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News You Can Use?

More people get their local news from TV than anywhere else, but does it tell us what we need to know?

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

"The news starts NOW!"

The voice is urgent, authoritarian, like a ringmaster calling attention to the blindfolded motorcyclist on the high-wire. The 11 p.m. newscast on WBIR-TV Channel 10 is about to begin. And what does our most-watched local news operation have to tell us tonight about the many people, places, trends, and events that make up our community, our culture, our way of life?

Well, a pharmacist was shot in Clinton. A counterfeiter was arrested in Halls. A Jefferson County teenager accused of killing his father appeared in court. And police are looking for two men who allegedly killed a pair of teenage ice cream store workers in Clarksville.

Only two reports in the seven minutes and 13 seconds before the first commercial break run longer than 60 seconds. The first is a two-minute piece on inmates in local jails receiving Social Security checks illegally. Although the report quotes the Anderson County sheriff characterizing the cheats as "laying up like a big dog, collecting this money," and has a largely positive spin--the government getting tough with miscreants--it offers no account of how widespread the abuse might be, how much it's costing taxpayers each year, or why no one thought to get tough on it before.

The Sleaze Factor

A knife swoops down to cut a wrist. Horror-movie music plays in the background. A girl in a dark parking lot talks about demonic possession. Is it The X-Files? A rerun of The Exorcist? A Marilyn Manson video?

Nope. It's the 6 o'clock news. While tabloid-style reporting is still relatively rare in Knoxville's local TV news, it is making some inroads--particularly at one station.

Sam Swan, a UT professor of broadcasting, thinks the local broadcasts are generally restrained by the tastes of their audience.

"I think this is a conservative area, and I think the TV stations have pretty much reflected that conservatism," he says.

Local TV news directors all express strong distaste for the kind of hyperbolic, sleazy reporting that characterizes pseudo-news shows like Inside Edition --it's a style that emphasizes look over content with quick editing, soundtrack music, and visual effects.

Dave Winstrom, news director of Channel 8, admits the tabloid shows have had an impact on local news operations, especially in bigger cities.

"Over the years because of the trash shows, I think TV news...started to change and started to sensationalize. It was a sad thing for me to watch," he says. But, he swears, his newsroom "is not going to be the blood and guts station of this community."

So far, he's right. Since going on the air with its revamped staff in February, Channel 8 has presented generally staid newscasts (although it did air video of a Los Angeles bank robbery shoot-out three nights in a row). Channel 10, the local market leader, also shies away from tabloidism, which would contradict the station's folksy "Straight From the Heart" image.

But then there's WATE Channel 6. Although sleaze is far from a staple of the station's newscasts, it does rear its slimy head from time to time.

The most egregious recent example is a segment of a series by reporter John McDonnell purporting to offer an in-depth analysis of the occult-obsessed Kentucky teens who allegedly killed a family from Powell.

The three-minute report--epic by TV news standards--features an interview with a girl who had been friends with the teens before the killings. While she talks about their self-mutilation and occult rituals, spooky music plays in the background and a series of unexplained images pops up on the screen: a shot of a blade about to slice an arm; a full moon; and, just as the girl tells McDonnell, "They were always trying to conjure up demons, and maybe they just conjured up a demon that they couldn't deal with," a line drawing of a werewolf reaching out to grab a human skull.

"What am I supposed to make of that?" asks Jeff Wilkinson, another UT broadcasting professor and a fierce critic of local TV news. "That's the demon they conjured up?"

Channel 6 news director Martha Dooley sees nothing wrong with the report. Although it uses techniques she wouldn't use in normal news stories--slow motion, a moody soundtrack, a re-enactment--she says reporters have more leeway in preparing special reports.

"I think we've got maybe more license when we're calling it a series or a special report," she says.

Wilkinson disagrees. After watching the McDonnell report, he shakes his head in amazement. Asked for comment on it, he is at first speechless.

"It doesn't belong in a news show. It's a late-night cable entertainment show," he says finally. "What can you say about that? I hope I would flunk that in a news class."

But he understands the appeal tabloid techniques have for reporters trying to make a name for themselves--they get attention and generate response.

