||Rocky Mountain Media Watch Texts #13|
by John Boak
Local TV news is only one part of television. But it is an important part because it is the civic voice of your local television station. These stations, licensees of our public airways, all claim proudly that they serve the community. But their primary audiences are actually their parent companies' investors. TV stations are captives of a business model based on ratings of the viewing audience. They are doggedly following market logic in a market grossly distorted by the limited supply of airways. What they have learned about grabbing attention during prime time they have applied to their local TV news shows.
Rocky Mountain Media Watch measures the content of local TV news with the help of volunteers who tape local evening new shows around the country. These tapes are then viewed by one of our principals, and the components of the news shows are quantified. We analyze the numbers and write up a report. Our third annual content analysis covers 100 local television newscasts from 55 markets in 35 states. It was taken on Wednesday, February 26, 1997.
What we have found is not earth shaking. If you are like most people, you have actually watched some local TV news. And you may feel that your local TV news is a disappointing simulation of journalism. You may feel that their obsession with violence and crime lacks the elements of quality journalism which seek to orient the audience, not just arouse them. Our research shows local TV news follows a remarkably consistent formula of mayhem and fluff across the country.
Perusing our charts gives you a picture of the formula for Local TV News. A large block of commercials underpins the show financially and spiritually. Weather, sports, anchor chatter and previews of what's coming up later take a substantial block. And then there's the charmingly titled newshole. How big is the newshole? In larger markets it averages 47.5%, with WWOR in New York presenting news for 62 percent of its show. In small markets it averages 35.1%. The average in our sample is 43.1%. And as you can see in this second slide, the formula has been consistent over time in our studies.
Television news showmanship uses emotional arousal as the active ingredient in its quest for audience attention. Therefore we have studied the content of local TV news to discover the percentages of two other components: mayhem and fluff.
Mayhem, in our analysis, consists of war and terrorism, natural or man-made disaster, and crime. The news shows are very bullish on mayhem. Crime gets 33% of this night's news averages. Disaster gets 7.1%. And war pulls in a meager, 1.5%. So the Mayhem index is 41.6% on average. A hefty percentage. But is this too much? The answer to that question lies in the presence or lack of journalistic rigor. But more on that later. For now lets just say that you can count on TV news shows to bring you an apparently random collage of mayhem and violence every night. Mayhem is a precious commodity for the news show's formula. It arouses our simplest brain, the reptilian the brain of fight, flight, blood and territory.
Fluff appeals to the second layer of our tri-partite brains. It is the mammalian or limbic brain. It arranges affection, seeking warmth and relationship. The news show is happy to oblige. We measure fluff by combining the news promos, the anchor chatter, soft news and celebrity news to create a fluff index. On this night it is 32.6%, about a third as much as all the news.
Before leaving Mayhem and Fluff I'd like to complete my comments about the tri-partite brain. Besides the reptilian and mammalian brains, there is third layer. This third brain is the newest and biggest the cerebral cortex. That's where higher thinking goes on.
Though people may learn to favor one brain layer as a dominant seat of their consciousness, no part of the brain is inherently better than another, even though we may describe the reptile brain as the lowest consciousness. A well run brain integrates all three. The fierceness of the reptilian can do wonders when joined with the cerebral cortex and some honorable ideas. Journalism's best traditions favor integration of the 3 seats of consciousness. Violent events can be reported with intelligence and a concern for orienting the citizens. Or they can be simply a part of an unthinking collage of what got pulled in over the transom today.
Our study also makes note of some curious trends. One that grows naturally out of the entertainment industry is the use of cross-promotion as news. On our survey night, six Fox affiliates run, as if it were news, a long piece about an actor in a Fox sit-com who plays a teenager who drinks. The actor is interviewed, interspersed with dramatic clips from the sit-com, talking about teen drinking. The topic may be worthy, but this is promotion not responsible journalism. And it is only one example.
Local TV News does not really have the time or the inclination to engage in a whole lot of journalism. Which brings me to the qualitative side of my criticism. Good Television. The sentence that comes to mind is, "This does not make Good Television." What does that mean? It means that the video or idea in question is going to lose viewers. It means that the idea or images are boring, slow and do not entertain viewers.
