Monday, March 22, 2010

Stating the Obvious

A new study by the Norman Lear Center at USC's Annenberg School has found that an average half-hour of L.A. local television news packed all its local government coverage - including budget, law enforcement, education, layoffs, new ordinances, voting procedures, personnel changes, city and county government actions on health care, transportation and immigration - into 22 seconds.

But crime stories filled seven times more of the broadcast, averaging 2 minutes, 50 seconds. Sports and weather took the most time: 3 minutes, 36 seconds. Soft news - human interest, oddball stories and miscellaneous fluff - took up the next-largest chunk after crime, averaging 2 minutes, 26 seconds.

Who knew?

Well, most of us, actually. Anyone who has even casually tuned in to local TV news over the last several decades has witnessed the "if it bleeds, it leads" philosophy that subordinates the day's events to the grisly crime du jour.

The Annenberg people seem to have spent a lot of time and energy to state the obvious.

Indeed, a study done in 1998 by the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs concluded that murder is at the top of the agenda on local television news shows. Stories about city government activities get little attention.

A University of Delaware study in 1999 found that crime stories claim more air time than any other type of story, from public issues and human-interest features to election news.

So what's thepoint of this new study?

"All the L.A. TV stations tell the FCC that they're serving the local public interest," said Martin Kaplan, Annenberg professor and Lear Center director, who was principal investigator on the project, along with Seton Hall professor Matthew Hale.

"These numbers decode what they actually mean by that." He added, "Local television is a profitable business, despite the recession, and newscasts are a big reason why. If stations spend only 22 seconds covering local government, they must really believe it's ratings poison."

One could argue that it is in fact ratings poison. From 1978 to 2008, the average city turnout for a mayoral election was 30 percent; it was 15 percent for a municipal election that is not citywide.

Given those figures, any TV news director worth his breaking news is not about to turn his 6 o'clock news show into C-SPAN no matter how high minded he may be.

It's all about ratings, after all.

It does, however, raise an interesting chicken-and-egg debate. Is audience indifference to local government affairs the result of shoddy television programming? Or does TV merely reflect its audience's apathy?

Probably some of both. Certainly brick-and-mortar governmental coverage isn't always sexy. And TV doesn't invest a lot of time and money in investigative reporting. So local government coverage gets the short end of the television stick.

But local newspapers, public television and radio cover local government activity, so there is clearly an appetite for that kind of news.

So what's to be done?

"There is serious cause for concern here," said attorney George Kieffer, who is a member of the Los Angeles Civic Alliance, a group of community leaders. "Most people get their local news from television. If local television isn't doing the job, we can hardly expect our citizens to be aware of what is going on with our governments."

Kieffer said that he expected the civic community now to begin to weigh in on license renewals based on the degree of local hard news coverage.

Challenging licenses is not going to change the journalistic landscape for the long term, however. And unfortunately, with the decline of newspaper revenues and readership, there will be fewer and fewer watchdogs to keep an eye on our public servants.

What well-funded and resourceful organizations like the Lear Center and the Civic Alliance need to do is fill the gap.

Use their resources to form a team of reporters and editors to cover and investigate local government activities and publish and publicize their work using the latest in electronic media.

This would not only help fulfill the critical watchdog role; the competition would make other media outlets improve their coverage.

Conducting dubious surveys and waiting for local TV to step up to the plate is a no-win game.

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