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TV stations find crime (news) pays

Portland TV news once had a reputation for examining serious issues and shying away from the emotion and hype of heavy crime coverage, but now newscasts feature more faces of sex abusers and rape suspects than office holders, business leaders and educators.
As Portland's TV newsrooms thaw out from the massive coverage devoted to the snow and ice, viewers may notice a quick shift back to normal in the content of their favorite newscast. Coverage of child molesters, rapists, shooting victims and murderers took a break during the Weather Telethon. But they're back now, crowding out stories about jobs, taxes, government, schools and the environment that local TV is increasingly ignoring.

Nowhere is this more apparent than during the so-called late news -- the crime-infested "10 O'Clock News" on KPTV (12) and the 11 p.m. newscasts on KATU (2), KOIN (6) and KGW (8). Traditionally, late news offered a summary of the day's events and a roundup of that night's sports scores. But now, late newscasts are often showcases for mayhem, mishaps and mug shots.

Late-night rogues' galleries have been a staple of top-10 markets for years. Stations in Los Angeles, New York and Miami practically invented the "If it bleeds, it leads" genre, figuring it was the best way to keep viewers glued to the set. But Portland's stations were slow to embrace the concept, opting for community-oriented news over repetitive, crime-ridden items that had no direct relevance to its audience.

During the 1970s and '80s, Portland TV news had a reputation in industry circles for examining serious issues and shying away from the emotion and hype of heavy crime coverage. Even independent news consultants hired by stations such as KGW and KATU agreed that the Portland TV community was special in that regard.

Now, however, Portland TV newscasts feature more faces of sex abusers and rape suspects than office holders, business leaders and educators. While there is more attention on "issue-oriented" news during the early evening newscasts -- when KATU, KGW and KOIN have 90 minutes to fill -- by later in the evening, the police blotter takes on added significance.

When Troy McGuire, KPTV's news director, arrived from Reno two years ago, one of his first moves was to beef up the station's crime coverage. "There just wasn't a lot going on in this town," he says. "Being a nighttime newscast, our philosophy is that we don't want to be a rehash of the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts," he says. "The deal is how do you get people not to go to bed."

One other trick that stations have found is incorporating "Breaking News!" into the late newscasts. It's now the rare show that doesn't have at least one alleged "breaking news" event, even if the "news" consists of a reporter standing in the dark at the scene of a crime that took place earlier in the day -- or earlier in the week.

Crime gets the time

Just how much has the late news changed? My content analysis during one of the slowest news weeks in months -- the week of Dec. 8-Dec. 12 -- showed that when there are no dominating news stories, crime stories usually totaled more air time than all other local news stories (not counting sports and weather) combined.

It isn't unusual for a newscast to spend a third of the actual time allotted to news (which can be as little as 15 minutes for a 35-minute newscast) on incidents of crime. And by incidents, I mean cluttering newscasts with items on a car chase in Dallas, Texas (KPTV, Dec. 8) or a Florida drug bust (KPTV, Dec. 10) -- as opposed to local crime-related stories with wider implications, such as the lack of funds for new Oregon jail beds (KATU, Dec. 11).

The 65-minute 10 p.m. news on KPTV averaged more than 16 minutes of crime-related news, while typically spending less than three minutes and 30 seconds on noncrime news from Oregon and Southwest Washington.

KGW, the No. 1-rated station at 11 p.m., averaged more than five minutes of crime news in its 35-minute newscast, compared with three minutes and 30 seconds of noncrime local stories. Often -- especially when it's a slow news day -- the lead story for all the late newscasts is a crime story. For example: On Tuesday, Dec. 9, KPTV led its news with a report about a woman who had robbed a Salem bank branch. KATU, KGW and KOIN led with a local woman who may have prevented a Pennsylvania school tragedy by spotting a message on an Internet horror-movie site.

On Dec. 11, KPTV began its newscast with five stories on sex offenders and sex abuse before launching into seven consecutive crime-related stories -- including items on Portland teen gangs, a Tigard home invasion and the "Fox 12 Most Wanted."

"It is a commonly held belief that these kind of live, local, late-breaking stories involving flashing lights and yellow police tape will keep audiences watching," says Tom Rosenstiel of Columbia University's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "But our research has shown it's a rationalization that is more of a convenience than a reality."

Coverage pays

From a practical and economic standpoint, crime is the cheapest, easiest and fastest news to cover. Initial information is almost always accessible from the police and witnesses. As for video, a court appearance or a mug shot will suffice.

In the past seven years, all of Portland's stations have added newscasts to their programming schedules. And although reporting staffs have increased as well, reporters find themselves with less time to spend off the air digging up and researching stories of substances and breadth.

In the parlance of TV news, crime is the perfect "quick-and-dirty" news story.

As Rosenstiel explains it, an emphasis on crime news is a good-percentage play. "When you have an amount of limited resources and limited crews for the late news, in particular," he says, "sending people out for stories that may or may not be newsworthy -- late meetings or whatever -- may not give you something late-breaking and visual. But if a shooting happened at 9:30 at night, you can get something on the air."

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I appreciate 20.Jan.2004 19:58

Jim Lockhart eagleye@PhilosopherSeed.org

the author of this piece posting it to Portland Indymedia. Those of us who do not regularly indulge ourselves in the corporate press do sometimes miss a real piece of journalism. It appears that this is the case here.
Perhaps the general theme of this article comes as no surprise to those of us who work in community media, but I appreciate the research that went into this article and the particluars that came out of i and look forward to the second installment.
I think that Pete Schulberg worked for a local television station at one time.