Watchdog says TV news is 'killing' city Study: Mark Crispin Miller blames broadcasts' blood and gore for an anti-city bias

research partners call it overstatement.

June 25, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Excessive emphasis on crime in local television news is leading viewers to see Baltimore as an unrealistically dangerous place to live or visit, a study to be released today says. But one of the two organizations involved in research for the study says the conclusions "distort" the data the study is based on.

The study, "It's a Crime: The Economic Impact of Local TV News in Baltimore," was done by the Project on Media Ownership, a research center affiliated with New York University, under the direction of former Johns Hopkins professor Mark Crispin Miller, now a professor at NYU.

The study consisted of two main parts: a content analysis of local TV news done by Miller's group and a public opinion poll of Baltimore-area viewers commissioned by Miller but executed by Public Agenda, a New York research organization founded by former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and pollster Daniel Yankelovich.

The basic disagreement is in Miller's conclusion, based on Public Agenda's data, that TV news' coverage of crime drives fear of the city.

"Through their routine over-emphasis on local crime the commercial TV stations in Baltimore have helped make the city poorer by affecting how viewers perceive the city," Miller says in a press release accompanying the study.

"Local television news' excessive emphasis on crime is steadily killing the very city it covers. While crime is a reality on the urban scene, the daily televised prominence of gore and violence in the broadcast news -- the 'if it bleeds, it leads' formula -- is inadvertently bleeding the life and wealth out of Baltimore," he concludes.

But in a statement issued last night in response to inquiries from The Sun and other media outlets, the polling firm said: "It is Public Agenda's understanding that the Project on Media Ownership [PROMO] will release a content analysis they conducted of local television coverage of crime, as well as select results of Public Agenda's research. Public Agenda was not consulted about PROMO's press release. The press release, while using data that are technically correct, distorts Public Agenda's findings by presenting them in a biased context and tone.

"We do not believe the press release and essay represent our findings in a fair and balanced manner."

Steve Farkas, senior vice president and director of research for the New York firm, says Miller is overstating the case.

"It's clear the story is far more complicated. The notion that it's only media driving fear of Baltimore is wrong," Farkas said, explaining that he found that 53 percent of the Baltimore-area residents contacted by his pollsters said they or someone they love had been the victim of crime.

"If 53 percent have had some experience with crime, that's a lot," Farkas said. "It's not just media causing the fear; there's clearly personal experience involved."

Miller said he was "bowled over" by Public Agenda's statement last night in that he had "done everything possible" to make sure that his report and their data are in agreement.

"Anyone who reads my overview and their report will see that there is absolutely no disagreement," he said.

Miller's content-study portion of the report is the most comprehensive analysis to date on Baltimore television that was not done by the industry itself. His group surveyed daily newscasts on all five of Baltimore's commercial television stations for three weeks. The stations are: WBAL, Channel 11; WJZ, Channel 13; WMAR, Channel 2; WBFF, Channel 45; and WNUV, Channel 54.

Researchers found that on average, 39 percent of the entire "news hole" portion of a 30-minute newscast was crime coverage. Another 9 percent dealt with accidents and natural disasters, which left 8 percent for politics and government, 4.42 precent for education, 4.28 percent for health, 1 percent for business and labor, and .22 percent for the environment.

The remaining 33 percent was devoted to what the study labeled "Features (human interest, soft news, self-promoting stories)." It gave as examples stories about "a boy 'adopted' by a duck who thinks that he's its mother" and an "anchorman's upcoming stint as emcee" at a local charity event.

When they were read portions of the study yesterday, local television executives said they saw nothing new in Miller's data and disagreed with his conclusions.

"I think they're out of touch with what viewers want," said Gail Bending, news director at WJZ, Channel 13. "Our research shows that viewers want to know what's going in the community, and crime is part of that. It's not the media's job to do PR for the city. We're very careful to look at the mix and rTC include positive franchises, too, so as not to go overboard on crime."

Phil Stolz, vice president and general manager of WBAL, Channel 11, said: "This kind of study is nothing new. It's been done around the country. But I totally disagree that we overdo crime. We do report the news of the day, and crime is part of that."

This is not the first study to show the disproportionate amount of time spent on crime in local TV news. For example, the Rocky Mountain Media Watch study in 1996 found 40 percent of a Baltimore newscast devoted to what it called "mayhem" -- crime and natural disaster. But that was a one-night snapshot of just one station's newscast, WBAL's.

In comparison, a recent study by the University of Miami of local TV news in eight cities -- Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Austin, Syracuse, Indianapolis and Eugene, Ore. -- found an average of 29 percent of newscasts in those communities devoted to crime. The Miami study is generally considered the most extensive such look at local TV news available.

Miller will release the study at a press conference at 11 a.m. today in the Reeves Room at City Hall.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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