News Rituals: Local TV Still Broadcasts Nightly Disasters, but Signs of Improvement Are There. (Television)

Article excerpt

A wise man, philosopher Dennis O'Brien, observed at an October Commonweal symposium on religion and the media, that local news is not really news. It is a ritual, a daily reenactment of basic myths -- life, death and resurrection -- on the public screen, through the paradigms of neighborhood fires, murders and kidnappings.

A former president of both Bucknell University and the University of Rochester, an author and essayist, Dennis wears his gravitas lightly. And he's the kind of man who can give a sensible response to almost any question. So if he says something about news, that's news.

In a June 19, 1998, NCR column, I addressed the local news problem by focusing on the blood-curdling images thrown at us to hold our attention between commercials: like the Los Angeles driver who stopped freeway traffic to set his track, dog and self on fire before blowing his own head off with a shotgun.

Apparently the TV helicopters had pursued the O.J. Simpson van in anticipation of a similar ending. They did not want to miss the "big payoff." In response the media watchdogs, rightly, went into a funk of self-criticism and concluded that local TV news was a disgrace.

More than three years have passed. The press, whatever its faults, is the most self-critical of professions. Largely, thank God, because the media attract idealistic young people. They have come out of journalism programs that included work on their college newspapers and encouraged them to believe that by shining light into the dark corners they can kill viruses -- and make a better world.

Three journalism events give at least a partial answer to whether we have made progress since 1998.

First, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has conducted annual studies to measure the quality of local TV news throughout the country. The 1999 results (Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1999), which ranked the quality of 59 stations in 19 cities, came to some encouraging conclusions. Most important: quality sells. Now, the most recent study (CJR, November/December 2001) of 43 stations in 14 markets reaffirms the quality lesson.

The formula: Be more enterprising, source stories better, air more long stories, hire more reporters and above all be local.

The bad news, nationwide, is that 25 percent of the stories are still about crime. Out of 6,000 stories covered, only nine were on poverty, welfare or homelessness. Meanwhile, advertisers put increasing pressure on editors to kill embarrassing stories and to plug their products in news holes.

Nov. 9, as I flicked back and forth between New York's three network late afternoon news stations for two hours, Harry Potter popped up four times: One news item told us that a consumer group has condemned the Coca-Cola tie-in with a Harry Potter film commercial; Coke is "liquid candy" and will rot children's teeth. But the news item included scenes from the film and the commercial. Later we saw the commercial selling little Harry and the liquid candy. Next, the anchor woman told us, with an enthusiastic gush, not to miss next Monday's news because we would have the adorable little tyke who plays Harry Potter right here in the studio for a live interview! Don't miss it. He's "the next McCauley Culkin!"

Second, in February 2000, Carol Marin, age 51, a Chicago WBBM-TV journalist with almost 30 years experience, boldly anchored a CBS local news show that would answer the question, as Neil Hickey states it in CJR (January/February 2001): Could a low-rated newscast switch to old-fashioned journalism, say goodbye to celebrities, disasters, lifestyle features and scary health reports and beat the competition?

Marin herself had made news three years before when she resigned as co-anchor at Chicago's WMAQ rather than tolerate the presence of talk-show vulgarian Jerry Springer as an on-air commentator. …