The group surveyed local broadcasts in Miami, New York City, Syracuse, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Chicago and Austin, as well as Eugene, Oregon and Syracuse, New York, over four randomly selected days in November, January, February and April. The tally found that crime stories took precedence over reports on government affairs, politics, race relations and education by a margin of two to one.
"I hope television news executives will use this survey's results to help determine if the content of their newscasts accurately reflects events and issues in their communities," says Joseph Angotti, head of the consortium and former senior vice president of NBC News.
Local news executives reacted to the study with some mixed emotions. On the one hand, says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio TV News Directors Association, there is a lot of crime in big cities--and no other medium does a better job of getting out the news about it. "When there's a threat to public safety, as in the case of a rapist, it's important for people to know (right away)."
But Cochran admits crime coverage can get excessive. "We've all seen examples of coverage where it seems the crime wasn't all that newsworthy. It was just an easy choice on a given day. But examples of that, I believe, are lessening."
John Cullinton, general manager of KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, says his team increasingly tries to put crime news in perspective. "After the (Ennis) Cosby murder, we did a story 'How likely are you to be randomly killed in L.A.' And we learned that it's not very likely. We got a lot of positive feedback on that story--from the media and others."
ABC-affiliate WPLG in Miami has broken with tradition altogether--and still leads the ratings in the 6 p.m. time slot. "We try to stay away from crime--it's the easiest thing to cover," says Omar Sobrino, assistant news director at the station. "We actually try to go in the other direction." Sobrino says the station covers a lot of education stories, such as overcrowding in schools, which he says is a big problem in Miami. "It's a misnomer to say that crime drives ratings," Cullinton adds.
But education and government don't always come across well on broadcast news. "I think one of the reasons they don't cover education is because it's a non-visual story," Angotti says. "There's nothing more boring than a board of education meeting." Instead, some stations substitute "feel-good" stories and shows, such as NBC-4's Crystal Apple awards special for Los Angeles teachers.
Here's our own random survey of local TV news at 5 p.m. Friday in Los Angeles: two of the network-affiliated stations lead with the seizure of a cache of 100 weapons by police, the third went with helicopter coverage of a brush fire.