A frequent complaint about local television news is the daily dose — many say overdose — of crime news. It's the old "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality that still pervades many newsrooms. Shootings, robberies, drug busts, and school disturbances fill the airwaves every day.
Studies have found that this so-called "mayhem" coverage can create anxiety in viewers about safety and danger in their communities that is disproportionate with actual crime figures.
What I'm getting at is one of the dirty secrets of local TV news in cities big, medium, and small: that crime stories are so prevalent because they are so easy to cover. Stations that boast about complete and comprehensive coverage of their market areas are not being truthful with themselves, or more importantly, their viewers.
The size of most local TV newsgathering staffs — reporters and videographers primarily — are a fraction of that of their city's main daily newspaper. So the broadcast journalists are spread thin but have to produce quantities of stories every day. Thus, they rarely have the time to work on harder to come by, more in-depth and thoughtful stories that their print brethren often are able to pursue.
Crime stories are the down-and-dirty quick fix of local TV. The daily police and fire department phone calls are a mainstay of any broadcast newsroom. There's also a macho competitiveness at work — nobody wants to miss a shooting, stabbing, or car wreck that the other stations may have and you don't. Crime beat reporters out to "protect your safety" get hyped endlessly in station ads and promos. (I'll be the first to admit I could chase an ambulance or cop car with the best of them during my four gigs as a television station reporter/anchor.)
Here in Charleston, news stations don't just cover new crimes, they dredge up old ones. Lowcountry "Most Wanted" lists take up precious air time. Unsolved crimes and "cold cases" are repackaged with passion. Channel 4 recently launched a regular South Carolina Cold Case segment that often sensationalizes its stories with dramatic music and close-ups of crying victim's relatives.
Several years ago, in the course of rewriting and expanding its highly regarded code of ethics for broadcast journalists, the Radio-Television News Directors Association held focus groups around the country to ask people what they liked and disliked about local radio and television news.
At the top of the dislike list was tragedy reporting: the "How do you feel?" questions — tactless and tasteless intrusions into grieving families. Next, the respondents said they were frustrated by sensational and melodramatic reporting. They also railed against "beating a dead horse" saturation coverage.
And what did these news watchers say they liked about local radio and TV? The top eight topics included stories about children doing good things, local community coverage, consumer investigations, issue-oriented political coverage, and providing a sense of community.
Crime coverage wasn't even on the "like list" — not current crime and certainly not long-ago forgotten "cold" crimes. So here's a message to local TV news crews: cover crime if there's something new to report — if it's really news. In the meantime, let's see more coverage of what people say they actually want to see on TV. Put your "crime time" to better use. As John F. Kennedy once said, "Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth."
Patrick Harwood teaches media courses at the College of Charleston