San Francisco Bay Area television news directors claim a higher standard for their broadcasts than “if it bleeds, it leads.” Yet their reporting of isolated crime incidents has grown by 44% from just three years ago, says a survey by an organization called Grade the News. In the first half of 2003, more than one of every six minutes on these local newscasts described a particular crime. That’s more than the time the stations devoted to stories about economics, education, medicine and the environment combined, the group reports. The analysis focused on the most watched newscast segments and excluded stories about terrorism.
Except for a recent spike in the number of murders, the report notes, overall violent crime is down and has been falling for years.
The increased reliance on episodes of crime to inexpensively fill newscasts may inflate the bottom line for stations, but experts warn it also could have bad consequences for public policy, and perhaps weaken communities by making people more mistrustful.
The Grade the News analysis focused only on these problematic episodic reports of crime — stories centered on a particular tragic event. It excluded stories treating crime as an issue — looking at trends, causes, effects or solution.
In the Grade the News sample three newsrooms, two television stations and one newspaper, increased their episodic coverage of crime substantially. KNTV Channel 11 in San Jose reported the most episodic crime of all, about 22% of the measured airtime. The other four newsrooms, two each in television and print, either stayed about the same or decreased.
One reason for the increase is the Laci Peterson case. Grade the News says that almost a year after she was killed, “even the stations that pledged to go on low-crime diets were doggedly covering the minutiae at the preliminary hearing of husband Scott on murder charges.”
Some journalists say the higher television crime coverage is a reaction to a troubling increase in murder, particularly in Oakland. Even some of the most crime-focused newsrooms are talking about what messages they are sending the public. “The discussion we have daily is how we can minimize our crime coverage,” said Ed Chapuis, news director at KTVU Channel 2 in Oakland.