Monday, April 23, 2007

Mass-murder hysteria

The television networks devoted nearly three-quarters of their newshole last week to covering the killings at Virginia Tech, aggravating the tragedy, if such a thing were possible, by upping the ante of mass hysteria across the land.

ABC, CBS and NBC squandered a record 73% of their newscasts each night last week on the VT killings, according to statistics compiled by Andrew Tyndall, who has scrupulously clocked the content of every network newscast for the last 20 years.

The 205 minutes of airtime the Big Three collectively gave to the VT killings far surpasses the amount of coverage for any like event since 1991, says Andrew, who succinctly summarized the excess as “overkill.” (The table below compares airtime vs. death toll among several high-profile mass shootings.)

The most recent statistics show that the average 30-minute network newscast leaves room for 18.7 minutes of actual news. The 205 minutes of VT mayhem divided by a total of 280 available minutes equals 73% of the total newshole.

If similar detailed information were compiled for cable news, the metrics undoubtedly would be worse.

While the VT shootings were unquestionably newsworthy, the overwrought coverage obscured many equally important events (see NBC’s two-minute rundown here) and contributed once again to the unhealthy, high-def anxiety that crime-biased TV news stokes in our society.

The red-alert atmosphere generated by the media last week put students, parents, educators and law-enforcement authorities on edge. While some schools went so far as to conduct terror drills in their kindergartens, the hysteria manifested itself elsewhere in calls for metal detectors, more campus cops and chain-link fences – as though any of those things really could stop a determined, deranged assailant.

The biggest hole in last week’s wall-to-wall coverage – and this includes the print, as well as the broadcast, press – was the lack of reporting on why the United States has far more guns within its borders than adult citizens.

The reason, of course, is the prodigious and dangerous clout of the National Rifle Association, which has frustrated every sensible effort to disarm what ought to be one of the most civilized countries in the world.

Although the network newscasts featured 49 stories on the VT killings last week, only ABC carried two pieces on the possibility that the tragedy might force some stricter federal firearm regulations, according to Andrew.

There is a chance for the media to redeem themselves after this disgraceful week by putting some of their exhuberance and airtime into reporting on ways to resolve the gun epidemic.

Much as I hope they do, I am not holding my breath.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

...as though any of those things really could stop a determined, deranged assailant.

Like, you know, fewer guns.

3:57 PM  
Anonymous Mark Potts said...

I caught the NBC two-minute rundown of what we'd missed during the week, and it offended me. There were many important stories mentioned that the Nightly News had passed up to wallow in the Virginia Tech tragedy. Why couldn't they have taken a couple minutes each night to do those stories, rather than playing catchup Friday night?

The network news shows are hoary anachronisms of another time, but many Americans still rely on them. They really need to do a better job wrapping up ALL the day's news, not just one or two sensational stories.

4:03 PM  

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