"That style catches your attention," he says. "We're hardwired to respond to techniques like that. I guess it's to keep your attention, because there's no news in this piece."

The other report is part of Channel 10's "Crackdown on Crime" series, and it begins with an almost incoherent introduction from spunky anchor Kim Stephens: "A gun may be one of the strongest deterrents to crime, but it can also be one of the deadliest. Windows, doors, and lights are also strong weapons, but the only people they hurt are the criminals." What she's getting at, it turns out, is a Knoxville Police Department program where cadets tell business owners how to crime-proof their establishments. At the end of the segment, Bill Williams, the sage godfather of local TV, turns to Stephens and says, "Sounds like a really good program."

"It is," Stephens agrees enthusiastically. "It's helping business owners, that's for sure."

"That's great," Williams rejoins.

Shootings, murders, cheaters, counterfeiters, locked doors, and blacked-out windows--this is local TV news. That's not all it is, of course. There are also stories about cute kids, courageous grandmothers, dedicated community volunteers, and weather--lots of weather. There's even government and political news, although as often as not it's limited to a slow pan across a room of stone-faced politicians coupled with a quote or two.

Local TV stations promise a lot. They promise to give us reports that are "special," "exclusive," and "in-depth." They promise news "Straight From the Heart," "Coverage You Can Count On," news that's "In Touch with East Tennessee." But how "in touch" is it? How well does it reflect who we are, what we care about, and what's really going on in our community?

"It's difficult for me to watch it, as a professional," says Jeff Wilkinson, an assistant professor of broadcasting at the University of Tennessee and a former TV and radio reporter. "I don't get my news from TV news. I get my 'infotainment' and my community calendar from TV news. I get crime stories and PR from the mayor's office, but I don't get news. I get tips on my health, I find out how to invest my money, I find out what community groups are having fund-raisers. But I don't get my news."

What Wilkinson means is he doesn't get thoughtful discussion of local issues, or context, or stories that look beyond the surface of the day's scripted events. He doesn't get news that's relevant to his life.

"I'm not sure what a bank robbery really means to someone like me," he says.

He's not the only one. In a community well-stocked with highly educated engineers, academics, technophiles, and other professionals, it's hard to believe there's not an unmet demand for news that's smarter, more innovative, and more probing.

A growing chorus of criticism sees local TV news as the leading edge of everything that's wrong with modern journalism--it's shallow, it's sensationalistic, it panders and condescends, it treats tragedy and triumph alike as fuel for the ratings machine. The protests have only been bolstered by the recent Jerry Springer controversy in Chicago, in which a respected anchor (former WBIR reporter Carol Marin) quit in disgust at the direction her station was taking.

Critics say local news operations across the country play up easy-to-get crime and disaster stories and puffy consumer and health pieces at the expense of more important, complex issues; handicap themselves through understaffing; base content and format decisions on the advice of out-of-town consultants; and rarely question the information given them by government and business leaders.

"If you interview news directors, they'll say well, we're just giving the audience what they want, that's what people want," says Phyllis Kaniss, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications and author of the 1991 book Making Local News, a critical analysis of print and broadcast media.

"And I always start by saying, you're not giving people what they want, you're giving people what's cheapest for you to produce that they're willing to watch. And what's cheapest for them to produce and audiences are willing to watch is crimes and fires and cheap consumer news that you can get from video news releases and other kinds of wires. It is not, I think, the information that people most want and most need."

News directors at local TV stations disagree vehemently. Although some are willing to admit to holes in their coverage, they argue strenuously--and sometimes convincingly--that they understand their role and fill it well.

"It's a very thoughtful process here," says Channel 8's Mark Shafer, who oversees news operations at all seven of the stations owned by WVLT's parent company, Gray Communications. "It isn't a perfect process. We're human beings and we fail. But we're not just making decisions based only on ratings or only on revenues or only on what's the most sensational thing we can put on the air tonight. We're doing things that are relevant to the community."

When told the working title for this article--"Why is TV news so bad?"--news directors react with a combination of bewilderment and dismay.

"I'll disagree with you there," says Channel 10's Margie Nichols. "I think we do a pretty good job."

