Cover Story


Guns and Bunnies:

Is.Local.News.Going.Tabloid?

by Bruce VanWyngarden

First, the good news: Compared to local newscasts nationwide, Memphis’ television newscasts are slightly better than average. Now, the really bad news: The average local television news broadcast in America, according to some media critics, has become little more than a ratings-driven video stew of crime scenes, violence and disaster footage, self-promotion and fluff, punctuated by anchor chatter and an overload of commercials.

While that view may be a bit extreme, even a casual viewer of Memphis’ local newscasts can see plenty of blatant commercialism, self-promotion, and gratuitous sensationalism masquerading as news.

So, just how bad is the news in Memphis? And what’s good about it? We decided to find out. The Flyer editorial staff monitored the late newscasts of all five local television stations for five nights during the week of November 18-22. Staffers taped and timed the contents, breaking the time between sign-on and sign-off into four broad categories: News, Commercials, Sports, and Weather. We then further analyzed the News segment of the broadcast, measuring what percentage was devoted to mayhem (crime, disaster, violence) and how much to fluff (soft news, celebrities, promos, oddities, and trivia). Our methods echoed as closely as possible those used in a national survey conducted last year by the Denver-based Rocky Mountain Media Watch (see box).

It was an unexceptional news week in Memphis. The two major local stories were the murder trial and conviction of William Hughes, and Boatmen’s Bank laying off local workers. Other nights, lead stories ranged from WMC’s television movie tie-in about "scaring your teen straight" to WREG’s coverage of a trailer fire in Mississippi to WLMT’s look at police patrolling I-40 for contraband.

The structures of all five local newscasts are similar: an opening segment of news presented by a pair of anchors, commercial breaks, a weather segment, more commercial breaks, sports, commercial breaks, and a "light" wrap-up item. There are, however wide disparities between stations in the time allotted for the various segments, and in the content of what constitutes "news."

On all stations, local, national, and international stories are juxtaposed at random. A robbery at a Memphis Mapco may be followed by a fire in Hong Kong followed by an O. J. update. All stations also offered "exclusive" local stories, which ranged from WLMT’s "investigation" into E. coli bacteria in local apple juice (there was none) to WMC’s three-night look at "Those Amazing Animals." The highest rated stations — Channel 5 and Channel 3 — offer the fewest minutes of news and the most commercials. In a surprising finding, WHBQ-13’s hour newscast at 9 p.m. had by far the lowest mayhem index, though its fluff index was highest. While there were bright spots during the week, the sad truth is almost every station in Memphis allotted more than 60 percent of its news slot to mayhem and fluff.

Why do they do it? Why would a Memphis television station run stories about a fire in Hong Kong, or an explosion in an abandoned Colorado building, or a satanic ritual in North Carolina, rather than covering more local stories? The answer is easy, say critics — ratings. Provocative programming means higher ratings, and the higher the ratings, the higher the commercial revenue. John McManus, author of Market Driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware, was quoted recently in the San Francisco Bay Guardian: "What happens in local newsrooms is for the most part a search for stories not on the basis of their importance but their ability to generate large audiences."

Paul Klite, director of Rocky Mountain Media Watch, calls this syndrome "Tabloid Fever." "It’s equally bad all over the country," he says. "There are over 700 stations broadcasting local news, all copying each other. Memphis is no different."

Klite says local news is a breed apart from national broadcasts. "Watch Rather or Jennings," he says. "It’s not perfect, but it’s 75 percent news. Local news has more commercials than anything on the air except infomercials."

Local news directors, not surprisingly, find Klite’s criticisms mostly unjustified. "We’re not the BBC," says Ken Jobe, news director of WMC. "We have to sell to survive. We may not cover all the bases every night, but over the course of a week I think we, meaning all local newscasts, do a pretty good job."

Jeff Alan, the brand-new news director at WPTY and WLMT, contends that his stations are trying to do a better job of avoiding gratuitous crime reporting. "We want to do stories that help people cope. If we just show a crime scene, it doesn’t help anyone."

Jim Redmond, a former television anchor who now teaches television news at the University of Memphis, would agree with Alan’s statement, but he doesn’t see much evidence of that philosophy in reality. Redmond says the quest for ratings is steadily diminishing the quality of television journalism. "This has been happening for two decades. All the stations now do market research to help them find out what people are interested in. If people say they’re concerned about ‘crime,’ then television will give it to them. It’s all about survival. These news directors and anchors and reporters aren’t bad people, they’re just caught in the system. The bottom line for all of them is: If ratings go down, they lose their jobs."

Indeed, during the past year, three out of four local news directors did lose their jobs. Jobe, at top-rated WMC, is the only survivor from 1995, proving that local news is a cutthroat business.

Craig Jahelka has been news director at WREG for three months. He says criticism of local news is warranted in some markets, but in Memphis the tabloid factor is not a particular problem. "When we lead with a fatal trailer fire in Mississippi, for example, we’re serving a large portion of our market. What people forget is that a great many of our viewers live outside the city, and those people could learn something from that story."

