In my previous column I asked why local TV news spent so much time covering crime stories. One reason could be that Louisville has an unusual amount of crime, but as I showed, that’s not the case. Another reason could be that crime stories are very easy for TV news to cover.
As 24-hour cable news has become more prominent over the years, local TV news stations have come under pressure to produce a lot more content. If you’ve followed local TV news for many years, you’ve noticed that they keep adding hours to their daily schedule in the form of additional news shows and/or expanded existing shows. The time used by actual news stories on these shows (as opposed to promos, commercials, chatter between anchors, and so on) is known as news hole. As any TV producer can tell you, the news hole is a voracious and unforgiving maw that cannot be ignored. On days with heavy news flow—a constant stream of significant, newsworthy stories—the news hole is easily filled with items of local, national or international significance. But that news hole must be filled on slow news days too. A half-hour news show has somewhere around 22-27 minutes of airtime to fill after all the commercial time is sold. Why not fill that airtime with stories that are relatively easy to cover?
Crime stories are easy for several reasons. First, most of them require very little enterprise on the part of journalists because the story ideas come in over the police scanner or in the form of press releases from police and prosecutors. Second, the visuals are easy to obtain: just shoot some yellow police tape, flashing red and blue lights, distraught victims, and a wide shot of the crime scene. If the story’s about a court case, there’s all the file footage from the crime scene to use plus the perp walk and courtroom video. Third, soundbites are a piece of cake because there’s usually a spokesperson from the prosecutor’s office or police at the scene whose job is feeding information to journalists, and victims are frequently willing to discuss their ordeals on camera. Compared to more sophisticated, in-depth reporting, these types of crime stories are a breeze.
For quite some time now, academic observers have noticed that TV news stations around the country seem obsessed with crime, so it’s not an issue unique to the Louisville media market. I would argue that it’s an institutional feature of the medium—given the time constraints, economic pressures, and specific storytelling techniques inherent in TV news, someone who had never seen a 5 p.m. newscast before could reasonably predict that crime stories, even ones that were not strictly newsworthy, would be emphasized out of proportion to their actual significance.
However, the fact that crime stories mesh neatly with the demands of this particular medium doesn’t let TV journalists off the hook. We have to recognize that the institutional conditions in local TV news that encourage overreporting on crime can be changed. For example, WDRB emphasizes business and the economy far more than crime. WDRB’s news director Barry Fulmer credited the station’s focus on “proper context” and a decreased emphasis on breaking news. Stations that try to constantly emphasize “breaking news” to viewers often have no choice but to bump up less-newsworthy crime stories for the sake of consistency and bragging rights. Fulmer also told me that WDRB stood by their coverage decisions despite the fact that “crime coverage drives viewership” — an idea that the general managers of WHAS and WLKY endorsed.
In an email to me, WLKY’s GM Glenn Haygood argued that his station, which aired a larger percentage of crime stories than any other station in town, selects stories with “the highest viewer interest” and suggested that WLKY’s ratings victories justify those decisions. Linda Danna, GM at WHAS, also said that the emphasis on crime stories at her station stems from viewer interest and described crime stories as information their audience needs due to “crime rates on the rise.”
WAVE’s general manager Ken Selvaggi disagreed with the idea that viewer interest justifies exaggerated coverage. Upon being informed of WAVE’s overemphasis on crime stories, Selvaggi told me that crime “is not the most important concern and shouldn’t disproportionately populate our newscast time.” Selvaggi agreed that viewers can expect to see changes in WAVE’s coverage of crime stories as a result.
While it may be true that many viewers crave crime stories, that higher ratings mean higher ad rates, and that TV news stations are owned by companies with obligations to increase profits for investors, it is also true that journalists have a separate and more important obligation to serve the community. An overemphasis on crime stories of little to no news value does not serve the public’s interest and may in fact cause harm.
One potential harm is increased fear of crime: people who watch a lot of crime on TV (whether in the form of crime dramas like Law & Order and CSI or in the form of news programs) are more likely to be afraid of crime, often out of proportion to the actual incidence of crime in their community. Furthermore, people who fear crime are more likely to hold punitive attitudes toward criminals, or people they perceive as criminals; research shows that white viewers of the “crime script” in TV news are especially likely to experience negative attitudes about African-Americans. In practice, this means that the overemphasis on crime stories could potentially translate to the greater harm of real-world injustices as fearful citizens implore elected officials to do something about a nonexistent crime epidemic.
The bottom line is that even if crime stories are easy to cover and earn good ratings, Louisville’s TV news stations ought to resist the temptation to devote so much airtime to them. Not only does this emphasis fail to meet the standards of journalism, it may potentially have a negative impact on the community.
This is the second part of a column that ran Friday. Read Louisville TV News Focuses on Crime Above All.
James Miller is WFPL’s media critic and a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School.