"I'll disagree with your fundamental premise," Shafer echoes. And Martha Dooley, news director for Channel 6, asks with convincing bafflement, "Who thinks it's so bad?"

It's a good question, considering the three stations collectively are by far the most popular source of local news. Sam Swan, another UT professor of broadcasting, says the local 6 p.m. newscasts garner more than a 50 percent share of viewers each day (in other words, more than half of all TV sets turned on at 6 p.m. are tuned to one or another of the news shows). Nichols claims 160,000 viewers in 22 counties for her show alone.

And while newspaper readership nationwide is shrinking and the number of newspapers is falling every year, TV news is on a roll (60 percent of Channel 10's viewers don't read a daily newspaper). All three Knoxville stations have expanded their offerings in the past year, with Channels 6 and 10 adding more early morning and late afternoon coverage, and Channel 8 re-igniting its long-absent morning and 11 p.m. broadcasts. Then there's our Fox affiliate, WTNZ Channel 43, which has plans for its own local 10 p.m. news show starting sometime in the next year.

What's more, Swan, who's done consulting work and audience surveys for all three local stations, says his research shows most area viewers like what they see.

"The audience in the Knoxville market is generally very pleased with the news product on TV," he asserts (including a lot of Metro Pulse readers, apparently, who voted Bill Williams their favorite Knoxville media personality).

Even Wilkinson allows that Knoxville TV news is not as objectionable as its counterparts in most larger cities.

"It's probably as good here as most other places, and it's not as bad in some ways," he says. "Part of it is [that] the culture here won't allow it to be as sensational as Orlando or Miami, where they hitch the blood and guts up front."

So what's not to like? The answer has to do with what TV news is, what it isn't, and what it should be.

What It Does

There are a lot of different kinds of news. Local TV covers some of them well, some of them badly, and some of them barely at all.

Weather, for example, gets a huge amount of attention, and it's a subject TV--with its immediacy and ability to interrupt programming for updates--is uniquely positioned to cover. All the local stations brag about their trained meteorologists and fancy forecasting equipment. In the average half-hour broadcast--which contains about 22 minutes of non-commercial airtime--weather typically gets at least three to four minutes. If something significant is happening (snow, sleet, tornadoes, big temperature drops), weather will often be the lead story, followed by a lengthy forecast later in the program.

Whether or not the average viewer really wants all the weather information TV news provides--one computerized map after another showing the same cold front four different ways--it's at least an area where it can't be accused of lack of depth. News directors say it's also the part of the broadcast viewers count on the most.

"It is critically important," Nichols says. "It's why people watch," especially the 11 p.m. broadcasts.

TV reporters are also generally good on one-day events, like a recent project at Morningside Park where children were designing their own playground. "Design Day" was heavily promoted with press releases and phone calls from the organizers, and TV stations responded. Of course, it's hard to mess up those kinds of stories--there's no shortage of people to say upbeat, positive things about the project, and event planners are usually conscious of providing some good visuals for the TV cameras.

But then there's the crime, car wreck, and disaster coverage. It's a subject that makes news directors a tad touchy. Yes, they acknowledge, they do it. But they insist the stories are important to viewers and are balanced with pieces that put crime into context and offer "solutions."

Shafer says viewer surveys show "the number one thing people want to know about is emergency weather. But after that, crime and crime prevention are the two things that are most in demand across the United States from television news viewers. It's what touches my life most immediately, what can do the greatest damage to me and my family in the least amount of time."

But is it really what touches most people's lives most immediately, in a relatively low-crime city like Knoxville? Take the recent example of Tony Vick, who pleaded guilty a few weeks ago to killing his girlfriend and burying her in a West Knox backyard. His conviction came the same day as Mayor Victor Ashe's 1997-98 budget proposal, which includes an 8-cent property tax increase. The Vick story led most local newscasts, with the budget relegated to a lower spot and less coverage time (the exception being Channel 10, which showed some moxy in getting the budget information the day before it was publicly released and led the previous night's broadcast with it). Vick's plea might be more interesting in a prurient way, but the budget will have a lot more impact on the 170,000 residents of the city of Knoxville.

