Regarding local television “news”

June 12, 2006 | By | 4 Replies More

In May, 2005, I was among the more than 2,500 media reformers from across the country who attended the National Conference for Media Reform in St. Louis.  The conference was sponsored by Freepress.  The presenters included Amy Goodman, Phil Donahue, Bill Moyers, Robert W. McChesney and George Lakoff.  It was an extraordinary event.

Much of the information presented at the conference was disturbing.  The thing has haunted me the most since the conference was that most people get most of their news from local television newscasts.  Consequently, what passes for “news” on local television newscasts is still an extremely important source of information upon which voters rely.

Most Americans’ main source of information is not national network news but local television news. According to the Pew Research Center, 57% of Americans regularly watch local television news, outpacing all other media sources by a margin of almost 2 to 1.

Combine this heavy reliance on local newscasts with the definition for “news” that was widely accepted by those attending the conference: “news” is information that one can use to become a better participating citizen. 

Since attending the National Media Reform Conference, I have often thought of the many reasons I don’t respect local television news.  In short, it largely consists of simple stories with shock value or entertainment.  More specifically, our local “news” specialize in providing us with the following types of information:

  • The personal lives of entertainers;
  • TV show promos;
  • National news presented as short sounds bites of people dissing each other rather than discussing anything of substance;
  • National news presented uncritically by local stations acting as official stenographers for those in power.
  • Sex crimes sex crimes sex crimes;
  • Repeated displays of aviation crash scenes;
  • Repeated reassurance that “we” are winning the “war on drugs,” based on yet another drug bust;
  • The many dangers lurking in city neighborhoods, especially shootings, robberies and car accidents, where dysfunctional people of color are repeatedly put on the screen in such a way as to reinforce problematic stereotypes in the minds of suburban viewers;
  • Lots of formula pieces:  lots of live reporters on highway overpasses, and stock footage of large piles of salt, to mark the season’s first snow storm;
  • Perhaps a ten-second clip (per newscast) reaffirming that dysfunctional and tragic things occur in foreign countries;
  • Comprehensive sports footage and commentary, typically ten times more of this than national news;
  • Several lengthy weather teasers and then weather ad nauseum;
  • And, of course, coverage of a something like a hotdog eating contest or a short report on a snake with two heads, followed by the banter that ends the highly ritualistic “newscast.”

Based on recent investigation, we now know that local news has also been doing a marvelous job feeding us fake news–corporate-sponsored “video news releases” — segments promoting commercial brands and products. See attached article. 

It’s surreal that sooooo many people I know, people who also despise the local news, continue to watch it as their major source of political and cultural information.  One big problem is that almost none of the “news” presented by local television newscasts is information that one can use to become a better participating citizen.  The main problem is that local newcasts are almost completely lacking in usable information.  They work well as rituals (we know most of the outcome before we even watch), which is why so many people tune in.  In my view, people watch local newscasts for reasons other the need to be informed.

The other big problem is the bait and switch.  If local television shows were called “the nightly pretend news where it leads if it bleeds, featuring no real news analysis, no investigative news, nothing offensive to any viewer or advertiser and where entertainment rocks,” I’d be less bothered.  Calling it “news,” however, leads many people to believe that watching a corporate-serving concoction of made-up and heavily-filtered stories prepares them to weigh in on serious issues of the day and further prepares them to march into the voting booth with confidence.  In 2004, that confidence took the following form: “Yes, I’m prepared to vote.  After all, I’ve been watching the nightly newscast with Brin and Jennifer and I know that we had to invade Iraq because of the 9/11 attacks.”

I plan to attend the next National Conference for Media Reform.  It will be held on January 12-14, 2007 in Memphis, Tennessee.  I highly recommend this conference to anyone else concerned about media reform.  For those wanting to know more about media reform, click on the “Media” links on the right column of Dangerous Intersection homepage.


