There are a lot of questions that go into determining what makes a good news story: Does it affect a significant percentage of area citizens? Will it have a significant impact on those citizens? Does it shed light on a larger issue affecting the entire community? Does it help explain the status quo, or does it depict an interesting or enlightening departure from the status quo? Does it illuminate the human condition in some meaningful way?
But sometimes it seems like one of the most significant questions that local television stations use for determining the news value of a story is “Do we have video of it?”
If you’ve watched local TV news for any length of time, you’ve seen plenty of stories that would have never made it on the air if the station did not have B-roll. How about a freight train derailment in North Dakota with no injuries? There were more than 10,000 train accidents in 2012; why was this particular derailment worthy of coverage on Louisville TV news?
The answer, in both cases, is because there was video.
This may help explain why WAVE ran a “news story” about a fight at Mall St. Matthews near the spot where children lined up to have their picture taken with Santa Claus. Is this story newsworthy on its own? Maybe it’s appropriate for WorldStarHipHop.com, but does it really serve any recognized principle of journalism on a local television news station? (WAVE news director Bill Shory chose not to reply to this question.)
Just like World Star fight videos, the WAVE “news story” went viral. Search Google for WAVE’s headline “Fight breaks out near Santa’s booth” and you’ll find websites around the country that linked to the video. Only a handful of those sites represent local TV news stations (who are simply participating in the cycle of “reporting on this video because we have this video”); many of them are humor sites or extremist political sites. That’s unsurprising, because while the video does not serve any journalistic purpose, it does feed into two ongoing social currents. The first is simple racism, which obviously predates both the Internet and local television news; the second is voyeuristic schadenfreude, a phenomenon that has been greatly empowered by the Internet.
Although I don’t think that anyone at WAVE is deliberately contributing to these poisonous elements in our society, I’m certain (and media researchers agree) that every non-newsworthy video story depicting cruelty or violence that makes it onto the air does make things a little bit worse in terms of distorting public perceptions of crime and safety.
James Miller is WFPL’s media critic and a journalism teacher at duPont Manual High School. You can find his past work here.