Prime Time Crime: TV Coverage Heavy Violence Easy to Cover and Gripping, Too

Article excerpt

At 10 p.m., computer-generated graphics roll across your television screen to pulsing music. They give way to the anchor's face and the inevitable opening words: "Good evening."

But usually, it isn't a good evening. It's another evening of crime.

If you were watching KMOV (Channel 4) on July 14, the first story on your screen detailed the arrest of a child-molesting suspect in Tower Grove Park.

If you pushed your remote channel-changer to KSDK (Channel 5), you saw a reporter broadcasting live from outside the hospital treating a pipe-bomb victim.

Click to KTVI (Channel 2): You're back in Tower Grove Park with the child-molester case . . .

Click to Channel 5: A serial rapist terrorizes the Shaw neighborhood area . . .

Click to Channel 4: Police in St. Charles are looking into an infant's death at a motel . . .

Click to Channel 2: The Shaw rapist again, which gives way to the discovery of a car used in the serial murders of homosexuals . . .

And so it goes on the 10 o'clock news, at least on many evenings. In the week of July 10-16, crime or violence accounted for 24 percent of the 14-plus minutes each station devotes to general news on the 10 p.m. news.

Channel 2 anchor Don Marsh says part of television's emphasis on crime stems from the simple fact that violent crime is up, at least in St. Louis.

But he adds, "It probably seems as if there's more crime than there really is because of the heavy amount of coverage."

Marsh once reported to Ian MacBryde, formerly news director at Channel 2 and now an independent producer here.

MacBryde says, "Crime gets a disproportionate amount of a newsroom's time, resources and attention, to the exclusion of news that truly affects everyone - health, education, local government and so on. As a result, the public is not well-served."

Channel 2's news director Bill Berra takes tart exception to that idea. He says, "I think 267 people killed in St. Louis last year is an epidemic, an atrocity."

If crime seems to dominate the news here, we weren't alone. Consider that:

- Network crime coverage has jumped, too. The Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs reports that last year, the network news shows doubled their coverage of crime - and tripled their coverage of murder - from the year before.

- In Miami, several hotels have erased that city's Fox affiliate, WSVN, from their cable systems. The reason: WSVN programs eight hours of news a day, heavily spiced with blood and gore. The hotels say WSVN is scaring their guests.

- Last winter, the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs paid for a 10-week study of local television news. The major finding: Chicago's three network affiliates give crime 60 percent of their newscasts.

***** `You Can't Be Sensational'

The news directors of the three stations studied here say the 24 percent figure for crime coverage in St. Louis seems accurate, and typical.

"Here, you have a more conservative market," says Tim Larson, the news director at top-ranked Channel 5.

"You can't be sensational in St. Louis," Larson says. "You have to relate your newscast to your audience. If you're very sensational, racy and crime-laden, your newscast won't be watched as much here."

At Channel 2, Berra notes that many newscasts open with a non-crime story. "It depends what's going on," he says. "If a major crime happens, it'll be right up there. If something bigger happens, maybe not."

Channel 4's news director, Steve Hammel, says: "It's not in anyone's interest to have more than a quarter of the news about crime. Crime isn't the only thing going on in our area. Going heavy on it would be a disservice."

At any rate, Hammel notes a key difference in the way the public perceives crime coverage on television and crime coverage in the newspaper:

"With a newspaper, people have the choice of reading the front page or going straight to the sports section. …