There are a few simple reasons for crime's high profile on the news. Obviously, it's attention-grabbing--as Don Henley sang in his TV-bashing anthem "Dirty Laundry:" "It's interesting when people die." It's also relatively easy to find. Reporters just have to listen to emergency scanners for anything that sounds exciting and can even call special numbers at the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff's Department for tape-recorded crime updates. And it's usually easy to explain--one guy killed another guy, a woman got shot while trying to buy drugs, a house burned down because of a cigarette in a wastebasket.

Kaniss sees the coverage as pernicious on two counts--it takes time away from other issues and promotes a distorted vision of a world beset with danger.

"I think that the coverage of crime doesn't serve anyone, it doesn't serve any useful purpose," she says. "I think it makes people fearful, I think it makes people fear inner cities [and] minorities, and it just masks the fact that there are many, many problems facing society that have nothing to do with crime."

To be fair, there are plenty of days when crime is not the lead story on local broadcasts. In recent weeks, issues as diverse as a controversial TVA powerline in Blount County, a Knoxville Police Department scandal, and UT budget cuts have all held the top spot. But news directors' arguments that crime gets no more weight than any other issue are undercut by the stories they choose to do. It's interesting that while governmental issues and economic trends in most of our metro area's outlying counties get scant attention on the local news, almost every homicide, highway fatality, and deadly fire from Greeneville to Crossville is diligently reported. The implicit message is that the most important thing that happens in our rural areas is people occasionally get killed.

The two other subjects all three local stations pay consistent attention to are health and consumer issues. They all have some variation on a "Healthcast" and run special reports, from Channel 6's current cancer information panel, where viewers can call in with questions about preventing and coping with the disease, to Channel 10's tie-ins with the hit show ER, in which a medical technique or illness depicted on the show is followed by a report on the same topic in the 11 o'clock newscast.

On the surface, it's hard to object--health is at least more clearly relevant to most viewers' lives than crime. But while, as Dooley points out, the stations usually find local experts or patients to interview for their stories, health is not a local issue per se. There are plenty of sources for health information, most of them more informative than a two-minute TV report. There are not, however, plenty of sources for the other kinds of local news TV stations could be doing instead.

The consumer reports are even more problematic. For one thing, they often include canned video footage of national experts, which is paired with local voice-overs and interviews to give it a local flavor. More to the point, they aren't usually all that enlightening. A recent Channel 8 story, for example, listed eight ways to keep more of what you earn. Among the suggestions: eat out less and pay off credit card balances each month.

The Sleeping Watchdog

The corollary to criticisms of what TV news does put on the air is a frustration with what it doesn't do. Critics see this most explicitly in simplistic coverage of government affairs and social issues, and in a lack of courage in delving into what goes on behind the scenes of our local institutions.

In fact, our local stations are capable of good government and political reporting. Coverage of last year's complex Knox County unification proposal is a case in point. If the TV reports weren't as detailed as those in the print media, they were at least abundant. And just last week, Channel 10 ran an interesting series comparing the resuscitations of downtown Asheville and Chattanooga with Knoxville, asking some pointed questions about the reasons for our city's inertia.

But the series partly stood out because it was unusual, a deviation from what TV news stations usually offer.

"It's a matter of definition," Wilkinson says. "If what you're talking about is these lightweight, shallow, dumb-it-down-to-the-third-grade-level [reports], they probably do some good things for the community. But if your idea of news is the Fourth Estate, a check on the institutions in your area, shining a spotlight in the smoke-filled rooms, that's not what they do. Yeah, they're very good at giving you a 60-second spot on CPR. But they're not very good at finding out what's going on in the corridors of power in East Tennessee...What we're not getting is the influence peddling, the shady road contract awards, graft and corruption in City Hall. We know there are about a dozen major players that really determine what's going on in this region, and they're the ones who never get reported on."

Channels 6 and 10 both purport to offer in-depth analysis of the local scene via Sunday morning talk shows modeled on the network panel programs. But most of the panel regulars--like former mayoral flack George Korda, political rainmaker Tom Ingram, and Ingram Group employees James Pratt and Susan Richardson-Williams--are part of the local power structure and hardly likely to attack the geese that lay their golden eggs.