The formula of Local TV News is designed to hold viewers attention. It favors arousal through emotionally charged images. It insists upon video that is Good Television. It has no time for material that is not. It does not favor analysis, complexity, depth or use of the human cerebral cortex. Good Television is rooted in the hot responses of the reptilian core of the human brain. Television news shows are in a hurry all day long preparing for their quick show and its hurried newshole. And since it is in such a hurry, Good Television is not going to do much more than push that reptilian button and tickle your limbic. You get your mayhem unalloyed by any higher intelligence. They get your attention and then they move on. The best example of this in our sample is WSVN, the number one ranked station in Miami. Aside from their editorial choices, they also use a variety of showy techniques to up the emotional ante: pulsating music during previews & promos, spooky music for tension during news items, dynamic sound effects, blood-red urgency graphics, telescoping camera work, and, of course, a breathless pace of delivery.
The people who bring us our local TV news are skilled professionals. They work very hard. Their stations' public personae are often that of service to the community. Some of the reporters at our local news operations probably have a fair amount journalistic motivation, and do their best to implement it. But TV news professionalism is not the professionalism of journalism. It is the professionalism of video production. The incentives and work flow are not those of news discovery, gathering, and reporting, but rather those of producing a show. They do not have the time to make numerous interviews using the efficiency of telephones, because the tyranny of video demands that they use up most of their time hauling themselves, a camera crew and a truck out to one chosen interview.
TV news shows do occasionally discover stories on their own. But, according to researchers such as John McManus, there is minimal and diminishing economic reward for story discovery that requires lots of effort. If there were market share to be gained from journalistic excellence, the high profit margins of television (35%-50%) would easily permit expanded journalistic operations. But the returns are just not there. A teeny bit of investigative journalism can suffice for prestige in the hasty world of local TV news. So they favor the use of newspaper stories and public relations initiatives as primary sources of story options. In story selection emotional arousal is favored over orienting or informing the audience. And while stories that orient and inform the viewer may sometimes be coincident with arousing content, journalistic orientation requires larger staff and more effort. Sometimes the effort may be spent, but in the daily grind of producing the show, it often is not. On the last leg of McManus' triad of inquiry the quality of the actual reporting it may be claimed once again that the media companies are not running their news operations for thoroughness. Institutional memory of stories, beats, or communities is minimal and often inaccessible. Relying as they do on the work of newspapers and others, their fact checking procedures are lax. In a business culture where depth doesn't pay, informed editorial oversight of what the nightly collage of images and words are really saying may often be absent. After all, the video news work environment is not a culture of text. And last of all, should story discovery, selection, and reporting efforts all agree with journalistic norms, the habits and culture of video news production may still turn the story into the usual product of emotional arousal by the time it's edited and on the air.
But television's journalistic weaknesses are ultimately irrelevant because television professionals are very good at producing an attention-getting evening show. Local TV news is a successful product. And television executives surely laugh at the thought of changing that product just because it does not please community activists.
Before asking the question "Can anything be done?" let me ask the question "Should anything be done?"
I, personally, would like to change the mediasphere, because I have to live with citizens whose minds swim daily in the flat, simplistic, and post-literate hallucination of television. It has always been hard to sustain citizen participation in the American Democracy. Now the informed citizen is being replaced by the entertained consumer. The preference of television for emotional arousal and speed means that the slower, calmer discourses of democracy are being forgotten. Witness the many people think that the government is something other than us. We are cynical about politicians, who must snuggle up close to big bucks contributors. Why do they need so much soft and hard money? They're not buying villas on the riviera like african dictators. No. They're just buying buckets of expensive TV advertising, all of it Good Television: highly emotional, quick and violent, and an obvious distortion of reality.
The public airways "basic purpose", according to our FCC is "the development of an informed public opinion through the public dissemination of news and ideas concerning the vital public issues of the day." That's not Good Television. Maybe that's McNeil Lehrer. But it's certainly boring. So instead of competition in a marketplace of ideas, we have competition for attention in a claustrophobic marketplace of simple jurassic arousal.
