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Truth Conquers

Is Local News Harmful?
Posted by David Tirsch on Jul 1, 2003 - 11:32:00 PM

A friend of mine once said that your local television news is not to be looked at as the ultimate source for your news. Rather, it is a summary of 30 semi-news worthy stories packed into 30 minutes, each summary written without clear analysis. Referencing wisdom learned from the local news will only make you look worldly at a cocktail party for Cosmo or while in line at a Jerry Springer Show taping.

Between juggling work, going to the gym, fixing dinner, checking email, and watching Friends, it is no wonder many of us rely on local television news to give us the fast food equivalent of the news. But how can we rely on local news stations to provide truthful portrayals of stories, when the stations number one priority is not to accurately inform, but to peak its viewers' interest enough to continue watching?

Stan Chambers of Channel 5 news fame said it best, "Yesterday's program ratings are posted [in the newsroom] each morning. There aren't many businesses where you get a daily report card on how well you did the day before. It is a rather humbling experience, an instant gauge on how the television viewers accept you. It is best not to lose too many days in a row."

Ratings are more important to local news stations than the news itself. The most powerful argument to prove this point is that any news broadcast will be pre-empted by a police car chase--a ratings cash cow!

The drug called ratings has transformed the news into a charade of titillating, sensationalized stories that amplify the significance of issues far more than they should be. For example, two years ago, the story-de-jour was the epidemic of sharks hungry for human flesh. The local news channels went ballistic with this story and scared us into thinking that if we looked at the ocean funny, a shark would eat us! Well, in reality, there wasn't even a moderate increase in shark attacks that year. Today, you rarely, if at all hear anything about shark attacks, as if the sharks have signed a cease-biting agreement.

The World Wresting Federation (WWE) can't legally call their version of wrestling a sport because it would inflict harm to legitimate sports, so they have to call it sports entertainment. My question is why shouldn't television news be judged under the same scrutiny and be called news entertainment?

The worst part of "news entertainment" is that when there are actual world changing events happening, we expect this medium that is trained merely in the art of captivating an audience to instantly metamorphosis into a beacon of responsible journalism.

I learned the hard way that the local news focuses on sensationalizing stories and it has no clue how to keep things in perspective.

Back in the summer of 1992, I spent a few months traveling through Europe with a college friend. Our first stop was England, where I remember meeting some really friendly locals at a pub in London. We were having a great time and as I was trying to explain what a toothbrush was, I mentioned that we were from Southern California. At that instant everyone listening at the bar gave a collective sigh, turned pale (as if an Englander could be more pale than they naturally are), and stared at me as if they were looking at a ghost!

South Central Los Angles, May, 1992
When I cautiously asked what the problem was, they replied, "You are from Southern California? Was your house burned down during the riots?". They were referring to the L.A. Riots that took place a few months earlier in April 1992. I was baffled at their comment and then explained that 99.99% of L.A. (let alone "Southern California") was still standing and was not DIRECTLY affected by the riots. These people thought that the rioters burned down the entire state of California. When I asked them why they thought this, they referred to the scenes from the television news broadcast showing all the fires and riots going on in Southern California. (The broadcasts they were watching were live feeds from our local stations!)

I would have dismissed this as an interesting story and moved on, but during my 2 months in Europe, whenever I told anyone (European and fellow American travelers alike) that I was from Southern California, they would ask in a serious tone if my house burned down during the riots!

At that moment, I realized that because a television screen is the closest most of us will ever get to being in front of the action, we rely on it to act as our eyes and ears. Unfortunately, local television news producers don't realize, and may not care, that they have this power.

Last month public confidence in the news organizations, which was already low, continued to slip. According to a USA Today/CNN Gallop poll, only 36% of Americans believe news organizations get the facts straight, one of the lowest figures since the inaccurate reporting of the 2000 presidential elections. I am convinced the news agencies use the paper these results are written on for toilet paper. The only polls they care about are the Nielson ratings and market share! Until television producers realize that they have a responsibility to properly inform the community I will not be surprised if Hulk Hogan comes crashing onto the channel 4 set one day and challenges Paul Moyer to a cage match!




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