Give Us What We Want? TV News and Violence

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Methodology

This report is the result of a six-month study of the daily news broadcasts of three Grand Rapids TV station: WOOD TV8 (6 & 11pm), WZZM 13 (6 & 11pm) and WXMI 17 (10pm). From September 1, 1999 through February 29, 2000, each day’s newscasts were taped and then viewed by Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy staff and volunteers. News logs were kept for each program with specific codes assigned for each of the areas of interest that were documented.

The data was compiled at the end of each month and then tallied at the beginning of April 2000. Letters were sent to numerous organizations and individuals in the minority community to solicit feedback on both the data and the media recommendations.

(Part of the data collecting was done by GVSU social work students. A word of thanks to them and Prof. Michel Coconis for their assistance on this research.)

The Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) is an affiliate of the Community Media Center ( www.grcmc.org ). GRIID offers Media Literacy training and resources to the community in order to help the public actively participate in the consumption and creation of media and to promote democratic values with all media systems.

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Introduction

On many of the newscasts that followed the school shooting in Columbine, commentators and newsreaders raised questions about the use of violent video games by the two boys who shot their fellow students. Did their playing games like Quake and Doom de-sensitize them to the violence they would inflict on unsuspecting students? Were they prone to violence based upon their consumption of music from groups like Marilyn Manson? Or was Hollywood partly responsible by targeting youth with action and slasher films where dozens of people are killed in brutal, often hyper-sexualized ways?

Questions like these were raised and debated for weeks in the Spring of 1999 as we looked on in shock at the events that unfolded in Colorado. Clinical psychologists were regulars on TV talk shows as they tried to make sense of why these teenagers would commit such an atrocity. Even former military trainer, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, was granted a platform to warn us of the dangers of entertainment media violence.

Public outrage at the Columbine massacre prompted Congressional hearings on the matter of media violence. This was not the first time that the US government considered regulating media violence, particularly TV violence. Since the early 1960’s, parent-led groups have pressured Congress to create viewing standards for children. The most recent resultant legislation, the Children’s Television Act of 1990, requires broadcasters to have at least three hours of educational/informational programming weekly (ww.cme.org/ctatool/ctahome.html). Despite the growing public dialogue on the potential dangers of constant exposure to media violence, however, not much attention has been given to the news media’s role in promoting violence.

Throughout much of the 1980’s and 90’s the news media zealously embraced the old axiom, “If It Bleeds, It Leads.” Newscasts began to resemble Supermarket tabloids and stations competed with each other over who could deliver the most blood. Although homicide rates actually declined over most of the 1990’s, the news significantly increased homicide coverage. The national watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (www.fair.org) reported a 450% increase in homicide stories from the major networks. This trend also appears to have reached down to local network-affiliated TV news, although less research has been done at that level.

This report examines violence-based television news coverage in West Michigan over a six-month period, September 1, 1999 to February 29, 2000. We look at both the number of violence-based news stories and at how these stories were presented. In addition, we explore the potentially damaging effects from violence-based news coverage, the bias toward reporting street crime rather than corporate crime, and the limited number of positive, empowering stories. Finally, we present a list of recommendations to the three TV stations studied.

This report is not intended to demonize the media. We hope it can be used as a tool for greater community dialogue, as a starting point to bring about a more honest and sensitive portrayal of our community when violence does occur, and to promote greater news coverage of the good work being done in the community.

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Data

Six-month TV news Data on Racial Representation

WOOD TV8 WZZM 13 WXMI 17
Percentage of news stories that were violence based 36% 38% 42%
Number of news stories that were violence based 1,286 1,149 1,009
Percentage of lead stories that were violence based 38 44 43
Number of lead stories that were violence based 139 161 78
Total number of crime-based stories 692 623 514
Total number of disaster-based stories 437 473 389
Total number of international stories 261 145 239
Total number of violenced based international stories 210 122 195

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Giving Us What We Want

Of all the areas under investigation in GRIID’s six-month study of local TV news, violence-based stories were the most common. We define violence-based as any aspect of a crime, fire, car crash, war or natural disaster. During the survey period, approximately 38% of all news stories–a total of 3,371–were violence-based. 42% of the lead stories were violence-based.

