Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Structural Racism in Local TV Reporting

Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

Structural Racism in Local TV Reporting

Article excerpt

If it bleeds, it leads" has long been a belittling comment about local television news. Two recent research studies both document this preoccupation with crime and show it skews community agendas and damages race relations.

A 1997 investigation, "Local TV News: Getting Away With Murder," published in the Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, found that across 56 cities, including St. Louis, crime was the most frequent story topic and that, in some areas, it fills more than three-quarters of the time allotted to all local news coverage.

It is no mystery why crime tops the list. Crime scenes have compelling visuals: revolving red lights, outlines of where the victim's body fell, tearful comments from grieving relatives. They are easy to cover: every newsroom can monitor the police scanner and quickly dispatch a crew. They are readily scripted: a victim, a suspect and speculation about why Frankie might have done away with Johnny.

Crime's pervasive place on local newscasts misrepresents cities as unsafe places, implying that violence is rampant, likely to break out at any time.

In fact, crimes rates, especially violent incidents, have declined almost everywhere the past decade but less actual crime has not meant fewer television news stories. The stations portray specific episodes almost every night, but if they mention trends at all, do so at best once or twice a year.

Local news is where most citizens learn what is happening in their communities. If television stations devote more time to crime than to anything else and if they persist in doing so whether crime is up or down, then the message they are sending is clear: crime remains a constant and pervasive threat and deserves the highest priority on the public policy agenda.

If scrambling priorities was not bad enough, a more recent analysis shows that having crime dominate local news also makes whites have more negative attitudes about minorities and, especially, about African-Americans.

Conducted by two top scholars (UCLA's Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., and Stanford's Shanto Iyengar) and appearing in the July 2000 American Journal of Political Science, "Prime Suspects: The Influence of Local Television News on the Viewing Public" uses three different methods -- content analysis, controlled experiments and field surveys. Each leads to the same conclusions, making the results both more credible and more alarming.

The study first catalogued every local television news story for the six largest stations in the Los Angeles market for two years: 1996 and 1997. …

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