Friday, April 28, 2006

High-def anxiety

This post is being published concurrently at Public Eye, the CBS News blog dedicated to examining the issues that affect journalism and broadcasting.

If you’ve been feeling edgy lately, one contributing factor may be the heavy dose of meaningless mayhem you watch on the typical local television newscast.

Statistically speaking, I found in a quick bit of number crunching, you are about 50 times more likely to view a local TV news story about a murder than one about science, child care or pollution. You are roughly 20 times more likely to “Eyewitness” a fire than a report on education, discrimination or marriage.

Confirming the not-so-subliminally scary tone of many local newscasts, I found that stories about murders, fires and rapes actually dominated more than two-thirds of the coverage I sampled. The distressing results are depicted in the graphic below.

My analysis was conducted by using an index of more than 600 broadcasts at 61 stations in 20 markets. Assembled in 1998 by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the database now is hosted by the Local TV News Media Project at the University of Delaware.

To see how often violent themes are counterbalanced by higher minded and more significant topics, I ran 20 subjectively selected key words through the index. I found 304 references to “murder” and 257 references to “fire,” as compared with 14 for “education,” seven for “jobs” and six for “child care.” On a somewhat lighter note, there were 127 references to “health” and 69 entries for “weather.”

Because the survey was completed in 1998, there are some limitations. The word “terrorism” shows up only once and “global warming” is absent altogether.

Had the project been conducted any time from late-2001 until President Bush won his 2004 campaign against evildoers, the results for “terrorism” would have been more plentiful. Now that Al Gore is starring in a major motion picture on global warming, the subject may become more popular in the future. Or not.

As a professional producer and consumer of news for nearly 40 years, I would be the first to say the public has a right to know about the real perils and tragedies out there. But I would add this:
While newscasts are obliged to give an unvarnished view of the world, their primary mission is, and ought to be, to report and reflect in an accurate, balanced fashion on the issues and events that affect their communities. They fail miserably when they lead with a bleed and follow with a shooting, a fire or some other equally unimportant – but fast-breaking, telegenic and easy to produce – form of mayhem.

A steady diet of scary but insignificant yarns not only unsettles viewers but also portrays a dangerously unrealistic and unhealthy view of world. It doesn’t help, either, that the real-life havoc featured on the local news abuts prime-time schedules filled with fictional fisticuffs, shootings, rapes, kidnappings and homicides.

News directors may argue that edgy fare enhances their ratings and the profits that range up to 50% in many markets. But the high-def anxiety generated by their low-brow coverage represents not only a great danger to our democracy but also to our collective mental health.

The power of local TV news is profound. Consider:

:: Six out of 10 Americans cite local TV as their primary source of news, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

:: Local TV tied with cable news as being the most trusted source of information, according to a poll by Frank N. Magid Associates for the Carnegie Foundation. Specifically, 21% of respondents gave top marks for trust to each of local TV and cable news, as compared with only 9% for newspapers.

Local newscasts “play a pre-eminent role in the social construction of reality,” says Dr. Danilo Yanich, the director of the Local TV News project, whose formal research confirms, incidentally, that the coverage of crime is “wildly unrelated to its actual occurrence.”

When the news gives a twisted view of reality, anxious and ill-informed individuals are susceptible to social and political movements that cause society to act in irrational or inappropriate ways. History is packed with examples of how fear-fueled misinformation led to dangerous demagoguery – and worse.

In but one example, Dr. Yanich argues that over-the-top cop coverage has been a major factor in encouraging government to shift scarce resources from improving schools to building prisons.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even a social scientist, to see that frightening and distorted coverage aggravates our collective angst at a time when we have enough real problems to worry about – like losing our jobs, educating our kids, paying our mortgages, filling the gas tank and, yes, terrorism and global warming, too.

TV news ain’t show biz. Viewers take it very seriously. Broadcasters should, too.