Jahelka acknowledges the role of ratings and market research in the content of the news, but he contends that stations use research as a tool to serve their viewers. "Research tells us what people think are the important issues, which enables us to focus on stories that are relevant to them."

Jobe notes that ratings and news are not always incompatible. "You’ll see 60 Minutes do a serious story, then follow with a celebrity profile. They’re not mutually exclusive. We may think about ratings when we do a news story that’s tied to a movie, but we don’t do it unless we know it’s a legitimate concern for people."

This blend of entertainment and news is a growing phenomenon. Redmond says it’s no accident that local news sets look more and more like Entertainment Tonight. The problem is, when news isn’t particularly entertaining, it tends to get overlooked. "City council isn’t visual," says Redmond. "Neither is the legislature. It’s hard to do quick, flashy news items about government or education. Yet, research tells television programmers that when people get bored they hit the clicker, so the news has to be fast-paced and exciting to hold viewers."

"Religion doesn’t offer compelling pictures," counters Jahelka, "and yet we’re covering it every day because we know it’s important to people." Still, the numbers are undeniable: mayhem and fluff dominate local newscasts. And the ramifications go deeper than just a decline in the quality of local television news. Critics such as Klite and Redmond point out how news shapes public opinion. "Television focuses on ‘bang-bang’ crime," says Redmond. "It’s perfect for local news. You show the cop car, the grieving, angry neighbors, the yellow tape. You wrap it up in a minute, and move on." This type of "reporting," unfortunately, skews public opinion and defines "crime" in a particular way. Embezzlement, bribery, and tax evasion, for example, are crimes that require more subtle reporting and seldom make it onto the screen.

"This kind of crime reporting also has a kind of ‘feel-good’ effect for some people," adds Redmond. "If someone in the suburbs sees a shooting in South Memphis or Midtown on the news, it makes him feel better about his decision to live in Cordova. And it increases his fear of going into the city, even though most Midtown neighborhoods may be as safe as his is."

"It’s interesting to compare what appears in the daily paper to what gets on the local evening news," says Klite. "A robbery may get two paragraphs in the police reports in the paper, but it might be the lead item on the evening news if a camera crew gets to the crime scene. Local television newscasts are binging on this stuff. It’s become violence, triviality, then a commercial, night after night. And this is supposed to tell people what’s going on in their community? It’s frightening."

So just how much violence and triviality are we getting in our local newscasts? Is it as bad as the critics contend? The amount of mayhem and fluff varies, from night to night and from station to station, but certain trends did emerge over the course of a week. And as our survey makes clear, when it comes to guns and bunnies, the news isn’t very good.

The Week That Was

WREG Channel 3 CBS

Though its mayhem index was just slightly lower than WMC’s, Memphis’s number-two-rated station led with more mayhem stories than any other newscast in town during the week — four out of five nights. The stories were as follows: the sexual abuse of a first grader at a local school; a pregnant woman’s miscarriage at The Med; an inmate’s escape from jail; Boatmen’s Bank layoffs; and a fatal trailer fire in Tate County, Mississippi.

On Tuesday night, every story but one on WREG’s newscast was fluff or mayhem. The first five stories were the pregnant woman’s miscarriage at The Med; an Illinois plane crash; the William Hughes murder verdict; an Arkansas teen sentenced for killing his family; and a murderer in Orange Mound who was still at large. After a 22-second story on a new Foote Homes design project, more than two and a half minutes were devoted to Bruce Springsteen’s concert at Ellis Auditorium. The rest of the news consisted of stories about the upcoming Titanic exhibit; Danny Glover speaking to school kids; a Bicentennial Train; a Beale Street award; and another 30 seconds on Springsteen.

Other notable guns-and-bunny stories aired during the week included: a Sly Stallone commemorative stamp; a plug for Sarah Ferguson’s Letterman appearance; a Hong Kong fire; and a feature on the new Star Trek movie.

On the positive side, WREG offered an original report on the effectiveness of home AIDs tests; a report on the safety of airports without control towers; and a story on outgoing Transportation Secretary Henry Cisneros and his contributions to Memphis.

Anchors Pam McKelvey and Jerry Tate present the news straightforwardly and professionally for the most part, though WREG’s level of anchor chatter is fairly high.

WMC Channel 5 NBC

The highest-rated evening news station also had the highest mayhem rating for the week. But WMC tended to feature its violent stories less prominently than WREG and give more play to its fluff pieces. WMC’s five lead stories included a tie-in to the television movie What Kind of Mother Are You? called, "Scaring Your Teen Straight"; two nights of the Hughes murder case; the Boatmen’s Bank story; and "exclusive" O.J. coverage.

