lapped up by the other three stations. The story may have been so prominent because it combines what appear to be news directors' two favorite themes: violence and animals. The old TV news rule of thumb -- "If it bleeds, it leads" -- apparently has a corollary: if it's an animal that's bleeding, run it even higher.When animals are scarce, celebrities will do just as well, and perhaps even better if they are involved in a murder or disaster. Nearly half of the week's fluff stories involved celebrities. KGO, for example, didn't have actual footage of Kevin Costner fighting a fire in his neighborhood, but that didn't stop the channel from running the story of his heroism -- the station simply used footage from the star's recent movie Waterworld.Magic Johnson's return to the NBA was the biggest story of the week, meriting a total of 21 minutes and 46 seconds of news coverage on all stations -- in addition to the amount of time spent on Johnson's comeback during the sports section of the telecasts. Some channels used the event as an occasion to do other AIDS stories -- KPIX, for instance, focused on how Johnson has raised public awareness about HIV by showing that HIV-positive people can lead full lives. Mostly, though, Johnson's return was presented as just another celebrity sports feature.Stories about bad weather, presented as news reports, were a staple during the week we watched. These came as a bonus to the regular weather forecasts, which alone already filled more than 9 percent of each newscast on average. But rather than providing practical (or even local) weather information, these stories were often used as an excuse to show catastrophe footage from all over the country, featuring cars sliding backward on ice, main streets flooding, and anonymous, shivering highway patrol officers being interviewed.Then there's sex. KGO, KRON, and KPIX all reported, quite earnestly in some cases, what was presented as a First Amendment story: a lawsuit filed against Santa Clara County by the California Hardbodies, a group of strippers fighting for their right to perform nude. All three stations illustrated the report with titillating clips of the scantily clad plaintiffs at work. Never one to be outfluffed, KGO capped off the story with a rather brutal female mud-wrestling sequence.The invisible Bay AreaWhat's actually shown on local television news is not as troubling as what escapes the medium's narrow focus. According to our study, the time Bay Area stations spent on local government was less than the national average. In fact, political issues seem to be a very low priority for local newscasts -- none of the stations has bureaus in Sacramento, San Francisco City Hall, or Washington, D.C., anymore.It's not as if there wasn't any news to cover during the week we monitored. In what the San Francisco Chronicle called a "revolution of sorts," Republicans in the California State Assembly passed bills refusing to recognize gay marriages, cutting corporate taxes, gutting state welfare programs, sharply limiting product-liability lawsuits, providing for a new no-fault auto insurance law, eliminating mandatory overtime pay, and making it easier to carry concealed firearms. Only KTVU spent more than a minute total reporting on the passage of those bills, and even that station failed to provide any analysis or criticism of them.By nearly all newspaper accounts, the most important national event of the week was the passage of the Telecommunications Reform Act, which will likely affect every American who owns a phone, television, or personal computer. Critics say the bill will probably mean higher service rates for consumers, an increase in media conglomerates' power to control information, and censorship on the Internet. KPIX ran a 41-second report as the 10th item in its newscast and neglected to interview consumer advocates or give any analysis of the bill. KPIX's owner, Westinghouse, which just received FCC permission to gobble up CBS, is one of the media giants positioned to benefit most from the bill's deregulatory provisions.Other than reports on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' approving gay marriage ceremonies, there were few government stories focusing on the Bay Area. Campaign-finance disclosures from the San Francisco mayor's race that were released that week did not warrant a mention.Some segments of the Bay Area community only made it on the air when their stories involved crime or animals. The pit-bull story was the only one we found that mentioned public housing at all -- and again, that wasn't because of a lack of breaking news. For example, on Jan. 29, the first day of our survey, the San Francisco Housing Authority called an emergency meeting to speed up relocation of residents living in the Hayes Valley North housing development, a move that could force dozens of residents out on the streets. Despite tenants' protests, the item was not even mentioned on any of the four channels.Besides the Oakland teachers' strike, which got heavy (if superficial) coverage, the only education coverage involved stories on gangs in Marin schools; on Bill Gates's giving money to Stanford; and on the political maneuverings between Governor Wilson and the University of California president over affirmative action.Rather than devoting more time and resources to local news, all the stations tried to foster the illusion of international coverage, which we found was nearly 50 percent disaster- related. Gory footage of a bombing in Sri Lanka made all four stations, but it might as well have taken place on the moon: none of the stations provided any context for the event. Dramatic but meaningless footage of a hot-air balloon crash in Switzerland, captured on home video, merited air time on KRON, KGO, and KTVU.'We're not C-Span'In an interview, KRON news director Stan Hopkins said that our findings on disaster and crime coverage generally corroborated the station's own internal