Just a few weeks after my last column on Louisville television news’ focus on crime, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism published their annual State of the News Media report. The report confirms the assertions in my column: local stations are adding more hours to their news programming even as viewership declines, and crime stories dominate local TV news. The Pew study included weather and sports stories; when my students collected their data, they omitted those two topics if the stories aired during show blocks exclusively reserved for them. Once you remove weather and sports from Pew’s data, crime is the number one topic.
Pew also found that nearly one-third of Americans are no longer following a particular news source—whether it was local TV station, cable news show, newspaper, or magazine—because it stopped meeting their needs for news. This may have been especially true during the 2012 election cycle when news organizations were more likely to simply repeat the claims of political partisans instead of actually investigating and reporting on the candidates. According to Pew:
In the 2012 race, only 27% of statements in the media about the character and records of the presidential candidates originated with journalists, while roughly twice that many came from political partisans. That is a reversal from a dozen years earlier when half came from journalists and a little more than one-third came from the campaigns.
Perhaps the reason that so many people are turning away from traditional news sources is that they are disappointed with the political coverage. Journalists—local and otherwise—have a fundamental duty to act as watchdogs, or guardians against abuse of power. Political reporting is an essential part of this, and that reporting must consist of aggressively challenging the claims of powerful people without partisan bias. It’s more than simply repeating the competing claims of Republicans and Democrats, or providing equal airtime for “both sides of the story.” As Jim Emerson of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote:
“Objectivity” does not mean he said/she said reporting without good, old-fashioned fact-checking — which is where the major news organizations have failed us so badly in recent years. If somebody says, “It’s 72 degrees Fahrenheit in this room,” and his opponent says, “No, it’s 43 degrees Fahrenheit in this room,” you don’t just report each statement and leave it at that. You check a thermometer.
My prescription for local news organizations concerned about audience retention: spend more time checking the thermometer. Don’t just tell us what This Side and That Side claim; find out if the claims are true. Citizens appreciate investigative reporting and watchdog journalism, even if the accountants upstairs fret over the extra time and expense.
James Miller is WFPL’s media critic and a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School.