Local TV News

Can the late evening television news get any worse? I put this question recently to some television news reporters who rolled their eyes and together said “not much worse.”

Three national consulting firms have convinced most local television news executives that the formula of pursuing tragedy (street crime and natural disasters) and trivia (chitchat, fluff and tidbits) produces profits.

These late news programs are profitable, but are they “news” programs? Once you subtract the time for commercials, sports, weather and chitchat, there is not much time left for news. And then what dominates the news night after night?

Almost typically was the news broadcast on the night of September 20, 1995 when WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. devoted 69 percent of its late night newscast to street crime, violence, disasters, and “fluff”. Fluff, defined as anchor chatter, teasers, celebrity stories or dedicated “factoids” having no bearing on peoples daily lives such as “Cat stuck in a septic tank” amounted to about 30 percent of the newscast.

Between April 1995 and February 1996, my associate, Hayden Roberts, watched at random thirty Washington, D.C., local television news shows shown either at 11 p.m. or 10 p.m. He found that 75 percent of the combined news stories on the four major local network affiliates were either about violent crimes or disasters. Over half the newscasts surveyed led with stories involving assault, robbery or homicide. Forty six percent of the crimes and disasters covered occurred outside the D.C. area.

A visiting Martian watching these newscasts would think that little else happens in Washington other than street crimes, disasters, movies, weather and sports. This, after all, is the nation’s capital where events in the business, government, educational, labor and civic arenas occur regularly. Yet, night after night, the newscasts open with the police blotter and grisly scenes and sirens which meet part of the consulting firms’ formula which is “if it bleeds, it leads”. Stories about violence, sex, addiction and distant storms provide the action that the camera thrives on.

On the other hand, (“if it thinks it stinks,”) the negative side of the consultants’ formula — leaves out a great deal of what used to be considered news. Sure, the stations have the obligatory City Hall or local government story. But the larger community’s activities are usually off the screen.

Basically, all the stations’ newscasts we observed use roughly the same format: a series of short news segments followed by weather and sports with three or four, two and an half minute, advertising breaks. There were evenings where more time was devoted to commercials than to all “news” stories. One evening, WRC spent more time on weather/sports than on actual news in that thirty minute newscast.

The weather segment invites caricature with its teasers, historic comparisons, remote geographic weather patters but little information on daily air pollution quantities. The station meteorologist now appears three times during the half hour.

Weather, sports and street crime action have been dominating these news shows. The best investigative segments are reserved for the ratings sweeps to get the largest audience for the advertisers to acknowledge with their dollars.

If solid investigative pieces are good for ratings periods why not run them throughout the year? The stations prefer not to spend the money on the camera crews, reporters and other related expenses, that’s why.

Max Frankel, former editor and now columnist for the New York Times has devoted three full columns in the past year alone to poor local news coverage. In one article, he wrote, “I think that too few of the owners look up from the bottom line to actually watch what is offered the community in their name. They should be challenged to defend their newscasts and prove their respect for the community.”

Well said. Now, let the stations hear more from the viewers.

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