I'd like to make some other comments about the nature of television before coming to my concluding remarks. What I have been saying about local TV news applies to all of commercial television. The size of the audiences necessary to please shareholders in media companies means that TV does best by delivering simple arousal unalloyed with intelligence or higher consciousness. There is a smoothing process that occurs when trolling for big, broad audiences, a process that cuts out the interests of smaller audiences and communities. And when they say, "This is what the market wants!" please remember that we are talking about a very distorted market the limited supply of broadcast airways.
Violence in the media is a big subject and can be very confusing to think about. After all, there is also a lot of violence in the great literature of the world. Is there any difference between literature and TV fiction? Well, for one, reading is a private act. It also involves the active decoding of abstract symbols. So you've got your top brain at work to begin with. Literature is also the product of an individual not corporate committees and teams. So it is more likely to have a thorough moral perspective and the kind of complexity that the real world has. Literature explains. With television there is little need for the cerebral cortex to be involved at all. In fact that is part of television's appeal. As Jean-Luc Godard has said, "TV is made to forget." It is fast and replaceable. Literature is not. And television is not private. Television pours out into your environment. The TV habits that serve adult interests spill out into the lives of children.
When we consider the lives of children the issues of violent content seem very serious. Violence sells itself as the great solver of problems on television. Many of us believe that TV's addiction to stylish violence is the wrong lesson repeated far too often.
When we consider the life of the very young it becomes even more obvious that TVland is not appropriate. Yet many people routinely use television and VCRs as babysitting service because it works so well. But content is not really the biggest issue here. Television watching replaces a child's natural, unstructured discovery of the world. It is the young child's daily job to make contact with the physical world: to touch it, taste it, hold it, see it, smell it, and manipulate it; and to do it in their own personally chosen sequence of discovery. When they replace this active, intelligence-enhancing way of living with the passive absorption of pre-programmed video, they are losing out. Obviously the question of how much has to be resolved individually, but less is clearly better.
The issue of replacement of useful activity applies to adults too, with direct consequences for crime prevention. I am going to say this briefly but it may be the most important thing I can say today. America watches a lot of television. Television watching replaces civic participation. And yet community connections are the vital fabric of civic safety and social order.
Can we do anything about it? Of course! Everything changes. And the literate and active have always gotten the good ideas out. But first we must remember that TV works. It is a successful product. People watch it. Action for change then rests in the minds and hands of the citizens. You must change what you do day to day in your own private and civic life.
Since we are individuals our style of activism will vary. You can aid citizens in rejecting the powerless acceptance of television. Some people are good with organizational life. These people will be drawn to such interesting and innovative change agents as Citizens News Councils to create very public criticism of media excess. Other citizens may see their opportunity in working with existing institutions such as churches, clubs, professional organizations and foundation-funded initiatives. Because of my own artist-recluse personality, I am most comfortable working for small informational groups such as our Rocky Mountain Media Watch, and creating critical literature such as the "ads" you will find in my handouts. These ads for ideas are intended be xeroxed, faxed and spread to the four corners of the world. If you lose your copies you can download them as PDF files from my website (www.boakart.com) under the title, AD ABOUT TV. You can also write your own and have your designer friends turn them into visually convincing ads. The advertisement is the norm for persuasion in the late 20th century, and our technology makes it easy and cheap to put the form to use.
Second, remember that the TV stations license those airways from us. A broadcast license is a goldmine. And the media company's do their mining at our discretion. The power of the citizen to influence licensing is limited but real. Section 204 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires broadcasters to keep in their files for public inspection, and attach to their files for license renewal, a record of all letters received from the public that comment on violent programming. If you think there's too much shallow violence on you local station, please do your civic duty and send in that letter. Write early and write often.
To return to local TV news again, KVUE in Austin, Texas is breaking new ground to reduce gratuitous crime reporting. In response to focus groups indicating citizens are fed up with violent newscasts, KVUE has adopted specific guidelines for reducing the reporting of sensational crime stories. Unless there is a significant impact or threat to the community, or some specific action that people need to take to protect themselves or their children, KVUE will not air the crime story.
And last, lets not forget what comes first: our own homes and families. The amount of time you spend in TV land determines to what extent you are living in that curious mass hallucination of late twentieth-century Earth. And you are modeling this behavior for children. All issues of content pale before the simple fact that television replaces so many good things in human life, not the least of which are civic participation and communication with your own family.