Local TV Feeds on Muck and Mayhem
Halfway through a long string of reports on violent crime, death, and other assorted mayhem, the ominous word "HOMICIDE" screamed out from behind the head of KTBC ("Fox-7") anchor Stephanie Rochon. Accompanying that was an equally pulse-quickening graphic of a chalk body outline. A body had been found in a trailer home in southwest Austin. The mood was set: Foul doings, the viewer could quickly assume, were afoot this night in the Capital City. Well, maybe not that foul. Rochon would eventually admit that police in fact didn't know how the man had died. It was still under investigation. And the next night, we received an update: In fact, um, there wasn't any foul play at all. Turns out that the man just died of natural causes. The chalk outline graphic was now changed to simply read "Body found." Yawn. Just another name for the obit page - the kind of plain, unremarkable death that most of us, if we're lucky, will eventually have. So why all the fuss? Why whip up this excitement before waiting to find out if it is actually a newsworthy story?
Because television news editors are obsessed. They have a preoccupation with death and crime, particularly the violent variety. And any sort of violence, really. Anything that might touch a raw, emotional nerve, something sensational which, at least theoretically, will draw in the viewers.
As the previous "Media Clips" noted, local television news broadcasts around the nation spend a disproportionate amount of time covering crime, violence, disasters, death, and other mayhem, regardless of whether the story is actually relevant to the lives of the viewers. (One exception is Austin's KVUE-24, with its much-celebrated policy which mandates that a crime story must have such relevance before airing.)
Meanwhile, news that the public really needs - examinations of government, corporate malfeasance, and the environment, to name a few topics - get little or no airtime. To make it worse, the news programs - which generally only have about 12 minutes per half-hour broadcast devoted to news, with the rest going to sports, weather, and commercials - squander much of that time on fluff stories about celebrities, promotional pieces for the network's prime-time programming, and banal chatter between the anchors.
Media activists have documented these trends for many years, and claim that the situation only gets worse over time. The most celebrated condemnation of the situation has been the Rocky Mountain Media Watch's (RMMW) annual "day in the life" study of TV news. Since 1995, the Denver-based group has picked one day of each year to record 100 stations from 55 markets, and then compared, contrasted, measured, and critiqued the results. The most recent study, conducted on Feb. 26, 1997, found that 44.4% of that day's news time was devoted to crime, disaster, or soft news. The report singled out KVUE for praise, with no crime stories that night, while noting that KTBC and KXAN-36 spent half of that day's news block on crime.
Inspired by RMMW, The Austin Chronicle recently conducted a similar study to measure the four news stations here. Our methodology was a bit different: We observed five broadcasts from each of the four stations between January 12-20. Such viewing - and then going back through 10 hours of tape - is pretty punishing. One has to be willing to have one's intelligence insulted, to wade through a bunch of inane sensationalism before getting to any useful news (which in some cases never arrives), and to endure sloppy reporting which often fails to tell the whole story.
We grouped the news into four very broad categories: "Mayhem" (covering the assorted violence named above), "government" (everything from legislative matters down to announcements of road closings by the city), "fluff," and "other."
We then broke down the raw time measurements to look at the quality of the reporting in each category. After all, spending time on a hard news topic doesn't do the news consumer any good if the reporting is shoddy or incomprehensible - and by the same token, the "mayhem" reporting could actually impart some useful knowledge. All of the broadcasts examined were on weekdays, when stations generally have their most experienced reporters at work. Out of sheer charity to the stations, this analysis does not question the amount of time allotted to commercials, weather, and sports. Rather, it accepts the standard TV news format as is, and examines how well the stations work with what they have. However, we'll offer some comments on that at the end of the column.
Surprisingly, the leader in minimizing the raw time devoted to violence and crime over this period was not the top-rated KVUE, but rather KXAN. The NBC affiliate only averaged two minutes and 14 seconds per broadcast. In second place, believe it or not, was K-EYE-42, which has frequently been ridiculed in this column for sensationalistic and fluffy news. The CBS station averaged 3:03 minutes per night. KVUE, the ABC affiliate, clocked in at 3:34 minutes per evening, while the most mayhem-dependent was Fox-7 - whose repution for appalling badness has caught up with K-EYE's - with a whopping 4:19 minutes per broadcast.