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Category: Communication, Current Events, Media, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Darlene says:

    Our local news is primarily needed for weather updates, so largely that the competition bases its popularity with the community on who gets out the broadcasts first, or who has the most updated Doppler equipment…Which in all fairness, is EXTREMELY needed. (Being in hurricane alley…yes, Katrina and Rita hit here) We also get our news about neighbors who have been in tragic car accident….Which is also needed so that we, as local citizens, can do what's right and reach out to our neighbors. This is also true for when a fellow "local citizen" has a house fire, and a lot of us fellow citizens will reach out and bring goods to the nearest local store that's accepting for the misplaced family. I may be somewhat biased because I did an internship for CBS….LOCALLY. I do remember when there were sporadic cases of encephalitis breaking out from horses, and when West Nile Virus started spreading out…yet again, locally. Not many "worldly" news stations were telling the public about these until it had become so widespread that it had no choice. All in all, what I am really trying to say, that yes, amongst all the "popcorn" telecasts, and meaningless bumble-jumble, there are also positive aspects to watching local news (In some cities…mine especially). What I would consider a far worse display of citizenship is when a person chooses to not watch any news because after all, that there stuff don't pertain to them…that's other people's business.

  2. Erika Price says:

    Darlene, at least the apathetics who don't watch any news at all realize how little they know or care about issues of importance. Usually those types don't vote, and don't engage in any kind of activism or ever change their routines at all. But the local news watchers think they have a handle on the situations around them, and use the suggestions of the news to decide their votes, their political positions, and even their live choices.

    The y2k paranoia comes to mind. Fed the looming threat of technological failure and anarchy, people ignored the data and tests concluding that y2k would not cause a problem, and flocked to big box retailers to buy lifetime supplies of water and canned goods and superfluous amounts of duct tape.

    As for the "necessity" of local news in weather forcasts, I also have to disagree. I don't understand why someone would sit through an hour of formulaic rubbish for a piece of information they could find in the paper, or even better, on the internet, in a matter of seconds. And most of the internet sources of weather forcasts have more comprehensive information anyway.

    But what you have to say, Darlene, does give another insight into why people watch the local news. Though not necessarily accurate, at least local news acknowledges local issues- coverage that the average person can get nowhere else. I know I relied on local radio newscasts during the blackouts a few years ago.

  3. Sujay says:

    Strangely enough, this is a major problem in our country too. Me being a media student, this is the most addressed issue in our college. We do not have 'local news' here, but all the national news networks are getting quite shockingly commercialized, and the mad rush for TRPs is prompting many networks to unapologetically sell out. It's almost become a rule to have a celebrity interviewed on a 'news' show here, and scandals involving celebrities are alloted hours of 'special reports'.

    Another big draw for the TRPs are the soapy 'sting operations'. Reporters pretending to do social justice come out with the most lurid hidden camera sting operations. And many of these feature celebrities too! Recently, a news channel (rightly) came under fire for a shameless 'sex scandal' expose, where in they disguised their reporters as prostitutes and sent them to celebrities to see which of them would bite the bait. One actor (often known to rape women on screen) bit the bait, and was humiliated, but it is a shame that such networks consider exposing the sex lives of movie stars to service to society.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    "What I would consider a far worse display of citizenship is when a person chooses to not watch any news because after all, that there stuff don’t pertain to them…that’s other people’s business."

    Darlene: Yes, I might have overstated my case against the local news. It's not total rubbish. The local news can and does occasionally provide a valuable service to the community. But such a price to pay! I suspect that if you aired only the valuable portions of the local newscasts, it would amount to a 2 or 3 minute news show. I would be tempted to watch that.* But I don't want to watch all of the crud that comes with it. And I cringe when I think of all the people who believe that they are well-informed because they watch the local news. It's a logical fallacy: Just because local news has SOME worthy news does not mean that it contains the "minimum daily requirement" of worthy news.

    I facetiously offer this possible solution: Have two local broadcasts every night. The first one is 3 minutes long and it presents information that truly alerts us to important community issues and provides informtion that helps us to be better citizens. The second broadcast should not be called "news." Call it The Entertainment Gossip/Sports Clips/Car Crash/Shootings Report. You know, just truth in labeling. Then, if you only watch the second of these broadcasts (or even if you watch both), you won't be so easily deluded that you are a well-informed citizen who is prepared to vote in the next election.

    *A bit of math as a side note: What if you watched 27 minutes of useless gossip/sports/shooting scenes (this also includes LOTS of commercials) every night for one year. That's 9,855 minutes of wasted time. That's 164 hours. That's 20 workdays. Ergo, you can give yourself the equivalent of FOUR weeks of vacation every year by foregoing the mostly useless local newscast. If I were the Emporor of the United States, I'd make those broadcasters post that disclaimer at the beginning of every newscast. That might cause them to start covering important issues.

    Then again–if the audience dropped away when important topics were covered, THAT would be a symptom of an even bigger problem, eh?

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