News is about community

Doug Fisher has some stats about TV news and the “if it bleeds it leads” philosophy of some stations.

Sig MickelsonI once wrote a profile of Sig Mickelson for the San Diego Business Journal. He was no fan of local TV news. His explanation for how TV news evolved was enlightening. In the beginning of television, local stations were required to carry a certain amount of local community interest programming. The cheapest way to do this was have somebody read that day’s paper. Then somebody discovered that it was pretty cheap, and got better ratings, to monitor the police scanner and send a camera crew out to the latest crime. It was then that a habit was formed and “if it bleeds it leads” was born. My own theory is that in those early days, any crime/accident story was exciting stuff for a variety of reasons — less common, less jaded public, the novelty of getting such news before the morning paper came out — so TV stations got hooked.

Once one was hooked, they were all hooked; it become a competition among pioneer stations to take the same scanner-reporting and grab viewer attention. And how best to grab a person’s attention but to yell? The reporting became more breathless and louder.

The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if it were.

— David Brinkley

The other thing Doug’s post reminds me of is the common reaction among newsroom staffers the first time an online editor sends out the list of the 10-most-read stories of the week. It’s all crime and accidents. “My, God,” the jurnos sing out, “people only care about the sensational stuff.”

I then explain: Not really. What they care about is unusual things going on in their community. The town council arguing over budget numbers and zoning laws are not unusual. A crime or an accident that could dramatically alter the lives of people they might know — that gets their attention. People tend to believe that they are much more likely to be impacted by the crime or accident story than they are the umpteenth government information story. It isn’t the sensation that draws them in. It is the community. In fact, I think one of the great advantages newspaper journalism has now is that we can break that news, whether with words or moving pictures, in a way that is decidedly not sensationalistic and far more informative than traditional TV news.

[tags]news, television, sig mickelson, cbs[/tags]

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