No News Is Bad News

More Americans get their news from television than any other source. And more Americans get their news from local TV than from the networks.

One out of every three people in the United States watches either NBC Nightly News, ABC’s World News Tonight or the CBS Evening News. And one out of every three of us watches at least one of the all-news cable networks at some point in the day. But 57 percent of Americans watch a local newscast -- an Eyewitness News here, an Action News there, a Newscenter 4 or 6 or 8 somewhere else. And according to a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, those people are not well-served by what they see.

The good news is that, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, local stations are covering more foreign news than they used to, the figure rising from 4 percent in the previous four years to 9 percent in the year following the attacks. But the bad news about the good news, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, is that the overwhelming majority of this coverage consisted of "cut-and-paste stories from satellite feed footage." In other words, the stories were lacking in depth, in insight and in context. They filled time more than they relayed information.

Now the bad news about the rest of the news: Local stations continue to be fixated on crime; one out of every four of their reports, one out of every four of their minutes, is devoted to a rape or robbery, a murder or an assault. The problem with this kind of journalistic priority is that it makes viewers think these atypical occurrences are somehow the norm.

As researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered over the years, there are serious consequences to this illusion. People who watch a lot of local news tend to think the world is a more dangerous place than it really is, and as a result are more likely to avoid neighborhoods that they do not need to avoid, buy home security systems that they do not need to purchase, develop attitudes that are out of touch with reality. Local news, in other words, through its fascination with crime, costs viewers both money and peace of mind.

Approximately 10 percent of the Eyewitness or Action or Newscenter stories are human interest and 9 percent politics. In other words, these programs care more about senior citizens with perversely irrelevant hobbies than candidates for mayor in the upcoming election; they care more about teenagers who get their bodies pierced than proposals to expand or contract the reach of local or state government.

About other things, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, local news does not seem to care at all. Two percent of its stories are about education, arguably the most important topic in virtually any city or town. Another 2 percent of stories are devoted to transportation, arguably the second most important topic in virtually any city or town, especially to the huge percentage of its population who make up the commuting workforce.

It all seems to strengthen the argument of Fox News Watch panelist Neal Gabler, who believes that the purpose of much of what passes for journalism these days is entertainment, not enlightenment. Those who seek the latter find themselves faced with an ever-decreasing number of sources: certain programs on all-news cable, certain broadcast network offerings, certain print and internet sources. But, less than ever before, local TV newscasts.

The size of the Eyewitness and Action and Newscenter audience seems to indicate that many Americans prefer to be entertained rather than informed. Then again, maybe not. It might be true that 57 percent of us watch the preceding shows, but, less than a decade ago, the figure was 77 percent.

Perhaps it is time to put the news back into local news.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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