data. But he strongly defended his station's news policies, saying that a lot of thought is given to the number and presentation of crime stories."We oftentimes are guilty of superficial treatment of stories, [but] the effort on a daily basis is to make certain that you have the kind of reporting and the kind of perspective and the kind of coverage that is going to make a difference to your local audiences," he said.In response to our criticism of the pit-bull story, Hopkins said that the story generated more positive viewer mail than any story they'd done in months. As for the station's lack of investigative reporting, he told us KRON had recently won an award from the Associated Press for enterprise and investigative reporting in a series on San Francisco tourist traps and in a story on problems with BART police.Milt Weiss, news director at KGO, did not return Bay Guardian calls by press time. Bill Payer, managing editor at KPIX News, said he was uncomfortable commenting on what we found to be a high percentage of soft news because he believes "soft news" is a subjective label. As for the lack of government and political coverage, Payer said, "The bottom line is, we are not MacNeil-Lehrer or C-Span and we don't apologize for that. At some point it becomes a question of what we have the resources to cover, because we can't cover it all."Echoing other local news directors, KTVU news director Fred Zehnder said that while he thinks stations probably focus too much on crime stories, he attributes it to the reality of appealing to a huge, diverse audience. While a local- government meeting in San Francisco may not be engaging to a viewer in Oakland, he said, a crime probably would. "It's sort of a balancing act to try and find the right stories that work for the entire Bay Area audience," Zehnder said.But Larry Bensky, mass communications professor at Cal State- Hayward and national affairs correspondent for Pacifica Radio, said the stations were just making excuses for their emphasis on crime. There are millions of news subjects besides crime, he said, that transcend specific locations and are relevant to viewers all over the Bay Area. "If they are so concerned about [relevance]," he said, "why don't they try broadcasting a story about a teacher from a school in Oakland who has found a new way to teach kids with attention deficit disorder, which exists in Oakland, Milpitas, and everywhere else?"While quality in local TV news has gone up and down in cycles since the beginning of the medium, most industry veterans we spoke with agreed the Bay Area TV news landscape is as barren today as it has ever been, and there are few signs of improvement.What happened? Experts say the current state of the industry is the effect of deregulation, increased competition, and a shift in priorities from journalism to corporate profit- mongering.John Hewitt, who has worked for every major TV station in San Francisco and is now a professor at San Francisco State University, said that the first decline in quality came in the early 1970s when stations realized they could make money with their newscasts if they switched to a more sensational "infotainment" format. Before that, serious news and public affairs were seen as a money-losing proposition, but one required by the Federal Communications Commission and expected by the community.As profits from news shows started coming in, stations' staffs and news budgets swelled. During the 1980s, KRON set the standard for political reporting, boasting large investigative teams as well as bureaus in San Francisco City Hall, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C. Local industry legend Rollin Post, who has worked as a political reporter for 25 years for KPIX, KQED, and KRON, recalls that until the late 1980s KRON had a Washington bureau with twice as many employees as were on staff at the Chronicle's Washington bureau. "We were serious about this stuff," Post said. "The reason for the Washington bureau was to stay on top of the Bay Area congressional delegation, which I thought was important."KRON's Belva Davis, another local industry icon, was the last television reporter assigned to San Francisco City Hall. Davis, who has covered urban affairs for 30 years, said she had asked to be assigned to that beat. "I felt that there was a lack of coverage of city government, and if people were really feeling disconnected in life it was because they felt like they didn't know what was going on in their cities," she told the Bay Guardian.In the 1980s things took a turn for the worse, as the Reagan administration dismantled the FCC guidelines that governed the broadcast industry. Until that time, stations were expected to demonstrate a commitment to local news and public affairs as a condition of their license. The "fairness doctrine" -- which required stations to devote at least some air time to important and controversial issues, and to do so in a fair and balanced manner -- was repealed in 1987 after intense lobbying by local broadcasters. The so-called ascertainment procedures, which gave community groups their only significant grounds to mount a challenge to a broadcaster's license renewal, were also dumped.Deregulation came just as stations were starting to see national ads dry up because of increased competition from cable television. Revenues were slumping, and without FCC oversight the profit-addicted stations were free to make up the difference by cutting back on news and public-affairs programming.A revealing three-part 1990 story in San Francisco Focus, "TV News at the Crossroads," chronicled the effect of deregulation and competition on the industry. "Major local broadcast news organizations, whose budgets throughout the 1980s had swelled into the double-digit millions, are now closing bureaus and cutting staff," Focus writer Ira Eisenberg concluded. The story noted that KRON and KPIX had each laid off about 100 employees, while KGO had dumped