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Too few reporters.

Everyone, it seems, has a problem with local television news. For some it is the murder and mayhem, the all too grisly nightly procession of body bags and overturned tractor-trailers. For others, it is the shameless voyeurism, the local reporter racing anywhere and everywhere in his mobile satellite truck in a never-ending search for victims who will cry in front of the camera. Still other viewers resent the way the locals increasingly use news time for thinly veiled ads for their station's prime time programming. And some just don't like the anchorwoman's new hairstyle or lipstick shade.

But to anyone who has systematically measured and analyzed the content of local television news, what is most disturbing about the medium is not what we see but what we don't see. The old joke about local news is that "if it bleeds, it leads." But it is the corollary that should concern us: If it doesn't bleed--or choke with emotion--it doesn't air. Unfortunately, most matters of public consequence fail to pass the blood-and-tears litmus test of local television news.

It has become the dirty little secret of local television news that certain kinds of stories--those concerning politics and government--are being quietly edged out of newscast lineups. In Philadelphia's 1991 mayoral race, my research found that the three major local stations devoted from 26 seconds to a little over a minute a day to campaign coverage in their early and late evening broadcasts combined. And what filled that brief time was laughable. Almost three-quarters of the stories dealt with the horse race or personal attacks, rather than substantive issues. And only rarely was a reporter assigned to cover a campaign event. Instead, cameramen were sent out to collect video of candidates walking to podiums or shaking hands in a crowd, and campaign press releases were used to write the 20-second voice-overs.

While network news has been criticized for the eight-second sound bite accorded presidential contenders, my research on local television news suggests that candidates might as well be mimes. Unless they are savagely attacking an opponent (preferably about some past personal transgression), candidates do not even get a sound bite on local television. During the 1992 California senatorial primary, campaigns found it so difficult to get television coverage of their plans and proposals that they gave up making public appearances and resigned themselves to using advertising to reach the voters.

The coverage of local government is even worse. Stations will spend days covering pickets in a suburban school bus driver strike but completely ignore questions of educational performance and funding. They will be live on the scene' of an office building vacated because of toxic fumes but remain mute on the question of regional air pollution control. Urban violence will be covered in the most graphic detail but there will not be a glance at the institutions set up to prevent crime or rehabilitate criminals. And how many local newscasts sent crews to Los Angeles to cover the police brutality verdict, while paying no attention to the question of how President Clinton's jobs bill--being considered that very week--could affect urban poverty in their own inner cities?

The reason for this neglect of important local concerns, as with so much in television, is money. Politics and government stories just don't sell, say news directors armed with focus group research. People find them a yawn and will grab the zapper if they see something boring on their screen. What the news honchos will leave out, however, is that it is just too damn expensive to try to cover politics and government in a way that would make them interesting.

Part of the problem is that each local television market is composed of so many governments--including cities, suburbs, smaller towns and rural areas. It takes an awful lot of reporters to cover all the school board, zoning board and tax board meetings of all those townships and boroughs. But lots of reporters is something that local television station-seven in the largest markets--do not have.

While metropolitan newspapers have expended vast resources in the past decade to try to cover the affairs of their politically fragmented suburbs, local television stations have made no such commitment. Faced with increasing competition from independent and cable stations, and under pressure to cut costs, they have figured out how to make do with only a handful of reporters.

How do they do it? By writing off the routine coverage of politics and government and covering instead only those stories which possess sufficient horror or pathos to grab the attention of audiences no matter where in the region they live. And by cramming stories full of sexy video and emotional sound bites to mask their shallow content, much as the makers of junk food douse sugar on to disguise the bland consistency of their non-nutritional fare.

And so the real reason so much gory crime and so little government news is covered by local television news is not because it's what the audience wants, but because it's easy. The accidental shooting of a child will make it onto television news because there is little investigation needed to report it, and it's a story that can be packed with gut-wrenching video of sobbing family members. But the far more pervasive threats to the health and survival of children--like the need for immunization and prenatal care--will receive little mention on local television because these stories require far more research. And crippling disabilities, as horrible as they are to the victims, just can't compete visually with tiny white coffins being hauled to cemeteries.

The consequences of such misguided coverage are not trivial. In a nation where more and more people are getting most of their information about politics from television, local candidates get elected largely as a result of their advertising campaigns, not news coverage. Federal programs to aid cities go down to defeat as opponents label them "pork barrel expenditures" with little contradiction from the affable local anchor. And while government budgets to fight crime--local television's raison d'etre--keep escalating, funds for programs ignored by the medium, such as health, education and social services, continue to be slashed with little public awareness or outcry.

Ignoring politics and government may make economic sense to a bottom-line oriented television station, but it's time to recognize that it does a great disservice to the public good.
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Title Annotation:Bad News, assessment of local television news
Author:Kaniss, Phyllis
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Viewers like it.
Next Article:Murder travels.

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