Step off a plane anywhere in the United States, tune into the local TV news programs — and you're likely to see a succession of reports on murders, shootouts, rapes, traffic wrecks, fires and other grisly events.
That's how we began a column three years ago. With television news deteriorating in localities across the country, we decried a trend that was making a mockery of claims that commercial TV stations keep the public informed about current events.
Last week, we blew the dust off our commentary after reading a new study. A monitoring group analyzed tapes of local evening news programs that aired the same day this fall on 100 television stations in 35 states.
"Stations use sensation and tabloid journalism to manipulate and condition viewers," concluded the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Media Watch organization. "Crime stories, mainly murder, dominate half the newscasts."
On local news programs around the nation:
Fully 30 percent of the news was devoted to crime. Coverage of government came in a distant second at 11 percent. In a "Mayhem Index" of local newscasts, "stories about crime, disaster and war average 42 percent of the news on all 100 stations." Environmental stories accounted for 2 percent of the local TV news time. Poverty received 1.8 percent of air time. Unions and labor overall got 1.6 percent. Civil rights netted 0.9 percent. Meanwhile, there was no lack of fluff. Monitors found extensive coverage of such news items as a Miss Bald USA contest, a beauty contest for cows, a bourbon-tasting contest in Texas and a kangaroo who fell into a swimming pool in Australia.
Quality TV news reporting still exists, but it's extremely rare. "The excesses of the local TV news industry are now chronic, habitual and institutionalized," says the new report.
So, unfortunately, the column we wrote on the subject a few years ago is even more relevant today. For this reason, we present a portion of that column:
In many local TV newsrooms, the tacit rule is: "If it bleeds, it leads." Often, the more lurid the story, the better its chances of topping the broadcast. The results are a lot closer to "America's Most Wanted" or "A Current Affair" than anything that might make a journalist feel proud.
Violent calamities — breathlessly narrated with arresting footage of police tape, body bags and the like — fascinate TV news programmers. But context is usually absent; attention is lavished on tragic events but not on what might have caused (or prevented) them.
Intent on providing adrenalin-pumping visuals, local TV coverage is apt to emulate the bang-bang tone of prime-time dramas, augmented by comments from tearful loved ones, witnesses and police.
Dramatic crime reports and brief news items are accompanied by anchors' "happy talk" chatter, weather and sports reports...and, of course, plenty of commercials — about one minute of ads for every four minutes of "news." To round out the show, local broadcasts commonly close with a cuddly "human interest" story affirming the basic goodness of the community.
It all may be a bit bewildering, but TV news is not about making sense — it's about making money. Lots of it. Advertiser dollars are drawn to local TV news, partly because — as The New York Times has put it — "many sponsors think news programs attract affluent viewers." It's a winning formula for the owners, and a losing one for the public.
Even when dealing with substantive topics, local TV news reporting tends to be shoddy. In 1990, the Columbia Journalism Review published a devastating account by researcher John McManus, who spent 50 days inside TV newsrooms in several metropolitan areas.
"Overall," he reported, "18 of the 32 stories analyzed — 56 percent — were inaccurate or misleading." Making matters worse, "often, the station made no effort to correct obvious omissions."
McManus found a pattern to the mis-coverage: "There is an economic logic to these distortions and inaccuracies. All but one...were likely to increase the story's appeal, help cut down the cost of reporting or oversimplify a story so it could be told in two minutes."
The abysmal condition of most local TV news largely reflects a deregulated broadcast industry that has scant commitment to the public interest and fervent commitment to maximizing profits.
Eager to know what's going on in their neighborhoods and in the region, many people who have a low opinion of local TV news end up watching it anyway. What they see on television — night after night — ignores major issues and hobbles the ability of communities to confront their problems.