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Murder travels.

What's so bad about local news? Uh, well, not much, at least as long as people keep trying to blow up the World Trade Center, and Woody Allen and Mia Farrow keep turning their problems into a public spectacle, and mass murderers continue to be apprehended within the greater New York metropolitan area.

As long as there is actual news--news not of the listen-to-this, it's-good-for-you, like-doing-homework-and-eating-tofu variety, but news of the hey-did-you-hear-that? type--local news people are usually able to stick to their knitting, namely, taking clear pictures and rewriting wire service copy and newspaper articles into serviceable narration. It's only when the world stops cooperating and ceases to deliver attention-getting material that local news feels obliged to fall back into reporting the tiresome, complicated, and often not very illuminating activities of local officials and neighborhood residents, spiced up with thinly imagined features, like canned interviews with actors or the theatricalized adventures of overheated consumer protectors.

Why are tabloid-quality stories the only ones that work on local news? One reason is that the story can be carried with mundane video. A boring story, such as a bill signing at city hall, with terribly boring video (the mayor signing a bill at city hall) is fatal. Even a fairly interesting-but-complex story, such as the indictment of Clark Clifford, cannot be sustained with boring video of Clifford walking past reporters saying "No comment." However, when the newsmaker has done something pretty outrageous, the viewers' blood is sufficiently worked up that just seeing Woody Allen or Bernard Goetz whisking past reporters is enough to support the story. Another reason why tabloid-quality stories work is that it's pretty hard on the local level to make viewers care about anything except stories that work on a human interest level. A story like IBM's troubles will play big in Westchester County, where the company is headquartered and a lot of jobs are at stake, but nobody in New York City or on Long Island or in New Jersey cares. Murder, however, travels, as do scandal, greed and sex.

Is there anything that right-minded people concerned about the quality of local news can do? Here are some tips:

1. Don't fiddle with the anchor talent. The classic anchor team (craggy veteran anchorguy; attractive, poised, perfect second-wife-for-the-anchorguy anchorgal; jolly weatherfella; rugged sportsguy) along with the by-now classic derivations (cheerful weathergal; canny, knowledgeable sportsguy) has been tested by time and found widely palatable. Why mess with it?

Here's an easy test: If your local anchorperson can correctly pronounce Slobodan Milosevic, Mogadishu and Robert Reich, he or she is a keeper.

Still, they could all be a lot less chipper. Yes, the happy talk phenomenon has pretty much disappeared. Yes, chat is pretty nearly reserved to interchanges between anchors and weather and sports personnel. Still, anchors should be reminded, on a daily basis if necessary, that it is the unstructured, unscripted, ad-libbed moments when they seem most giddy, most superficial, most sororal and frattish--in short, at odds with all the stern, sober-sided qualities we most value in a newshost.

2. Rely less on videotape. Nearly all of the unforgivably embarrassing moments on the local news around New York recently have stemmed from the fetish for video. On at least two occasions in recent months, a local news broadcast has led--led, mind you--with coverage of a near-crash at, one of the metropolitan area airports, just because a tourist happened to be shooting some tape of planes taking off and landing. These were not particularly blood-chilling events (no one was injured), and it was not particularly compelling video, but the station had it, and there was the suggestion of catastrophe, and that was all that was necessary to bump everything else back.

Now, we don't mean to be naive; obviously television is a visual medium, and pictures are pretty darn important. But when the subjects being filmed are just not newsworthy--a particularly acute problem on summer weekends, when broadcasts often include film of parades and sunbathers--pictures sure seem like the tail that wags the dog.

3. Invest in investigative reporters. It may seem implausible, but such reporters, by dint of making contacts, actually are able to report on real stories that real people really want to watch. In New York City, WNBC's police reporter, John Miller, was able to do story after story on Gotti and the mob. More recently, his contacts and enterprise have given him scoop upon scoop in the World Trade Center bombing. Having such a reporter would seem such an obvious dividend for the station that one half suspects the existence of some secret report that shows exactly the opposite. Otherwise, why would stations not rush to this solution? It's also not a very new idea--one tends to forget that Geraldo Rivera got his break investigating Willowbrook, a state-run home for the retarded, for a local station. It's hard to believe that Rivera's old stomping grounds, WABC, would show such enterprise today.

4. Here's a modest idea: On the nights when there hasn't been a fascinating crime of some sort, why not turn the broadcast over to the sportsguys and weatherfellas? These are, after all, the subjects most people care about, and the subjects the local stations seem to cover most competently. It could be billed as News for Dessert Lovers.
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Title Annotation:Bad News, assessment of local television news
Author:Malanowski, Jamie
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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