'If it bleeds, it leads'

July 19, 1994

Viewers of local television news broadcasts have long complained about the great number of graphic, violent images beamed into their homes each week. Crime reporting is a staple of most local news operations, and for years many news directors followed a predictable formula for determining the lineup of stories for broadcast: "If it bleeds, it leads," goes an old rule of thumb.

Now some stations around the country are breaking that pattern with an approach that tries to report the news with a minimum of blood and gore. Called "family sensitive" news, the trend has caught on at stations in about a dozen cities nationwide, including WMAR (Channel 2) in Baltimore. The basic idea is that a news program ought to be suitable for viewing by everyone in the family, not something that if seen in a movie theater would have to carry an "R" rating for violence.

For example, when a gunman kidnapped his girlfriend last month, then shot her and a policeman before commiting suicide at the end of a high-speed chase on Interstate 95, WMAR chose not to air pictures of the man's bloody corpse lying in the road. But other local newscasters did broadcast the shot. (And still photographs of the crime scene also appeared in some editions of The Baltimore Sun.)

Critics of "family sensitive" news charge that it is a form of self-censorship that encourages a sugar-coated view of the world. They also question whether, as a practical matter, the concept of "family sensitive" news -- an idea taken from the old "family newspaper" concept that excluded words or images likely to offend any reader in the family -- is actually a marketing gimmick rather than an exercise of news judgment.

Yet all local television news operations, including WMAR's competitors in Baltimore, in fact have written or unwritten policies that guide reporters and editors in determining what is acceptable for broadcast. As a practical matter, what distinguishes their approach has more to do with how they choose to promote their product than with what actually gets on the air.

Television news has tremendous potential to affect the public's perception of crucial issues, including crime -- witness the current fascination with the O.J. Simpson case. It is a responsibility that in recent years has not always been handled well. The goal ought to be an accurate picture of the world, one that neither exploits the raw appeal of blood and gore nor succumbs to the temptation to view events through rose-colored glasses.

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