WMC also devoted three nights (and nine minutes of news time) to a series called, "Those Amazing Animals," which featured segments on guide dogs for the blind, horses helping the handicapped, and puppies and kittens at a senior facility. Other guns-and-bunny stories during the week included pieces on 101 Dalmatians; a North Carolina man arrested for trying to use virgins in a satanic ritual; a woman falling out of a window (not locally); a snake in a Phoenix toilet; a woman injured parachuting off the Seattle Space Needle; an explosion in an abandoned building in Colorado; the new Star Trek movie; and behind the scenes of the sitcom Seinfeld.

On the plus side, anchors Joe Birch and Kim Hindrew have an undeniable chemistry and are probably the most enjoyable news team in town to watch. Both also have the ability to laugh at themselves, which helps when you’re delivering a story about a snake in a toilet.

WMC also offers a couple of regular segments, "Health Cast," and the oddly fascinating "Food for Thought," which often have genuinely helpful information. The station did good pieces on the quality of life for women in the Mid-South and on African Americans and heart disease, as well.

WPTY Channel 24 ABC

After a year on the air WPTY has almost caught up with the big boys — not in the ratings, but at least when it comes to mayhem and fluff. Its guns-and-bunnies index lags slightly behind WMC’s and WREG’s, but due to a relative dearth of commercials, WPTY offers more news per half-hour than the other two. However, the news that’s offered is unfortunately more of the same — a mix of local, national, and international stories, presented without any particular logic. On Thursday night WPTY offered the following fairly typical sequence: U of M students investigated for a brawl; four teenagers charged with an Arkansas murder; a preppie Maryland college couple who killed their baby; a Puerto Rican explosion; O.J. testifies tomorrow.

Other notable guns-and-bunny pieces during the week included: an Oregon interstate sinking; the Monkees on tour; the ever-popular Hong Kong fire; a new Cuban cigar; Pamela Lee’s divorce; and the national Oscar Meyer wiener song winner. (You had to hear it to believe it.)

WPTY’s anchor team of Bill Lund and Lynn Carthane is probably the second-best in town, particularly Carthane, who has a dry wit and is not afraid to use it. Weatherman Brian Teigland is another edgy diversion, as he often seems about this close to breaking into a Robin Williams routine. WPTY’s biggest problem appears to be a lack of local reporting resources, which makes for more national footage, much of which has been covered on the national news earlier in the day.

WHBQ Channel 13 Fox

This is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. WHBQ offers an hour-long newscast at 9 p.m., which means it competes with prime-time programming on the other stations. That said, Fox’s Memphis outlet offers considerably more local news than any other station in town, and with a much lower mayhem index. In fact, WHBQ was the biggest surprise in our survey. Local stories were the lead each night, including Morris Fair’s selection to the Shelby County Commission; two nights of the Hughes trial and verdict; Boatmen’s Bank layoffs; and a solution to car thefts at the University of Memphis.

WHBQ was the only station in town to cover city council activities, including the tabling of the sports authority and funding for Mud Island; the Four Way Grill bailout proposal; local cable rates going up; and Joyce Broffit’s appointment as the first black judge in Division 9. Violent stories were placed low in the newscast, for the most part. A shooting in Orange Mound that was featured near the top of other stations’ newscasts was the eighth item in Fox’s broadcast and given only 20 seconds.

Because of the newscast’s hour length, much of the second half of the show is fluff, including entertainment feeds from CNN, "Hollywood Minute," and celebrity items. Still, WHBQ has by far the most complete local newscast, with prepackaged segments on science, business, health, and a "World in a Minute" feature that packs all that irresistible footage of explosions and fires in Hong Kong, Colorado, and Puerto Rico into one tidy bundle.

Notable bunny stories for the week were: a piece on "Dalmatian Mania"; the Oscar Meyer wiener winner; a Mississippi woman who eats clay; the world’s largest cup of hot chocolate; and a surrogate gorilla at the San Diego Zoo.

Anchor Claudia Barr and interim anchor Rob Sawyer were competent, but uninspired. Sawyer’s replacement is Steve Dawson, who started the week after our survey.

WLMT Channel 30 UPN

WLMT also offers a 9 p.m. news show, but with a twist: According to news director Jeff Alan, the station is specifically gearing its newscast to an African-American audience. However, aside from the fact that both anchors — Robb Harleston and Ken Houston — are black, there was little difference in content on WLMT from its sister station, WPTY. To be fair, Alan arrived in Memphis the week after we did our survey, so the station may not have hit its new stride yet.

One night, WLMT offered an interesting look at the Memphis Police Department’s patrol of I-40, tying it into the Supreme Court’s ruling on illegal searches. But for the most part, it was the same old stuff — fires, crashes, crime, and fluff. In fact, WLMT’s fluff rating was the second-highest in our survey, which, when paired with the obvious lack of local reporting resources, made for a newscast that seemed, well, a bit skimpy. Video quality on WLMT was also poorer than its competition. On the plus side, sports anchor Damon Andrews has come a long way in a year. His commentaries are upbeat and often clever.

It would be interesting to see how a station geared to Memphis’ large African-American population would fare if it were given adequate resources. One suspects the potential upside would be huge. But until that happens, WLMT remains a work in progress.

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