Media monitor attacks violence on local TV news Excess: Denver's Paul Klite believes local news shows concentrate too much on 'mayhem' and too little on issues.

On the Air

March 16, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Paul Klite came to Baltimore not to praise television news, but to skewer it as responsible for a host of society's ills and to recommend that pretty much the whole thing be scuttled and rebuilt to reflect a more wholesome and more studious society.

Klite, a media watchdog based in Denver, spoke to a crowd of about 35 at UMBC Wednesday night. His organization, Rocky Mountain Media Watch, contends that local TV news spends too much time on violence (or "mayhem," as he terms it, which encompasses murder, war and disasters) and not enough on substantive issues.

Although short on remedies, other than constantly noting that news is broadcast over "the public airwaves," and thus should do a better job of serving that public, Klite's attack on the local news was little short of relentless.

Much of Klite's ammunition comes from a one-night study, conducted in September 1995. Rocky Mountain Media Watch monitored late-evening news shows on 100 different stations, measuring the amount of violence included in the broadcasts, as well as the amounts of fluff, on-air banter, sports, weather and commercials.

The findings: On average, a half-hour newscast included 39.8 percent news, 30.7 percent commercials, 12.5 percent sports, 9.6 percent weather, 5.5 percent previews and promos (of what to expect later in the broadcast), 1.8 percent "anchor chatter" and .1 percent public service announcements.

Of the time spent on news, 42 percent was devoted to "mayhem," compared with 11.3 percent to government and 7.9 percent to economic and business news.

Rocky Mountain will be releasing a similar study in the spring, monitoring a single night of news from last month. The results, Klite said, are very similar to 1995's.

The cumulative effect of TV news' shortcomings, he insists, is that people have a skewed view of the world. They believe violence is so endemic that they refuse to leave their homes. They hear the words "California earthquake," and they assume the entire West Coast is about to slip into the ocean. They see news shows dominated by white men, reporting on white men, and showing blacks and women predominantly as victims, and believe that that reflects reality. All of which is nonsense, according to Klite.

Playing to people's basest natures, Klite said, is a blatant plot to do nothing more than earn money. "Unregulated profit can have disastrous side effects," Klite said. The excessive violence of TV news, he added, "is really taking its toll on people."

Klite didn't buy the argument that TV news is only giving people what they want, an argument advanced by WBAL, Channel 11, reporter Jayne Miller, who teaches at the school and brought her class to the discussion.

"Every television station in this country responds to its market research," said Miller, generally regarded as one of Baltimore's best TV reporters. "We're only doing what the market tells us."

WBAL was the only Baltimore station included in Rocky Mountain's September 1995 survey. Its 11 p.m. news show -- which Klite's survey rated as the nation's eighth-worst -- is this market's highest-rated late evening newscast.

Miller noted that WMAR, Channel 2, a few years ago, promised to tone down the violence included in its newscasts and accentuate the positive -- the very type of show Klite promotes.

Channel 2 has consistently rated third among Baltimore's newscasts, whether the program is being aired in the morning, afternoon or evening. Today, the content of the news on channels 2, 11 and 13 appears pretty much the same.

Klite was undaunted, however, insisting TV news does little more than condition its audience to wait anxiously for tomorrow's newscast. "You build an audience for what you promote and what you show," he said in reply to Miller's comments. "You can always appeal to the people's prurient interests with the sex and the violence."

His attacks weren't restricted to "mayhem," however. He also attacked local news for devoting too much time to sports (his study was particularly critical of a Boston station that devoted much of its broadcast on that September 1995 night to sports, as the Red Sox clinched their division that day) and soft news.

An epidemiologist by training, Klite said he'd like to see news programs that consist of "a council of elders who would sit down and discuss important issues to the community."

Whether anyone would watch, he couldn't say. Similar programs airing on public television channels never rate as high as news on commercial stations. But he left no doubt that he'd be watching.

"I think wisdom can be spell-binding," he said.

Mark Fuhrman

Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles detective whose tape-recorded racist diatribes helped sink the criminal case against O. J. Simpson, will be a guest on WCBM's "The Bob Kwesell Show" tomorrow.

Fuhrman, who moved to Idaho and has kept a low profile since his trial testimony, combined with later revelations, shot his reputation to pieces, is touring the country to promote his book, "Murder in Brentwood."

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