It is important to also break this down in percentage of coverage, as well, since KVUE averaged 13:11 minutes each night in total time devoted to news, while the other stations were about a minute less. By that measure, KVUE was virtually even with K-EYE (27% and 25%, respectively), while KXAN kept the crime and violence down to 19% of its news slot, and Fox-7 spent almost twice that, 36%.
An important factor to keep in mind: The intense scrutiny of Karla Faye Tucker's impending execution had barely begun during these weeks, with most reports averaging no more than 30 seconds each, so that story probably did not skew the results upward too much.
This category is very generous. If a story involved government or public policy in any way, but didn't fall under the category of violent crime, it was thrown into government. (This is probably more generous than critics like the RMMW or Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting would allow.) Aside from obvious legislative matters, this category includes announcements of city crews closing off roadways, the Pope's challenge to Castro's dictatorship in Cuba, and Oprah Winfrey being assaulted by Texas' ludicrous "veggie libel" laws. The only story in this category which could have skewed results upward was the Texas vs. Big Tobacco settlement; the Clinton/Lewinsky fiasco did not break until the day after the last of these samples.
KVUE topped the list in total time devoted to government coverage, averaging 6:44 per broadcast over KXAN's 6:20. However, KXAN slightly edged the ABC affiliate on percentages, 53% to 51%. Fox-7, not surprisingly, brought up the rear at 4:19, and 37%, only slightly more time than was devoted to crime and violence.
Of miscellaneous news categories - most notably health, which figures prominently in all of the stations' reportage - all four stations ranged between 20% (KVUE) and 28% (KXAN).
Ah yes, that hallmark of television journalism, "soft news." You know: celebrities, silliness, etc. Not surprisingly, K-EYE led the way, spending 5% of its time on such not-so-crucial topics as: lottery results (why not show this at 9:58, before the news, like some other stations do?), Fortune magazine's list of "most generous" philanthropists, and an Austin man who missed a chance to win a million dollars in a field goal kicking contest. The fact that this figure was so low was a bit of a surprise - remember, this is the station that has devoted weeklong series to exposing magicians' tricks (see "Media Clips," May 2, 1997) and showing off Austin's luxury homes.
Of course, this is the most debatable category: We classified news about inductions into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, aired by three stations, under fluff (we can get this news from Rolling Stone, why waste precious local news time?) but some people might see it as culturally noteworthy. By the same token, we put a report by KXAN's Jim Swift on an Elgin business which produces African-style drums under "other news," but debated a fluff classification. We finally decided it was of at least minor (very minor) noteworthiness, due its local angle and the uniqueness of the topic. O.J. Simpson was categorized under violent crime.
And K-EYE had a story which could have gone under "government," but instead was relegated to fluff by the manner in which they tackled it. Announcing John Glenn's planned return to outer space, K-EYE asked what this meant to the elderly. Not a bad question, but their "report" consisted of talking to two elderly Austin gentlemen, one who thought it was great, and another who thought it was a bad idea. Such "man-on-the-street" opinion-gathering is ultimately worthless, completely un-informative. The story was better handled by KVUE: Although their report was mostly positive, they did at least mention critics' charges that the event may be a mere promotional stunt for NASA. But whether clearly or marginally fluffy, and no matter how one categorizes it, one thing is clear: "Soft news" is a waste of both reporters' and viewers' time, and should be reduced to zero percent.
Quality and Quantity
Such handling or mishandling of a report is, of course, the real story here. Statistics and time counts are all ultimately meaningless if a reporter misses the point, does a poor job of conveying information, or focuses on the trivial details instead of big concepts. Quality is harder to measure, as well. Every day, reporters and news directors must debate what is newsworthy and what gets dropped.
We have mentioned KVUE's criteria for covering crime: Is there a significant impact on or threat to the community? Is there a specific action that viewers need to take to protect themselves or their children? KVUE would do well to consider similar criteria for violent sensationalism in general. They joined KXAN and Fox-7 in airing a video of a boat which accidentally exploded during a fire-safety demonstration for lifeguards. The incident ultimately injured no one, and it was way the hell off in San Diego - in other words, completely irrelevant to anything. So why show it? Because the fireball knocking the lifeguard on his back and the boats rushing out to save him made for exciting video footage. Nothing more. Save it for the Cops-style shows.