Violent crime in West Michigan–as in the nation as a whole–has been decreasing for years. Local TV news, however, with its high proportion of violence-based stories, creates a very different impression. We do not suggest that violence in the community not be reported. Rather, we would like TV news directors to consider the ways in which violence-based stories are reported, and the long-term consequences of such reporting.

Covering Crime

When news reporters arrive at a crime scene, the standard approach is to speak with the police, witnesses, and victims and their relatives. They give us the basics: where it happened, when it happened and who was involved. Sometimes the “why it happened” is also asked, but usually this question is posed to the police. Police were interviewed more than any other profession in the six-month study. Although the police play an important role in our communities, the news bias toward police interviews underscores a critical oversight by crime reporters.

Many researchers, like Jane Stevens (author of Reporting on Violence), now believe that crime should be treated as a public health issue, rather than simply as a law enforcement problem. What would happen if the news media began to include a socio-economic analysis in its coverage of crime stories? Not only might people begin to understand the complexities of certain crimes, they might begin to see ways to resolve these problems.

In addition to speaking with police officers, news reporters could talk to neighborhood crime prevention officers, block club organizers, social workers and health care educators. This would both insure a greater diversity of perspectives and help viewers see that many people are involved in crime prevention work. We note the hopeful beginnings of this with the coverage of the Flint area school shooting on February 29th.

The Mount Morris first grade shooting incident was the lead story on all three stations surveyed, but the Fox affiliate gave us more than just the basics. In addition to covering reactions from parents, police and school officials, the news story included statements from the White House, a family in Rockford and a live discussion with State Senator William Van Regenmorter. The inclusion of comments from the President underscored the scope of the problem, helping viewers to see school shootings as a national concern. The live interview with a state lawmaker shifted the discussion away from the specifics of this crime to more general prevention ideas. Issues such as gun safety, gun locks and support systems for the family were raised. While we would not suggest that everything can or need be discussed in one newscast, the broader understanding of issues that this sort of reporting can give to viewers is very important, especially with traumatic events like this.

Violence for no reason

One of the most often cited consequences of repeated exposure to violence in the media is how it can desensitize us. People shot, beaten or injured in fires are fairly common scenes on TV news. Many viewers, after seeing the Rodney King beating over and over again, became less angered by the brutality of the police. Indeed, jury members, after repeated viewings of the tape in slow motion, began to lose sympathy for King. We witnessed similar coverage locally.

On December 29th, two men robbed a video store in Spring Lake. The incident was captured by a store security camera. One of the men grabbed the store attendant while the other came around the counter. While one man emptied the cash register the other man put duct tap over the woman’s mouth, held a hammer to her head and then sexually molested her as he took her into the back room. All of this was recorded on tape.
That day, all three TV stations made this crime their lead story. Each showed some of the security tape, but only WZZM 13 showed the incident in its entirety. Why? What could possibly be gained by viewers to witness a woman being brutally victimized? This is a question that should be asked explicitly of WZZM’s news director.

Other incidents of violence that some might not consider particularly newsworthy are car crashes and fires. It may be useful to tell us when the incident occurred and what caused it, but scenes of smashed vehicles or flames shooting out are little more than visual entertainment. In most of these cases information could just be run at the bottom of the screen, in a manner similar to the reporting of sports scores or stock figures.

What We Don’t See Much Of

Many surveys have shown that the public wants to see more positive stories on the news. For every story about a robbery or a shooting, why don’t we see one about the great things that ordinary citizens and organizations are doing in their communities? For every story about a break-in there is one to be told about the great volunteerism of youth. This is not to say we don’t ever hear these stories, it is just that they are disproportionately low when compared to the violence-based stories. Let’s look at the example of neighborhood organizing.

Neighborhood organizers, whether they are paid staff or residents, do a tremendous amount of courageous work in their communities. Judging by the number of stories that appeared in the six-month study, however, most viewers wouldn’t know it. Of the more than 9,000 stories documented, only 12 involved the work of neighborhood organizers. This pales in comparison to the number of stories that involved the police, yet the police rely heavily on the work of these individuals and organizations. When stories did appear about neighborhood organizing, they tended to be about some form of public demonstration, e.g. against prostitution or absentee landlords. These events make for “good video” in the news industry, but what about all the hard work it takes to organize these events and the behind the scenes efforts that go on? Will the public not watch if it’s not sensational? By only reporting on very public, dramatic events, news organizations ignore or minimize the really hard work, which is the day to day organizing. An example:

On February 24th, there was a city-wide neighborhood organizing effort held at a center city church. GRIID was there to observe TV news coverage on the scene. Only the local Fox affiliate was present. They stayed for just the first 15 minutes of a 2-hour gathering. One of the organizers of the event was interviewed and one of the panelists. Both were given about 5 seconds of air-time. At the end of the news story, Fox did give viewers a phone number for further information, but most of what was shared that evening was never presented to the viewers. How much, then, does the community lose by not hearing more of the stories of citizens taking action to improve their neighborhoods?

