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Viewers like it.

Why are people saying all these terrible things about local television news?

More people are watching news on television than ever before. Study after study confirms that the vast majority of Americans get most or all of their news, especially their local news, from television. Local television is far from perfect, of course, but the audience seems to like it. So what is it that the critics find so troubling?

Listening to politicians, special interest groups and assorted civic boosters, one might be tempted to blame local television news for just about everything that is wrong with modern society. These people would have us believe, for example, that news coverage of violence automatically breeds more violence for news organizations to cover.

The more strident critics of local television news even accused stations in Los Angeles of trying to incite riots by airing aggressive news promotion campaigns prior to the second Rodney lung verdict. But if the coverage leading up to the second verdict was such a blatant incitement to riot, where were the riots? In fact, the well publicized presence of law enforcement, along with aggressive news coverage, helped forestall further rioting, in sharp contrast to the aftermath of the first verdict, when both the police and news media were caught unprepared.

Violence has been a part of our world far longer than television, or even journalism. Even if coverage of crime and violence could be shown to encourage more of the same, and there is no credible evidence that it does, would the public really prefer to be kept in the dark? Just because terrorists do their dreadful work largely to get television coverage for their various causes, does the public want television news to refrain from reporting on terrorism?

Local television news is, in fact, among our society's most democratic institutions. Millions of viewers vote their preferences every night. The results are available every morning. With the enormous number of choices now available to local television viewers, news programmers are not about to do anything consciously to offend this increasingly fragile and fragmented audience. For better or worse, local television news quite accurately reflects the needs and interests of the viewing public.

Yet critics persist in charging that television is shallow, sensational and inaccurate. Anyone who wants to depend on the newspaper as a primary source of information is free to do so. But hearing newspaper critics beat up on local television news reminds me of a dinosaur condemning a mammal for acting silly.

Television has always been a better mirror than a spotlight. It reflects reality far more effectively than it creates it. The public would be better served if politicians and special interest groups spent more time dealing with the reality that television news reports and less time trying to coerce television journalists into sweeping uncomfortable realities under a rug of censorship.

Modern politicians fear the power and popularity of television, just as their predecessors feared powerful newspapers. But the watchdog responsibility of the press to strike fear in the hearts of elected officials is exactly what the authors of the First Amendment were trying to protect. It surely never occurred to them that the free press might one day be stripped of its constitutional protection because its primary means of delivery had evolved from ink to electricity.

Politicians have always found it more expedient to blame journalists than to tackle real problems. Special interest groups refuse to believe that any story is fair and accurate unless it slavishly promotes their narrow points of view. But the general public simply depends on television news to find out what's happening in the world, even if it occasionally makes them uncomfortable. It is to this audience, and this audience only, that local television news is ultimately responsible.
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Title Annotation:Bad News, assessment of local television news
Author:Bartlett, David
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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