Ditching 'Body Bag Journalism'
May Help Local TV Ratings

NEW YORK CITY -- A former ABC, NBC and PBS news producer today challenged any taker in the nation's largest TV market to abandon the "body bag journalism" of excessive crime reporting -- and the consultants who push it -- and test the theory that better journalism would help a local station's ratings.

"Take the money you spend on consultants and hire a good young reporter and a videographer," said Robert Lissit, now a Syracuse University professor. "Use the young team on crime stories, and free a veteran team to do government stories and enterprise reporting. Cover education and consumer news and race relations. Do good, solid reporting. At the end of the year, I think your ratings may go up."

There's evidence that "tabloid sensation" in TV news -- besides being bad for democracy -- is not always a ratings winner, Lissit said, "and I'm willing to put my time where my mouth is. If you feel insecure without consultants, a group of us at the Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse will provide our consulting services free of charge."

Lissit was delivering the annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture to a luncheon audience of some 130 media-industry representatives, religious communicators and students at The Interchurch Center on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The event is sponsored by the communication offices of United Church of Christ and the National Council of Churches.

Lissit criticized the "market-driven" approach that permeates local TV news all over the United States. "Market- driven news is giving the viewers what the stations think they want," he said. "Some might ask if that isn't simply representative democracy at work: `What could be more democratic than giving viewers what they want?' My answer: What could be more irresponsible, more cynical, and profoundly wrong.

"Viewers don't trust what they get on the news anymore. And that's a serious indictment."

Lissit used video news clips to make two points: "yellow crime-scene tape and blood spattered on the pavement" get a disproportionate amount of coverage, even though they do not always guarantee Number One ratings; and yet, crime coverage can still be part of responsible TV journalism.

One clip, from Miami's Channel 7, was an evening-news story on the arrest of a suspected hit-and-run driver, with a hospital interview of the victim. "In Miami, the prototype for tabloid sensation, WSVN-TV, Channel 7, has viewers and profits," Lissit said. "But it's either second or third in the ratings to a traditional news station." A second clip showed that this morning's local news break on a Syracuse station consisted of three stories: a 5-year-old hit by a car, the apprehension of a murder suspect and a few reported cases of tuberculosis of no danger to the public.

Lissit showed a third clip, however, as an example of a "good station," where "smart broadcasters have treated viewers with respect and been rewarded for their actions." It was a soft feature on a hard topic from KOMO-TV, Seattle, with children reflecting on a shooting that killed a child in their neighborhood. It was good because it offered "context, texture, people, reason, emotion," Lissit said.

"What's needed is a clear-cut demonstration that bad coverage doesn't have to drive out good coverage," Lissit said. "And that the consultants aren't always right. Take control of your own newsroom. Base your decisions on solid journalistic principles."

New York City would be ideal for such a test because more than 42 percent of its local TV news coverage goes to crime, criminal justice and disasters -- "in a city where crime is down," Lissit said. "How about the stations in New York City declaring a peace dividend, returning a little of the crime and disaster time to the viewers in the form of government, race relations and education?"

Lissit highlighted what he and his Syracuse broadcast journalism colleagues found in a recent study of 100 newscasts around the country: "Nearly 30 percent of the news time was spent on crime and courts. Ten percent was devoted to reporting calamities and natural disasters. Only 15 percent of the newscasts were devoted to government and politics. Health and medicine: about 7 percent. Race relations: 1.2 percent. Education: less than 1 percent."

Crime and the courts get covered because they're easy to cover and consultants say they boost ratings, Lissit said. "A few shots of the crime scene, a quick interview with a police officer, or someone in the neighborhood, and a quick reporter-on-camera standup. Summary, and that's the story. Off to cover another crime story. Why courts? Because they follow a schedule, it's easy to show up and record the court proceedings, and easy to get an emotional interview outside on the steps.

"Is this news? Not by most traditional journalistic standards." Citing New York University professor Mitchell Stephens, Lissit listed six "criteria for newsworthiness" and said TV crime reporting meets only two of them -- timeliness and proximity -- while failing to be important, of interest, controversial or unusual.

One problem with news overkill on crime and courts is that it "has changed the balance in our carefully balanced system of democracy," Lissit said. "If the viewer sees the courts in operation but doesn't see a city council meeting, or sees the courts but seldom hears from the mayor, what does that say to that viewer? Maybe that there's only one branch of government important to that viewer's life. The only representative of government is the police officer at the crime scene."

It is also a waste of news resources, Lissit said. He quoted former CBS-TV journalist Travis Lynn, now at University of Nevada, Reno, as giving the following description of the "team reporting" that many TV stations do: "If a pedestrian crosses in the middle of a street and is struck by a car, a TV station may send out four reporters. The first does a live report on the accident. The second asks, `What went wrong that resulted in the pedestrian being struck?' The third reporter deals with what can be done to prevent this sort of accident in the future. And the fourth reporter tells you how you can avoid being struck by a car.

"That, says Travis Lynn, is disrespectful of the viewer's intelligence. And it ties up four reporters on a story where one might well have been more than enough."

Lissit said his offer to consult with a local TV station was anything but idle. He said he and his Newhouse School colleagues, who have been studying newscasts and would do the consulting, "aren't a bunch of ivory-tower researchers." Among them are a former news director and station manager, a former network and network-owned-and-operated station anchor and reporter, an executive producer from a major-market station, a newsroom computer specialist and an investigative producer.

"We reject the world of tabloid news, and reports of faceless crimes which don't touch viewers' lives. We think there are a lot of people out there who know the consultants' formula is wrong. If there's a news director out there who hears this, and is willing to put himself or herself on the line, let us hear from you."

Posted September 22, 1997
Copyright ©1998 American News Service

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