Crime & TV News

For today’s blog entry, I’m going to paste a book review I’ve previously written but haven’t published. It’s all about crime and TV news coverage. Check it out:

The Book:
Lipschultz, J. & Hilt, M. (2002). Crime and Local Television News: Dramatic, Breaking, and Live From The Scene. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

My Review:
Crime and tragedy, which are usually intertwined, are the most basic elements to any given local television newscast in any market in the United States. If there’s a big crime, it will most likely be the lead story with little or no disagreement from anyone in the newsroom. Lipschultz and Hilt try to find out the reasons for local news’ obsession with crime reporting in Crime and Local Television News: Dramatic, Breaking, and Live From The Scene. The book gives an accurate portrayal of local television newsrooms and newspeople. The authors look at the popularity of crime coverage, the reasons for its growth, the theories and research on crime news, how crime news effects segments of the population, and possible remedies to reduce the amount of crime coverage.
Television is a part of everyday life for most Americans, and according to a 1999 Roper survey 56 percent of Americans say local television news is too (as cited on p.1). That means crime stories are also a daily part of the American information stream. In defining crime stories, the authors use five characteristics defined by Jamieson and Campbell in 2001. They say crime stories are “personalized through perpetrators and victims; dramatic, conflict-filled, controversial, and violent; actual and concrete; novel or defiant; and linked to issues of ongoing concern to media” (p.2). Lipschultz and Hilt say news values help promote the use of crime coverage, particularly the news value of social order over disorder. “The organizational need to be dramatic helps explain why crime is frequently featured” (p.14). Lipschultz and Hilt say news coverage has evolved from a public affairs model to an event centered model, which shifts the focus of stories from politics to crime, human interest and sensationalized events.
“Crime is considered ‘the most common and least studied staple of news’” (p.2). In 1999, the Project for Excellence in Journalism counts crime coverage as the top category of local tv news stories, accounting for 19 percent of all local news. Lipschultz and Hilt say most of that coverage focuses on sensational events. The next closest type of coverage was “education/welfare/society” which earned just nine percent of local news content.
Lipschultz and Hilt say the popularity and reliance on crime news came about with the growth of local news across the nation. They say the emergence of the “eyewitness news” format in the 1970s emphasized live, local and interaction with the anchors… all elements which crime stories support. Interestingly, Lipschultz and Hilt give a brief history of this format of news, which they say was “developed by Al Primo at WABC-TV, New York, as a way to boost ratings by more than 10%” (p.13). This type of news spread across the country and eventually spawned the “action news” format. Lipschultz and Hilt say “action news” took advantage of electronic news gathering capabilities. This sparked local TV newsrooms across the country to purchase live trucks and helicopters. Again, a capability that well suits coverage of crime stories. This all “turned network affiliated local stations into ‘cash calves’ bought and sold for more than $500 million” (p.13). This accepted format of live, breaking news coverage “emphasizes the earliest stage of crimes because ‘breaking news’ from the scene of a crime is fresh, dramatic, and visual” (p.6). And for the most part, Lipschultz and Hilt say, this type of news gets high ratings, which means more dollars for stations.
Lipschultz and Hilt say when looking at local TV news from a cultural model of communication, crime stories “infer subtle meanings that place events within the context of their lives. Race, income, education, and geographic differences will make a difference in the ways that crime stories are interpreted” (p.21). This can negatively affect segments of the population by leading to negative stereotypes. Lipschultz and Hilt discuss both the impact on minorities and the elderly. Crime stories tend to show minorities as the perpetrators of crimes and whites as the victims. One study by Oliver in 1999 is mentioned in the book. It examined the stereotype of African Americans as criminals. Participants were shown different stories with different races portrayed as criminals. “Participants who had seen a white suspect in the news story were more often likely to mistakenly identify him as an American American” (p. 116). The study found “viewers’ memories of racial and crime related information in the news may serve to sustain racial stereotyping, even under conditions where African Americans and Caucasians are portrayed in similar ways” (p.116).
Appropriately the issue of ethics in crime coverage is also discussed in Crime and Local Television News. This section of the book looks at various codes of ethics, reasons for the need to use them and the problems, mostly time, in making ethical decisions in local television news. As one news director quoted by Lipschultz and Hilt says “having guidelines is not the problem, the challenge is executing the plan” (p.83).
What can or should be done about the popularity of crime coverage in local television news? Lipschultz and Hilt look at a couple of crime projects done by local television stations in attempt to reduce crime stories in their newscasts. One such project happened in the mid to late 1990s at KVUE-TV in Austin, Texas. I worked at KVUE when their crime project was initiated. While it was criticized for playing to the ratings, KVUE was already number one when they, under the direction of News Director Carol Kneeland, began the project. It had a couple simple guidelines used to determine if a crime story aired. Those reasons were put on the screen and mentioned to viewers if they decided to broadcast a crime story. The guidelines followed were: Is there an immediate threat to safety? Is there a threat to children? Does action need to be taken? Does the crime have significant community impact? and Does the story lend itself to a crime prevention effort? The change to this system for crime coverage did not decrease ratings. KVUE still continues to be a leader in Austin, but they no longer use the crime coverage guidelines on the air. According to some people who still work there, the guidelines’ principles are still considered by some staff members when debating value of crime stories.
In retrospect, Crime and Local Television News: Dramatic, Breaking, and Live From The Scene does a good job of explaining the reasons behind the popularity of crime coverage without condemning it. This book seems to be written mostly for researchers who have some familiarity with broadcast news. It also would be applicable for students in a broadcast reporting class. The section on ethics would make for good discussion material in a course on journalism ethics. If there’s any theory or factoid you wanted to know about crime news in the early part of the 21st century, this book would be a good place to start looking for information.

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