Each October, journalism students at duPont Manual High School watch 20 days of local television news, categorize the types of stories they see, and compile the results. In my second and third columns for WFPL, I discussed their main finding from October 2012, which is that local TV news is swamped with crime coverage.
Here’s how it works: the students watch one nightly news program from the four local TV news stations — WAVE, WHAS, WLKY, and WDRB — and also read section A of the C-J. When collecting data, the students omit any weather or sports stories unless they were treated as regular news and not confined to a particular section of the newscast. For example, when Chane Behanan was suspended from the University of Louisville’s basketball team, most local TV stations reported it in the very first segment of their shows or even made it their top story, and so it was tallied in the total. But if they had reported Behanan’s suspension during the sports-only part of the broadcast, it would not have been counted.
The study was originally meant to evaluate the content of the local TV stations using the Courier-Journal only as a point of comparison. Since other news outlets either aren’t daily (LEO Weekly, Louisville magazine) or don’t have a daily show dedicated exclusively to local news (WFPL, 84 WHAS), it didn’t make sense to include them in the survey.
When Manual students repeated the study in October of 2013, they discovered that local TV news shows are still dominated by crime stories. In fact, they’re now spending even more time on crime.
Once again WLKY’s percentage of crime stories was far larger than any other station’s. Back in October 2012, crime stories were 37 percent of their 6 p.m. show; this time over half (52 percent) of their 6 p.m. show’s news stories during this 20-day period in October were about crimes. WHAS was not far behind, with 49 percent of their 6 p.m. show’s stories devoted to crime-related topics.
Every local news source that was part of the survey devoted more of their time and resources to crime stories this year, and although this increase could be partially attributed to the high-profile criminal trials in the region (David Camm and William Clyde Gibson, for example), there’s not much reason to devote anywhere from one-third to one-half of news product to crime stories.
Louisville is not experiencing a massive crimewave (see the FBI Uniform Crime Reports), and even if it were, these stories are largely not about unsolved crimes but about the petty details of criminal trials and arrests. As I explained previously, this obsession with and reliance upon crime stories is bad for the community because it increases fear, paranoia, and prejudice.
Is it possible that crime stories are prominent because they were the only important thing happening in our community? Absolutely not. During this same 20-day period in October, many of our national elected officials played significant roles in the drama of the federal government shutdown. The 2014 Senate race was already under way, with plenty of back-and-forth between Mitch cConnell, Alison Lundergan Grimes, and Matt Bevin. And yet local TV news stations spent very little time talking about political issues of any kind, and except for WHAS, they all spent less time on stories about business and the economy.
Every station representative that agreed to comment on the record attributed the increase in crime coverage to the Camm and Gibson trials. WDRB’s vice president Barry Fulmer said that he considered his station’s coverage to be an “official record” of the trial. WAVE’s news director Bill Shory agreed that his station’s numbers were “skewed by the Camm and Gibson trials,” but also correctly pointed out that WAVE had fewer crime stories overall and the smallest percentage increase than any other station. This is consistent with WAVE general manager Ken Selvaggi’s statement, reported in my last column on this topic, that his station was actively planning to air fewer crime stories.
As I had previously explained, TV stations cover so much crime because of the particular demands of the medium and the pressures of daily broadcasts. As Shory told me, “It’s really easy to cover crime. You just show up, point a camera, and the rest takes care of itself.” And certainly there was a great deal of community interest in those stories, and I would guess that the stations probably enjoyed higher ratings and website hits as a result of their intense coverage of these cases. But audience interest can’t be the sole justification for journalism’s focus on a particular story, otherwise local TV news would be filled with bikini contests, celebrity beer pong, and viral wedding videos. The fact is, journalism is about keeping an eye on power, storytelling with a purpose, and informing citizens about things that actually have an impact on their communities—not about endless sordid details of lurid crimes.
Although I think we can all agree that the outcomes of the trials were important, I would be interested in hearing from any station manager or news director who would like to argue that all the tiny details of the Camm and Gibson trials were actually newsworthy in the sense of being useful to our community. In fact, I would be more than happy to engage in a public debate over whether or not news coverage of individual crimes does more harm than good.
Readers interested in the survey data can see the 2013 local TV news data here and the 2012 data here; readers interested in examples of good journalism from local media should follow @LKYMedia on Twitter.
James Miller is WFPL’s media critic and a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School. You can find his past work here.
(Image via Shutterstock)