But that paled in comparison to K-EYE's attention to an experimental plane crash which claimed the life of a Williamson County man. The marginally newsworthy story (yes, his death is tragic, but no more so than the many people who die in unreported auto wrecks and murders every day) drew a three-minute report from K-EYE, asking how safe the planes are and sending a reporter up in one to "investigate." Given that very few people fly such aircraft, who cares? KXAN also wasted an inordinate amount of time on this story.
What about our statistical leader, Fox-7? Yes, the high numbers translated into bad coverage. In addition to the not-quite-homicide mentioned at the beginning of this article, we were told about several shootings, a woman and her child being hit by a car, the first execution of the year, and the first murder of the year, but nothing about how Williamson County has one of the lowest crime rates in the state for a county of its size.
Better crime/violence reporting came in KVUE's examination of the high turnover rate among 911 operators, largely due to job stress. Given that almost all of us will probably have to dial for emergency help at some time in our lives, this is useful stuff - it makes viewers aware of a problem that may impact their lives, and may lead people to look for solutions, either directly or through their political representatives.
But lest this sound like a promotional spot for KVUE, we must ask: With what is the mayhem being replaced? Former KVUE anchor Bob Karstens, who said he had qualms about the crime policy when it went into effect, recently told the Chronicle, "We weren't replacing it with hard news. I saw well-intentioned but soft news replacing the hard crime coverage."
In one KVUE story on a possible sale of state land to the city, some crucial information was left out. The report featured an interview with former Austin mayor Jeff Friedman - but unless you are familiar with Austin politics, you wouldn't know it, because Friedman was never identified. Equally important, his connection to the sale was never explained. KVUE might as well have been interviewing strangers on the street as far as many viewers were concerned.
In a similar vein, KVUE and K-EYE both made mention of the recent report by the ICF Kaiser consulting company, commissioned by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which detailed the strategy Austin must take to capitalize on its recent boom economy. While both did touch - albeit only lightly - on the historic consensus between the environmental and business communities, neither station mentioned ICF Kaiser by name! (KVUE did name the employee of ICF who authored the report.)
And good information can often be made better: Yes, it was informative for K-EYE to tell us that Gov. Bush has raised $8 million and Garry Mauro $800,000 for the gubernatorial race, but why not go on to ask who is supplying this money? And why the huge disparity between the two candidates' coffers? That's where the real story lies.
These are all questions and facts that people in the TV news business need to consider, and Austin is as good a place as any to start. KVUE made a good start with the crime policy, but more can be done, including by that station. There are structural questions that ought to be asked, as well. Why is everyone locked into the standard 30-minute format, with about half news and a quarter each devoted to weather and sports? Has any station contemplated an hour-long news program?
Imagine this: Expand to a full hour, leaving sports and weather about the same (or perhaps less; the time devoted to weather is absurd). Assuming that a little over 30% of the time will still go towards commercials, that leaves about 35 minutes (assuming they cut out the silly between-story banter) for hard news. Imagine in-depth interviews with the city's policy-makers and activists, and detailed examinations of important issues that lasted five minutes or more, contrasted with the usual three-and-a-half-minute maximum on really big stories, or the more typical 15-30 seconds for others. Such a concept could easily work for most 6pm broadcasts (all are followed by nothing but syndicated programming), and Fox-7 could lead the way at 10pm, since it doesn't face the network time constraints which Jay Leno, Dave Letterman, and Ted Koppel place on the other three.
And why is so much time devoted to weather? Does anyone really care about anything other than what tomorrow's temperature will be, and whether it will rain? Heck, weathermen aren't even necessary during Texas summers (Here's this year's May-September forecast: Hot, 20% chance of rain.)
Austin's television news isn't as bad as it could be (ask anyone who lives in a major market about this). But it's still bad. At worst, it's silly and sensationalistic. At best, it's only marginally informative. Austin has one of America's most intelligent populations, and one of its most politically active - if there is any population which could make good use of empowering information, it is this one. It's time for our news outlets to recognize this.