“If it bleeds, it leads” has become the tenet for the majority of news broadcasts across the country, particularly on the local level. The phrase succinctly encapsulates how local news is presented to television audiences across the country. The only news that seems to occur on the local level is the bad kind. It seems that the majority of stories on a typical broadcast involve crime and loss of life because that is what sells. Sensationalism has replaced journalism as a tool for the primary pursuit of higher ratings.
This trend was the basis of a study performed by the Norman Lear Center at the University of California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The Lear Center conducted a two week study of eight local TV stations in the greater Los Angeles area. Roughly 500 hours of news was studied during that period. The results revealed that in a typical thirty minute broadcast, more than eight minutes were devoted to ads, two to teasers, three and a half to sports and weather, seven and a half to non-local news and eight minutes of local news—the vast majority of which was focused on crime.
This trend indicates that broadcasters are focused on keeping viewers hooked, and this is just as bad as going to see a movie that favors spectacle over substance to keep viewers glued to the screen. Perhaps our society has become so addicted to bad news and sensational stories that watching a human interest piece on some issue of social or political concern (such as the treatment of the disabled or problems with two party system) would bore audiences, prompting them to change the channel.
When the dissemination of news is allocated to focus on ratings over relevance, there is a problem. Most markets have three to four broadcast stations, each vying for the number one spot. But when it comes right down to it, the news broadcast is the one and only show on a network not in danger of cancellation. They may cancel Dancing with the Stars, but the news will always be broadcast at least four times a day. Everybody at a station will still have a job regardless of the ratings because there will always be news to report.
Moreover, this is a problem that doesn’t seem to be strictly located to California and West Virginia. Former Orlando Action News reporter Cathi Carson said the main problem with local news is that broadcasters exhibit a dogged pursuit of ratings rather than a tenacious focus on content.
“The problem with local news is they are hyper-focused on the competition instead of the content,” Carson said. “The average viewer is not watching all three outlets at the same time. They don’t care if one station had the story two minutes before the other. Somewhere along the way, the race to beat the other stations became the guiding force in local news.”
A typical local broadcast has little news on local government, healthcare and the economy. The heavy focus on crime presents a skewed version of reality. Researchers refer to this as Mean World Syndrome—an archetypal pattern of news content that suggests the world is dominated by waves of murder and mayhem. Both local and non-local affiliates are largely concerned with crime or reports of general peril: “There is an 8.5 earthquake in one country and a wave of drug trafficking in another. There are drug dealers outside your door and kidnappers just down the street. The world is a mean, bad place; so lock your door and stay tuned so you don’t miss anything!” It’s ridiculous.
This problem is further compounded by corporate influence. Most stations are owned by corporations that guide the content of local stations to make the news more cost effective. A primary way of accomplishing this goal is shared content. According to an article by Josh Harkinson for Mother Jones Magazine, “more than 75 percent of the nearly 300 full-power local TV stations purchased last year were acquired by three media giants. The largest, Sinclair Broadcasting, will reach 40 percent of the population if its latest purchases are approved by federal regulators. Sinclair’s CEO has said he wants to keep snatching up stations until the company’s market saturation hits 90 percent.” Among the 300 stations owned by Sinclair Broadcasting is our own WSAZ.
This is just one example, but it’s happening all over the country. Several corporations own a large number of stations that share content, and many even simulcast the exact same broadcast. In short, local news has been run through the corporate grinder to bring us newscasts that are more financially sound, at the cost of producing content that is not tailored to fit the interests of its viewers. In this respect, local news stations are not fulfilling their duties. The duty of local stations should be the production of more civic-minded broadcasts that serve the public interest. Ratings should have no bearing on what news to report, but on what viewers want to see. Online and mail-in polls could accomplish that goal.
Part of the problem is lax regulation by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC grants access of the public airwaves to local stations in exchange for news that fulfills the specific needs of the community in which it serves. The FCC is expected to enforce these regulations to ensure stations are living up to their end of the bargain. However, this is a practice that has been largely abandoned since the Reagan Administration and has allowed corporations to buy these stations en masse. But local stations get plenty of revenue either way, so choosing to splash the screen with blood, rather than flood it with knowledge, is a disservice to the communities they serve.
The most frustrating part is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, the ubiquitous nature of modern media gives local stations the opportunity to fine tune news that will give viewers a more informative broadcast. The proliferation of news across multiple platforms is so plentiful that creating a broadcast that caters specifically to community interests efficiently narrows the focus to a local level, thereby informing viewers of issues that probably would not occur to them during an Internet search. In order to fix this, the FCC must demand more of local stations and once again enforce such demands if they are not promptly met.
Unfortunately, money frequently wins out is these types of situations. Those with money have the power, and those in power control the media (and society in general) in a vast number of ways. The powers that be are idolaters of the almighty dollar. No matter how much we try to deny it, money has become an object of worship stronger than religion or fame. It controls how we view the media, and more importantly, how the media is presented to us. As long as this is true, nothing will change. But if we recognize the problem, we can never be fooled by the distorted truth it attempts to promote.