Volume 9 Number 4
Must Blood Lead the TV News?

01 August 1996

The media are given privileges and protections because they have a special function in our democracy
Our local TV news could be dubbed 'crime watch'. We can be sure that at least the first ten minutes every night are devoted to murder or rape or kidnapping or abuse or violence or tragedy of some kind. By all accounts it is the same all round the country. The result is a skewed view of crime in the nation, where crime rates go down but anxiety about crime rises. Those who watch the TV news are more afraid of their communities than those who do not. Editor James Fallows says local TV news creates 'an environment of generalized menace' that cannot really be understood but that viewers should try to insulate themselves from.

This approach is not adopted because of any hard and fast rule that violence is more important to the life of a community than other kinds of news. Rather, it is believed to draw more viewers-and thus to increase advertising revenue.

I do not think that the media are given special privileges and protections simply so that they can make money, but because they have a special function in our democracy. There is more than a responsibility to give the public what it wants. They have to give the public the news it needs in a context which makes it useful.

An experiment is going on in Austin, Texas, that suggests that the public, fed up with violence on the tube, will support a change. KVUE-TV has decided that before it airs a crime story, the story must meet at least one of five criteria: Does action need to be taken? Is there an immediate threat to safety? Is there a threat to children? Does the crime have any significant community impact? And, does the story lend itself to a crime-prevention effort?

The station has stuck to these criteria since they were introduced in January. Sometimes this has meant that KVUE-TV has not carried crime stories that other stations have. Another local station quickly adopted the promo line, 'Is your newscast giving you all the news?' But, an article in the Columbia Journalism Review reports, 'the response to the experiment has been overwhelmingly positive'.

Austin Police Chief Elizabeth Watson says, 'It is commendable for a major TV news station to really take a look at responsible reporting, commendable from a community service standpoint. Sensationalized reporting fuels fear. It makes people feel powerless.'

The station still covers crime aggressively but pauses to think before it airs its stories. Cathy McFeaters, the executive producer, says, 'We're not trying to deny the ugliness in the world; that's not what it is about. However, we have a responsibility not to give the ugliness more play than it deserves.'

Weekend anchor Wendy Erikson, trained like all reporters I imagine in the 'if it bleeds, it leads' school of TV journalism, does not always find this new approach easy. She says, 'I am in transition. I'm uncomfortable with the guidelines right now, but part of me does feel very good thinking I may somehow be contributing to a change in our society.'

Bob Karstens, weekday co-anchor, says the challenge now is to find equally hard-edged stories that are not about crime.

The first ratings after the experiment began were the station's best ever. Can this be the way of the future? I hope so for all our sakes.

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