When it comes to actually raking muck on government and business leaders, local TV is almost never in the lead. For example, while all the stations did cover the recent Knoxville Police Department hit-and-run scandal, they found out about it, like the rest of us, from the newspaper. Likewise, what limited TV coverage there was last year of a questionable golf junket taken by several Knox County Commissioners was derived almost entirely from News-Sentinel reporting.

(This is not to overly praise our daily paper--it has plenty of glaring flaws of its own. Kaniss' book devotes several chapters to the problems of local newspapers, which in many ways mirror her concerns about TV news. She also has a section critiquing alternative weeklies of the Metro Pulse variety, which she says spend too much time on entertainment and "fail to provide a consistent alternative voice on local policy debates.")

Kaniss sees a few important reasons for this. First, she says, TV stations are understaffed.

"I think it's interesting to compare for any given city the number of reporters who are typically employed by the newspaper in the city, who are covering that same region, as compared with the local television newscast in the city," she says. "You just don't have many people covering the news of an entire region for a local television station, and that means very few resources for actually finding out what's going on out there."

In Knoxville, The News-Sentinel has more than 30 reporters covering government, business, crime, feature stories, and state and regional happenings. (That's not counting the entertainment and sports staffs.) Channel 10, by Nichols' count, has eight full-time reporters and seven reporter/anchors. Channel 8 has a total of 17 reporters and anchors. Dooley won't say exactly how many people she has, but allows that it's "competitive" with other stations.

Since those staffs have to cover news seven days a week, a TV news operation may have as few as four or five reporters working on any given day. Kaniss says that puts pressure on reporters to cover whatever's easiest to get to, rather than working on more complicated stories or developing long-term relationships with sources that can lead to major stories later on.

News directors say they would like to have more reporters but simply can't afford it. Dooley notes all three stations are competing for the same advertising dollars, while the Sentinel has a stronghold on big-ticket print advertising. But Kaniss says most TV newscasts are still big money-makers, because TV stations get to keep all the advertising revenue from locally-produced shows (they have to split ad revenue on national shows with the networks). According to studies, TV stations operate with about a 15 percent profit margin, much of which comes from local news. The question, Kaniss says, is how that money is spent.

"The resources in local television news, I think, go toward hardware," she says. "They go toward helicopters and satellite trucks and salaries for anchors and that sort of thing. They do not go toward increasing the number of people who are covering the news."

But she also sees a more fundamental reason for the shortfall of substantive reporting, one that goes to the heart of the TV news debate.

What do Viewers Want?

Over the last few decades, Kaniss says, news operations have become increasingly driven by market research and analysis performed by consultants. Almost all stations now hire outside firms to do periodic evaluations of their newscasts and make recommendations for increasing viewership.

The research, Kaniss says, repeatedly shows viewers get bored by government reporting, respond emotionally to crime and disaster stories, and are stimulated by flashy graphics and fast-paced reports. The result has been a generic sameness in newscasts from coast to coast.

"When I've done research on what kinds of stories they've been doing around the country, you see that the very same topic is done in market after market after market," Kaniss says, "because the ideas come from consultants. They're not even locally generated."

Again, news directors protest. They say consultants mostly give advice on presentation--not content--and only offer opinions, not dictates.

"They simply give you ideas, they don't force you to do anything," Dooley says. "It was never, 'You have to do this,' and no one has ever said to me don't do certain kinds of news."

Shafer, who spent three years working for the Dallas-based national consulting firm Audience Research and Development, says consultants just help TV stations identify the needs and tastes of their consumers.

What the audience wants is, in fact, the primary defense of TV news, and it can be a compelling argument. If all consultants are doing is making TV news more responsive to its audience, what's wrong with that?

Nothing, says UT's Swan, a consultant himself and also a former reporter.

"My general impression of local TV news around the country is that it continues to get better and better," he says--more professional, more sophisticated, more attuned to the needs of the community.

News directors argue that what they give viewers is what people want from a 30-minute broadcast. If they want more information on any topic, they say, there are plenty of other sources for it.

