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Mimicking the worst.

Do you watch local news? If you're like a lot of people I talk with, you're turned off by much of what you see, and you've turned off the television. I think people are being driven away from the set simply because most of the news reported by local stations doesn't affect their lives.

Take a look tonight. You can bet you'll see at least one of the following: violent crime (with close-ups of blood stains); a car, truck or train (take your pick) accident (twisted metal, more blood); an abused dog, cat or duck; a sex scandal (extra points for clergy member, teacher or politician). You get the idea. From city to city, the depressing, demeaning and devastating make up our nightly local news diets.

It's apparent to me that too many local news directors are taking their cues from the tabloids, ignoring what matters and stuffing the news with easy titillation. There's a brisk, nationwide traffic in videotape originating from the lurid, flashy WSVN newscasts in Miami, as news managers try to copy that station's style and success.

Why don't they switch on the successes they'll find broadcast in their own markets every day? Have they watched "60 Minutes?" Or "20/20?" Or how about that network news leader, ABC's "World News Tonight?" In my opinion, ABC succeeds in part because it emphasizes the "why" of the news. "Why" is the most neglected "W" of the five great journalistic "Ws." It's that extra step that gives the viewer some perspective, and it's not always depressing.

ABC's "American Agenda" segment could easily be adapted at the local level. (How about an "Ohio Agenda" or a "New Jersey Agenda?") Sometimes the ABC segment actually soars with its lyrical quality. It takes a look at life as we live it--sometimes complex and gritty, sometimes simple and delightful.

Then there's ABC's "Person of the Week," those weekly vignettes of people--sometimes famous, oftentimes not. But they all make a difference with their lives. People like that exist in every city in the world. Stories like this should be done at the local level.

These successful network programs also carry a style and personality that makes us want to watch. The great broadcasters have always had that, from Murrow to Ellerbee to Kuralt. Local stations have people with flair, too. People who can write and produce with style, but who are too often discouraged from using their talents by a rush for 15-second voice-overs and cosmetic live shots. We hear rubrics like, "No picture, no story," or "That's a newspaper story, not good TV." Horsefeathers! Good people can craft "newspaper" stories into effective, important video.

Good production values make television more interesting to watch, but too often local producers let content disappear into a cacophony of MTV-style visuals and noise. Slashing, flashing, booming, but no information. How often do you watch a local television newscast and at the end wonder, "What was that about?" Or did you just feel exhausted and not know why?

Viewers wonder why they seem to be getting news they already know about. In a good many instances, they are. What they're seeing are stories that ran in the morning newspaper. Drop in on almost any morning editorial meeting at a local television news shop and you'll find morning newspapers circled and highlighted with stories that will show up on the evening newscast.

What local news departments desperately need is more enterprise reporting. The problem is, many local television reporters don't have a clue how to investigate a story. I'm not talking Watergate--just knowing what's going on in your city and putting it on the air before it makes it into the papers.

Economic pressures have helped intensify this local rush to ruin. With audiences dropping, with pressure on upper management to maintain profit margins, stations have demanded that fewer people fill more air time. After trying to root out waste and inefficiency, news directors turn to speed and productivity. Pressured assignment desk editors and reporters go for what's quick and easy--the stuff crackling on the scanner or something they can "hose down" in a hurry.

Do viewers want hosed-downed news? The evidence suggests they'll reach for their remote controls, searching for something else on those 55-plus channels. And local news will be left in a spiral of collapse--quick fixes, screeching teases, dazzling graphics--while their viewers look in vain for a report on what matters to them.
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Title Annotation:Bad News, assessment of local television news
Author:Stevens, Patricia
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:737
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