Rocky Mountain Media Watch Texts & Press Releases #5


1998 National Survey: Not In The Public Interest

  Press Release 8/4/98
Not in the Public Interest: Executive Summary
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Press Release

Survey Examines Excesses and Improvements in Local TV Newscasts Across the U.S.

For Immediate Release:
Tuesday, August 4, 1998

Contact: Paul Klite (303) 832-7558

Denver, August 4 (RMMW) - Coverage of violent events averaged just over 40 per cent of all the news in Rocky Mountain Media Watch's fourth annual snapshot survey of local television news across the U. S. The report, entitled Not in the Public Interest, released today, analyzes the content of March 11 newscasts on 102 stations in 52 metropolitan areas, and presents detailed examples of good and bad journalism.

Stations KVUE, Austin, NECN (New England Cable News), Boston, KTCA, Twin Cities and KTVU, San Francisco are commended for presenting quality programs that provide empowering information ro viewers. Conversely, stations, KSAZ, Phoenix, WSB, Atlanta, WOOD, Grand Rapids and KNBC, Los Angeles are among those identified as broadcasting shows that were overloaded with mayhem.

"The report focuses our concern that most local TV newscasts have abandoned the public interest in the race for ratings," said Paul Klite, RMMW Executive Director."It is also exciting to see a few stations are breaking the tabloid mold." Other findings are:

--The news is out of balance on many stations, with an over-emphasis on crime and disaster coverage. This pattern is consistent over a four year span.

--Important issues, like education, the environment, poverty, arts, science, labor, growth, transportation and governance, are neglected in newscasts.

--Women and minorities are under-represented as anchors and sources on programs.

--Entertainment tactics have invaded the news. Sensationalism and hype generate emotion (arousal), but do not inform citizens about their communities.

--Newscasts average one-fourth as much fluff and triviality as news.

--Fifteen stations broadcast more commercials than actual news.

RMMW is a non-profit activist organization seeking better TV news for a stronger democracy. The complete report, available from RMMW, calls on station owners, journalists, the FCC and citizens to demand improvement of the quality of local TV news. An executive summary of Not in the Public Interest is on RMMW's web site at\rmmw.

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1998 National Survey: Local TV New in America, March 11, 1998

Not In The Public Interest: Executive Summary




One hundred and two local TV newscasts from 52 U.S. metropolitan areas, all taped on March 11, 1998, are analyzed for content and presentation. Rocky Mountain Media Watch's fourth annual national survey examines what is in the news, what is not and why, and highlights examples of good and bad journalism. The major findings and conclusions are:

-- The news is seriously and consistently out of balance on most stations, with a heavy emphasis on crime, disaster, hype, triviality and commercials.

-- Many issues, like education, the environment, poverty, arts, science, labor, AIDS and governance are neglected in newscasts.

-- Women and minorities are under-represented as anchors and sources on newscasts.

-- Sensational reporting generates high emotion (arousal) and ratings, but does not inform citizens about the range of important issues facing their communities.

-- This toxic diet of television news is not in the public interest.

Content analysis of the taped newscasts reveals that actual news averages 41.3 per cent of programs. Fifteen stations have more time devoted to commercials than news. There is slightly more actual news (46.4 per cent) in larger markets than medium (39.5 per cent) and smaller cities (37.5 per cent). Seventy-one per cent of all the news is about local or state-wide events, 23 per cent is national in scope and 6 per cent is international news.

Among 26 news topics, crime stories are dominant in the news, comprising 26.9 per cent of the news airtime. There are 525 separate crime stories in the sample, and murder stories (146 separate stories) are the most frequent crime-type discussed in the news, followed by other violent crimes like assault, rape and sexual abuse. "If it bleeds, it leads" remains a truism on local TV news because crime events are dramatic and gain people's attention. Many crime stories produce an intense emotional response in viewers, such as fear, alienation or excitement; these are highly prized reactions by news departments and advertisers. Crimes predictably occur every day and crime reporting has become a routine, a lazy habit, for news departments. Crime rates may be down across the U.S. over the last few years, but not on local television news.

Disaster coverage averages 12.2 per cent of the news. Dramatic video of fires, large and small, plane crashes, car crashes, bus crashes, truck crashes, floods, accidents, power outages, blizzards, explosions, earthquakes and asteroids total 268 stories in the sample. Ninety stations air some disaster news, which is often presented as brief clips under twenty seconds in length. We depend on television to provide up-to-the-minute information about any imminent disaster threats, but the majority of disaster items in the local news have little immediate relevance to our lives. As a news product, these stories are valuable to broadcasters, since natural and man-made disasters can be bizarre, awesome, terrifying and attention-getting, all traits that do well in the ratings.

News about health, government and the economy each average almost 10 per cent of the news. A range of important topics like education, the environment, elections, arts, science, poverty, AIDS, religion, labor and children receive very little coverage on local newscasts. For the fourth year in a row, this pattern of imbalance in the news is so consistent it takes on the trappings of a habit or ritual.

We do note a small group of stations whose newscasts stand out for quality, intelligence and creativity. These include KVUE-TV, Austin, TX , which has strict guidelines for airing crime stories, KTCA-TV, Twin Cities, MN, a PBS Station whose news shows are devoid of tabloid tricks and tactics, NECN, the 24 hour all-news New England Cable Network and KTVU-TV, San Francisco, a FOX affiliate whose broadcast today is notable for the depth of stories and compelling subject matter.

Unfortunately, most newscasts are dominated by excessive reliance on news and features chosen to produce a strong reaction in viewers, what the marketing industry calls "arousal." As McLuhan prophesied, "It takes emotion to move merchandise." Arousal items include violent and sexual cues, hype, exaggeration, over-commercialism and a variety of entertainment devices.