"We're not here to give you all the details, we're here to give you an overview of what happened today," Nichols says. "For some things, that's all people want, that's all they desire. And then there's stories where I'll read The News-Sentinel and I'll read the Wall Street Journal and I'll read one of the newsweeklies. We can't do what a newspaper can, and the newspaper can't do what Newsweek can. There are all different levels of information."

Shafer adds, "There are some articles in the newspaper that take 15 to 20 minutes to read, and that's great, that's wonderful. [But] the average person is not going to read everything in the newspaper... We're not trying to provide 20 minutes of information on one subject. We're trying to provide 20 to 30 minutes of information on a lot of things that happened in the community that day. I don't think that means we're shallow. I think that just means we understand what our role in the community is."

If people aren't satisfied with the coverage they're getting, he says, they'll let TV stations know, either by complaining or by tuning out. But does the public know enough to say what it wants or what it's not getting? The question makes Shafer bristle.

"There's an assumption that I think is the most incredible form of elitist arrogance that says, 'I know what you need better than you know for yourself,'" he says. "I am so offended by that assumption, and many journalists have it, and many more of the sort of Ivory Tower critics of journalism have it."

It's a strong point--who's to say reports on cancer or home finance or child safety aren't more important on a day-to-day basis to most people than the Byzantine workings of TVA or the endless political silliness of County Commission? Channel 10 has trumpeted at least two cases where a fire prevention special it ran helped save people's lives, which is more than most political exposés can claim.

A Gloomy Forecast

But Shafer maybe takes it too far when he makes an analogy to the automobile industry--in the 1970s, he says, consumers may not have known enough to tell Detroit automakers how to build a better car, but they knew enough to start buying more efficient Japanese vehicles, which sent the same message. The problem is, there are no Japanese cars in local TV news. We have the equivalent of the Big Three all doing the same thing, with no competition. (There is the upcoming Fox newscast, but it's hard not to shudder when you ponder what kind of show it will take to hold the attention of Cops and Melrose Place viewers.)

That's why Wilkinson questions most television audience research. Since, by his reckoning, most people have never seen really good TV news, it's hard for them to say what it should look like.

"All they're doing is rating what they're already being given," he says. "It's flawed research. If you gave them something out [of the ordinary], they would probably love it. But they don't ask for it, because they don't know what it is."

Kaniss agrees. She suspects the reason government, social, and economic reporting ranks so low with viewers is because it's often done badly. Given the choice between the crime of the day and an intelligent discussion of a serious local issue, she thinks a lot of people would choose the intelligent discussion.

Nichols, a former award-winning investigative reporter herself, isn't so sure.

"Look at MacNeil/Lehrer," she says, referring to the hour-long, wordy, detailed newscast on PBS (now known as the News Hour with Jim Lehrer). "They do a great product. Nobody watches. I mean, I watch it...[But] they're doing what these media critics say we should do. And nobody's watching. We're here to make money. They're not. They do a great job at what they do. If we did that, we'd die. I'd be fired."

She may be right, in which case the fault is less in our local TV stars than in ourselves. But in a community with Knoxville's high-end demographics, there may also be a middle ground somewhere between Action 10 News and MacNeil/Lehrer--a market for more thoughtful, analytical, and challenging local news, a market no one's found because no one's really looking.

Wilkinson thinks a starting point would be to hire more reporters, give them more time to work on stories, and give them more incentives--financial and otherwise--to stay at a station long enough to develop real knowledge of their community. Kaniss, for one, isn't optimistic it's an effort anyone will undertake soon.

"You will find selected stations around the country, but the trend seems to be in the other direction of dumbing-down," she says. She cites a recent case in which a Phoenix, Ariz., TV station that had built a reputation for intelligent, off-beat, interesting newscasts changed radically after its corporate owner (Scripps-Howard, the same company that owns The News-Sentinel) brought in a new station manager with a mandate to improve ratings. Symbolic of the remodeling: He replaced the station's distinctive slogan--"No Chit- Chat"--with the appealingly bland and vacuous "Live, local, late-breaking."

"I'm not," Kaniss says, "really hopeful for the future."