Friday, July 18, 2008

Live From the Death Scene

Two Quinnipiac University professors have produced a documentary detailing how much Connecticut TV stations focus their coverage on crime stories.

(The phenomenon is not unique to the Constitution State; it's just where the study happened.)

A reporter for WFSB-TV in Hartford, where I spent an unhappy several months as the weekend sports anchor in 1995-6, says in the film that he's not happy concentrating on crime stories but "there may be empirical data saying that's what people want."

I doubt that. Who would tell an interviewer that they like to see crime stories? I'm not talking about CSI Miami crime dramas; I mean "shots fired, man fell dead" stories on the local news.

It's not the crime as much as the sense of immediacy that the stations want to portray. The irony being that the less information you have, the fresher the situation seems and the more the station wants to go with it.

This was reinforced at about 10:45 one night a few years ago when I was reporting news in Cincinnati. We heard that police had closed off some roads in the city. That was all we knew but it was BREAKING NEWS! And we were the BREAKING NEWS LEADER! Just ask our promotions department.

So we tossed out the already written and mostly if not completely edited story we had been working on, rushed out in a live truck to the intersection where the street closure was and did a talkback only at the top of the 11. We learned a few minutes later that police had closed the streets to investigate a body found inside a burned car. We did another live hit with the update.

We had no video, almost no information, just me standing breathless on a streetcorner recounting what little we did know. And the Executive Producer was ecstatic. "That's what they want," he said, referring to the big brass. Forget storytelling; it made the news look new.

We were doing marketing more than news coverage. It rang to me like one of those tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. "Had this been an actual emergency..." Performing those seemingly pointless live shots with the police lights flashing and the crime scene tape flapping in the background was our way of telling the viewing public. "Had this been an actual news story worth your attention, we would have been first on the scene to cover it."

The article linked above pointed out another reason for the emphasis on crime stories: They're cheap. They don't take a lot of time, resources or thought to cover. And the less you're paying your reporters, the more important telling simple stories is.

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