TV news fails to give full view of city life

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Local stations fill airtime with stories on crime, violence

July 31, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Twenty-six homicides in a month. A 13-year-old caught in a drive-by shooting. A triple killing in South Baltimore. A teen slain while trying to steal a bicycle.

July would seem to have been one troubled stretch for the city, leading local news stations to serve up an unhappy cocktail of violence and fear. That leaves viewers with a key question: How could you tell the difference from any other month?

The truth about television news on local stations is that it is almost always unrelentingly defined by the violence it serves up at the top of the hour. This is not a subjective assessment. On any given day in October, say, or February, watch the 11 p.m. news. In the absence of war or some other all-consuming event, fully six to eight of the first 10 stories typically catalog a series of crimes and car wrecks.

On days when little occurs, process stories are told with equal intensity about previous suspects working their way through the criminal system - sometimes about nothing more important than a routine arraignment. Sometimes, stories about crimes are imported from other cities, for little evident purpose other than using available videotape.

Many reporters, news directors and producers acknowledge this uncomfortable truth if they're not being asked to speak for direct attribution. More than one local TV anchor decries the amount of violence that appears on the air, saying it needlessly scares people from moving to the city.

For the last decade, the classes of Christopher Corbett at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County have dissected newscasts on Baltimore's four major stations. "Sometimes it's extremely violent, but it's almost always violent," says Corbett, a former reporter and editor for the Associated Press. "God knows, there is plenty of violence. It's not as though they're making this up."

But, Corbett adds, "it's a question of context. What does it mean? The images that are projected on television are alarming, and often disproportionately so."

The murder rate appears to be on the rise, a bit, from last year's levels. But Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris says July's tally, while high, is part of the current ebb and flow in Baltimore. "Believe me, we're not happy with it," Norris says. "But it's being portrayed as some colossal breakdown. ... It leads people to believe things are worse than they are."

Rape, assault, murders, robberies - all are down during the tenure of Norris and Mayor Martin O'Malley. "Nobody's beating down the door to talk about the five or eight days when we've had no homicides," Norris says.

That's the rub about the news business - no news is not news, while bad news is. Jon Leiberman, who covers crime for WBFF, says the seeming rash of shootings and deaths has led reporters to do more stories involving context. "In other months, you would have seen [just] as many crime stories," he says. "This month, there's been more of a push to figure out why."

The context cuts both ways. Violent crime in Baltimore has dropped 21 percent since 1999 - the largest drop of any of the 20 largest U.S. cities, according to the FBI. And most violent crime affects those in the drug trade, Norris says. But the city remains the most deadly in the country.

"There's no question it's newsworthy," says Danilo Yanich, an associate professor of urban affairs at the University of Delaware who has studied local news coverage of several major cities. "It's a question of how you present it and how often you present it." Putting together a newscast "is a zero-sum game," he says. "Violence moves everything else out, and it colors everything else."

In a 1998 study, Public Agenda, a not-for-profit research group, found this: "Most Baltimoreans get information about crime in their neighborhoods first-hand, but when it comes to Baltimore City they get it from the media - especially television. What resonates is bad news - stories about crime and violence. Good news about declining crime rates has yet to penetrate."

This is not simply a matter at the local level. An analysis by the Center for Media and Public Affairs determined that coverage of crime by the major networks, excluding the O.J. Simpson trial, rose from 1993 through 1999, even as national murder rates fell.

Staci Feger-Childers, the news director of WMAR, says her station's assignment editors now consider a quick checklist of concerns before sending someone to cover a shooting, or even a fatality. "Who does this affect? Is there something unusual?" she says they ask. "Let's step back and re-evaluate, instead of doing it reflexively."

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