Society has been slow to appreciate exactly how TV brutality effects people. Yes, violence is part of life and part of the news, but it should be handled with care and sensitivity by broadcasters. Hundreds of research studies have shown that viewing savage imagery day after day can negatively influence children' learning, aggression and empathy. Adults, too, are not immune and can become cynical, fearful or desensitized by relentlessly threatening media messages. Many health and educational organizations have spoken out on the cumulative public health impacts of media violence. It can act in ways that resemble a powerful and toxic chemical stimulant. From the ancient Roman Circuses to the Jerry Springer Show, some people "enjoy" the rush of watching violence.. It triggers a sadistic streak that represents a dark side of human nature.

As a way of quantifying the total dose of violent news in any single program, we calculate the "Mayhem Index" of newscasts. The combined airtime given to stories about crime, disaster, war and terrorism is compared to the total amount of news. These news topics have in common a focus on violent events that can elicit powerful reactions from the audience. The average Mayhem Index for all the programs in this sample is 40.2 per cent of the news.

Some of the stations with the highest Mayhem Indexes this day are: KSAZ-TV, Phoenix, AZ, 83.7 per cent, with an almost unrelenting series of crime and disaster stories; WSB-TV, Atlanta, GA. 81.6 per cent; WOOD-TV, Grand Rapids, MI, 77.5 per cent, with a succession of stories about murder, serial killers, assault, sexual deviance, terrorism, fires and floods; KNBC-TV, Los Angeles, 73.5 per cent, consistently near the top for mayhem in all of RMMW's surveys.

In contrast, WAVY-TV, Norfolk, 6.2 per cent, KRON-TV, San Francisco, 8.0 per cent, and KTCA-TV, Twin Cities, 0.0 per cent, score the lowest today for violent content.

There is a joke about television news that anything worth doing is worth overdoing. When it comes to titillation this is certainly the case. The airtime given to chit-chat between anchors, promotions and previews of upcoming stories, the "soft" or trivial news and the items about celebrities is compared to the amount of news to generate the "Fluff Index " of newscasts. The average Fluff Index of the survey is 25.1, meaning that there is one-fourth as much fluff as news.

Some of the memorable soft news today includes a beauty contest in Albania, two new fads - hair tatoos and beer baths, Bill the dog returns home, and a horse is rescued from the mud in California; 27 stations carry this last item.

This just in. An asteroid is on a collision course with Earth according to 18 of the 102 stations. KNBC-TV in Los Angeles reports if it hits us "it will be like setting off two million atomic bombs." KCBS-TV, Los Angeles, says the asteroid "could disrupt civilization." The news anchor does a double-take as he contemplates the enormity of his own words and starts to laugh uncontrollably. (You may remember that the next day, scientists recalculated the asteroid threat and declared it to be remote.) And now this.

About half the stations in the sample broadcast a short update on the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky investigation. The story is presented as a serious criminal matter and today's rumor is that the President may testify before the grand jury. Clinton, shown meeting with the U.N. Secretary General, declines to talk about the scandal, saying "I must do the work the people elected me to do." Many stations replay the videotape showing Clinton and Lewinsky hugging for the umpteenth time. This story is the latest in a line of media feeding frenzies - Menendez, Tonya, Buttafucco, Bobbitt , O.J., JonBenet and now, the best soap opera of all, "The Oval Office" starring you know who. Obsessive coverage of this story seriously detracts from time and resources that could be used to cover other important issues and events.

RMMW surveys measure the gender and ethnicity of each person who appears and speaks in the news. Three-quarters of all the anchor-persons, including weather and sports hosts, are males. So are 70 percent of the experts, authorities and sources whose opinions receive air-time on newscasts. Females comprise 49 percent of all the reporters. Women outnumber men in newscasts as victims.

Minorities are under-represented in positions of authority and power, such as anchor-persons, official sources and reporters. Blacks and Latinos do appear frequently around crime events both as perpetrators and victims. Predominently, viewers see people of color in the news mostly when they've done something wrong, sending a negative message. We have come a long way since the vicious stereotyping days of black-face in the broadcast media but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

We conclude that many of the news choices encounted in this sample are totally arbitrary. On some stations, it seems as if anything and nothing is "news." Choices are often skewed towards items with dramatic video, sensation and triviality. Almost any single newscast will contain examples of the fear of death, violence and catastrophe, a cuddly animal, the sports play of the day, some strong human interest, the vicarious excitement of celebrity, scores of joyful young faces in the ads and a vulgar screaming car salesman. Elements of successful entertainment that have invaded the news, like escape from reality, fantasy, illusion, exaggeration, pandering to emotion, exploitative sex, hype, celebrity, music and humor, are irrelevant, even antithetical, to the idea of news and an informed citizenry. The soul of news is truth, reason, balance and accuracy.

Local TV news content across the country is seriously and chronically skewed. Like other unbalanced diets, over time, it can be unhealthy. A host of significant symptoms have been attributed to distorted TV news, including viewer alienation, cynicism, violent behavior (including copy-cat crimes), intimidation, passivity, ignorance, racial polarization and disempowerment. Together these constitute a toxic stew of pervasive negative influences in our culture.

Television is a central force in our society and 80 million viewers tune in each night to local TV newscasts. For the sake of our democracy, the local television news can and must improve. It is the joint responsibility of all who are involved and concerned to catalyze this change.

-- Owners and advertisers must see beyond their bottom line mentality.

-- Congress and the Federal Communications Commission should restore meaning to the promise of the public airwaves and the public interest.

-- Journalists must raise their ethical standards and fight to keep the entertainment industry out of the newsroom.

-- Citizens must become critical viewers, aware of the manipulation and conditioning that passes for news.

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