more than 140 over the previous three years.Gone were the bureaus, the investigative and documentary units, the public-affairs programming, and the beat reporters. KRON closed its Washington and Sacramento bureaus, and Belva Davis left City Hall in 1994."They don't do any of that stuff anymore," John Hewitt said. "They don't do anything that's cultural and they don't do anything that's public service. Stations have shrunk and really become nothing more than places to sell some advertising and do a little news."What little public-interest protection was left after the Reagan assault was effectively wiped out by the Telecommunications Reform Act signed by President Clinton earlier this month.Rip and readLongtime Bay Area broadcast journalist Tom Devries, who has worked for all the major stations in town, left KRON to start his own freelance business about a year and a half ago. Devries said that, at the time he left, the staff at KRON was spread so thin he was expected to file a story every day, leaving little time for reporting.Typically, Devries said, his producers would read the daily papers in the morning and decide what the stories of the day were going to be. If he went out and found that the story wasn't there, he would often have to file it anyway. "Four days out of five, the story was going to be only marginally useful to the public," he said. "On some of those days it was going to be untrue, in the sense that it didn't happen that way. You give them a mistaken impression, especially in 80 or 90 seconds." Devries stressed that this was true at all the stations, not just KRON.The accuracy of local newscasts was the subject of a study by journalism professor John McManus, published in 1990 in the Columbia Journalism Review. He accompanied journalists from four California news stations on 32 story assignments and found that 18 of those stories -- 56 percent -- were inaccurate or misleading.McManus promised the stations anonymity, but he did say that the Bay Area was represented. In a rare moment of candor, one local news director, who refused McManus access to his reporters, told him: "The last thing I want my reporters thinking about when they're gathering the news is journalism. In this business you have to think with a cash register in your head."In a few cities public-broadcasting stations pick up the slack on local news. In Minneapolis, for example, public station KTCA offers a nightly newscast called News Night Minnesota. KQED also had a nightly news show from the late '60s through the '70s. It was called Newsroom, and it is still one of the most respected programs in the history of broadcasting. Now, despite a $36 million budget, KQED offers a total of 30 minutes a week of local public-affairs programming sponsored by corporations such as PG&E -- and no newscast.One promising development is Bay TV, KRON's cable news channel, which offers a greater emphasis on local news than does its mother station. Unlike the other stations, it offers daily public-affairs programs featuring interviews with figures around the Bay Area. Although the mix of stories offered by Bay TV is similar to that proffered by the local network news stations, there is less of a focus on sports, weather, and nonlocal soft news -- and the channel will do community-oriented stories the major stations won't touch.Respected veteran journalist Evan White moved from KRON to take an anchor job at Bay TV about a year and a half ago. He says he enjoys the increased attention given to community- based news. "We're not crime-driven, thank God," White said. "We do crime, but it's much less. Our show is not filled with the same long blocks of non-news that some shows are."Herb Chao Gunther, president and executive director of the San Francisco-based Public Media Center, told the Bay Guardian that the current state of local TV news is no accident; it's just another example of how the mass media, controlled by a shrinking number of multinational corporations, try to shape how we perceive reality. The result is a society that is increasingly politically ignorant. "How is it that the Bay Area media constantly report stories that make us feel like we live in Des Moines?" he asked. "You've got to think this is a strategy to keep people from being involved. It's hard to not start being Oliver Stone-like."The threat to democracy posed by media concentration was the subject of the historic Media and Democracy Congress in San Francisco last week, attended by more than 600 journalists, activists, and media makers from around the country (see the Naked Eye, page 20). At the conference, former ABC News producer Danny Schechter, who now runs Globalvision, a New York-based international television and film company, proposed a five-part strategy aimed at reforming mainstream media. Schechter's plan includes monitoring media performance, demanding media accountability, fighting for tougher regulations, transforming public television, and supporting alternative programming (see "Taking Back the Airwaves," page 8)."We've got to go beyond 'the prettiest hair on the air,' " Schechter told the Bay Guardian. "There are many people working in local television news who share our frustration and feel inauthentic because they are not telling, they are selling. We should be talking back to our TV stations and news managers and force them to demonstrate a level of public accountability." This issue marks the beginning of the Bay Guardian's ongoing local news monitoring project. We will be following up this study with regular updates on local TV news coverage. To volunteer as a monitor, please write to: TV News Project, Bay Guardian, 520 Hampshire, S.F., 94110, or send E- mail to email@example.com. You are also invited to participate in the Local TV News conference on Guardian OnLine. For more information on Rocky Mountain Media Watch or to order a copy of Let the World Know: Make Your Cause News, by Jason Salzman, call (303) 832- 7558.