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The tabloid style.

When I lived in New York, I was often transfixed--and nauseated--by the nightly televised parade of murders, muggings, shootings, stabbings, rapes, burglaries and raging fires. Despite my status as a hard-boiled journalist, I eventually began to feel, well, less safe. Death and danger seemed to be lurking around every corner, and the underlying message was unmistakable: This could happen to you.

New York, of course, is a tabloid town where sensationalism is woven into the news culture. But the "Hard Copy" approach to news has now spread to local stations across the country, the latest quick fix for anemic ratings.

After reviewing a week's worth of local newscasts in Miami, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, I found myself bleary-eyed from overexposure to violence, calamity and heart-rending tales of woe. It seemed almost a parody of journalism: bold graphics filling the screen, melodramatic background music, correspondents reporting live from some darkened street corner that the police had vacated hours earlier.

This is not to suggest that crime isn't an important urban story. Nor do I believe that all local stations are going the tabloid route. But it's clear that a growing number of network affiliates are cranking up the volume on violence and sex. To wit:

* "Cops say a schoolteacher tries to give his student a little bit of extra homework--to murder his wife's lover!" says Miami's WSVN, a Fox affiliate.

* "Up next: A pool nearly becomes a death trap for a local toddler. You'll hear about a heroic rescue," says KCBS in Los Angeles.

* "Police may have a new lead in the bizarre case of a murder at a tollway rest stop. They say they want to talk to one of the Winnetka victim's ex-husbands," says WBBM, the CBS station in Chicago.

* "A vicious and deadly attack on Long Island. The weapon: a machete," says WWOR, an independent station based in Secaucus, New Jersey.

These stations repeatedly tried to play upon the fear of crime. During a KCBS report about an actress and her boyfriend who wound up killing a gun-waving intruder, the reporter asked a Los Angeles police officer: "What suggestions have you got for people who hear this story and are concerned for their own safety?"

Unfortunately for the station, the cop responded: "It's probably a little hard to draw a moral from this."

Body-bag journalism doesn't require much creativity (long shot of crime scene, tight shot of blood on the street, cut to grieving relatives). And in cities where homicide has become an everyday occurrence, it isn't hard to find a drive-by shooting (or a drug bust, or a rape, or a child abuse case) for the top of the broadcast. But hyping such stories night after night presents a distorted picture of the community, creating a sense of anarchy and chaos with precious little context.

Fear and loathing abound. A story on the Pepsi "syringe scare" gave way to one about a woman finding a piece of glass in her spareribs. A report on police brutality in New Jersey turned out to be about one black teenager who said he was slapped by a white officer. A piece on a Chicago flasher was based on the claims of one woman who said a man made indecent suggestions to her daughter.

The hard core stuff was rounded out by deadly spiders and snakebites, mysterious chemicals, workers buried alive, endless replays of the Waco assault, floods, tornadoes, mudslides, sinkholes and plane crashes. Such fare is often delivered in breathless tones by what Chicago Tribune columnist James Warren calls "your basic TV airheads who wouldn't know how to report a fire."

Just when the audience might have been tempted to hit the clicker, it was time for video highlights from around the country. St. Louis: A boy dies in a sewage treatment tank. Tampa: The trial of two whites accused of setting a black man on fire is moved to another location. Memphis: A convicted child molester is on probation. Florida: Teenage vandals trash a school. California: Ice falls through a roof and narrowly misses a 6-year-old boy. (That was one night's roundup on WWOR's "9 Watch" segment during its 10 p.m. newscast.)

Defenders of the tabloid approach, such as former KCBS News Director John Lippman, say it is an attempt to humanize the crime problem for a working class audience that lives under far more harrowing conditions than elitist media critics. There are plenty of other choices, they say, for people who want talking head news about school board meetings and congressional debates.

Even when judged in that light, however, the "Action News" approach seems too inflammatory and too fleeting to provide much understanding of our violent culture. And people soon tire of it, if sagging ratings in several cities are any yardstick.

It's only fair to note that tabloid news isn't all blood and guts. In one rather comical KCBS report, "Action News" reporter Judd McIlvain banged on the door of a man allegedly running a credit card scam. He wasn't home. The camera zoomed in on McIlvain's van, where he received a call from the perpetrator on his mobile phone and declared ih outraged tones:

"It's just too bad, is that what you're saying? Shame on you!! For heaven's sake! Why don't you get a real job and quit ripping people off? Shame on you!"

Shame, indeed.
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Title Annotation:Bad News, assessment of local television news
Author:Kurtz, Howard
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:No investigative reporting.
Next Article:Off base.

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