There’s a very good opinion piece in Wednesday’s Commercial Appeal. Written by two University of Memphis journalism professors, it points out one of the biggest failings of TV news, particularly here — the dependence on crime reporting. This sentence is the most telling: “a recent University of Memphis study of three network affiliates here showed that 50 percent — half — of the available space for news was given over to stories about crime.”
I don’t say it’s a good piece because I agree with it. Or because one of the professors is a friend of mine (Lurene Cachola Kelley, Ph.D.). The column makes an important point, one that echoes complaints that have been made about TV news for a long time.
It’s too easy for short-staffed television stations to find material to fill newscasts by listening to police scanners. That’s why you see break ins and hold ups and car crashes (and fires too, their calls are also on the scanners). In a much bigger TV market this week, all the local TV news directors met at a meeting of the Atlanta Press Club. The boss at the number one station there defended their coverage of car crashes by saying “because you never know if the mayor is in the car.” Uh, okay.
There are crimes that deserve news coverage. If an elected or appointed official is involved in some malfeasance, or if a there’s a Sanford Financial-type scandal. There are violent crimes that will, on occasion, merit coverage. But to knowingly devote half of the very limited time that a TV newscast has to often mundane coverage is shameful, and as I’ve pointed out on other blogs, just plain lazy. It can also give people, whether visitors or residents, the idea that the area is much more dangerous than it actually is.
An assignment editor in Atlanta told me years ago that the bosses are mesmerized by the “blinky blue lights” on police cars. It is incredibly cost-effective to send a crew to a crime scene to provide limited coverage of a single event, versus allowing a reporter the luxury of time to research and develop a piece that provides some depth to an issue.
Of course, TV news, being the short-term, immediate gratification-based business that it is, managers do not believe they can devote the necessary resources to other types of coverage.
As my friend Joe Larkins pointed out Wednesday in his blog, most of the in-depth reportage provided by local television news is based on work done in other media, usually newspapers.
Most TV news operations start each day with a blank slate, not knowing what the news of the day will be until they’ve gone through the daily paper, news releases, scheduled events and follow ups on previous stories. The hope is usually for some “breaking news” to liven up the rundown. As a former TV producer pointed out in a comment on the Facebook page of one of the article’s authors, that breaking news often comes in the form of a police call.
My friend the professor suggests TV news time would be better spent covering news that would actually provide necessary information and service to viewers. I was involved in an experiment trying to accomplish that once. The CBS affiliate in Atlanta, a perennial cellar dweller in the ratings, attempted a “Good News” approach from 1999 to about 2002. They did research, which showed a vast, untapped reservoir of viewers; people who said they were hungry for news that wasn’t crime, accidents and fires all the time.
Our charge was to provide “clear” news. Information that had provided a specific benefit to the people watching our programs. No crime, unless there was an underlying effort to show people how to protect themselves or obtain more effective service from the police. No accidents, unless it was something causing citywide tie-ups that would affect major portions of the city. We got killed in the ratings. Dashes and hash marks from Nielsen. The 11pm news I supervised did a little bit better, probably due to the network lead-in programming.
We couldn’t get the people who said that’s what they wanted to watch. And of course, we couldn’t get the people already watching other stations to switch. Not in the time alloted by the station’s owners. That, getting people to actually watch what they say they want, will be the biggest impediment for the Memphis stations if they reexamine their dependence on crime-based coverage. News directors and general managers are terrified of losing the audience they have, so they fear dramatic change. Which leads to no change, which is causing the existing audience to slowly find other things to watch.