Quite often the response from the news media to the issues raised here about more empowering stories and less violence is that they “give the public what it wants.” This is somewhat of a chicken and egg answer since it doesn’t take into account whether or not people have been conditioned, over long periods of time, to “want” violence-based media. That aside, let’s look at another example of what we were given by the news media during the Fall elections of 1999.

From October 1 through November 1, 1999, GRIID studied the number and length of stories done by the three stations on the November 2 elections. This included elections in viewing areas such as Muskegon, Holland, Grand Rapids and other surrounding communities. Taking all three stations combined, there was a total of 12 stories related to the election in that 30-day period. This was information that could help the public decide how to vote. During the same 30-day period, there were 18 stories about the death of pro golfer Payne Stewart and 28 stories about a Muskegon teen or trial in a murder case. (For more information on TV election coverage, see ( http://www.grcmc.org/griid/r_election2.shtml)

Finally, there is the question of white collar or corporate crime. During our study there were some stories on corporate negligence, particularly the ongoing court case of Sara Lee vs. consumers who had eaten contaminated meat, but most of these stories were never treated as crime stories. One good piece on corporate crime that aired in the six-month study was run by WOOD TV8 (Feb. 29, 6pm). Great Lakes Housing, Inc. was receiving HUD money, but was scamming potential home-buyers in the process. This piece ran 6 minutes and 40 seconds–quite long for TV news. This underscores a difficulty TV stations have in doing stories on corporate crime, given the time-constrained structure of TV newscasts. You cannot cover corporate crime in sound bites or it will make no sense to most viewers. Stations seem unwilling to do longer stories more than very occasionally.

The larger dilemma of why corporate crime is not covered much has to do with attitudes. Corporate crimes such as pollution, procurement fraud, financial fraud, public corruption and occupational homicide cost the public a great deal, both financially and socially. However, the situation is rarely put in those terms when covered by TV news. Pollution caused by the negligence of companies, which costs the public billions of dollars, is typically portrayed as accidental, rather than criminal. Maybe the fact that news outlets can be sued for libel if making incriminating comments about corporations contributes to the minimal coverage: Consider what happened to Oprah Winfrey after she did a show on occurrences of Mad Cow disease in the United States. She was taken to court by the Cattlemen’s Association in a multi-million dollar lawsuit. (www.freedomforum.org/speech/news/980205d.asp) Clearly, the companies that own local television stations would rather not risk similar legal entanglements.

Conclusion

Excessive violence-based news coverage can limit our ability to think of alternative ways to resolve conflicts. This is particularly true for children, but even adults can be caught in the cycle of violence if other options are not readily apparent to them. Will we justify excessive police force, more prisons or even a deterioration of our civil rights if the majority of messages we get from TV news are violence/crime-based?

One would be hard-pressed to find many people who don’t want to see the communities they live in become safer. Some of that safety derives from the public’s perception, and that perception is heavily influenced by the news media. We hope that the data and analysis in this report contribute to a more honest portrayal by the news media of the violence and crime in our communities and the efforts by those who are trying to combat it.

We encourage those who read this report to offer up any criticisms or suggestions. Endorsements of the recommendations that follow on the next page are welcome. You can mail your comments to GRIID at 711 Bridge St. NW, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49504 or send e-mail to .

Resources on Violence-based Media

  • If It Bleeds, It Leads: An Anatomy of Television News, by Matthew Kerbel, Westview Press, 2000.
  • Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence, by Dave Grossman & Gloria DeGaetano, Crown Publishers, 1999.
  • Mayhem: Violence as Public Entertainment, by Sissela Bok, Addison-Wesley, 1998.
  • Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political Issues, by Shanto Iyengar, 1991.
  • Trusted Criminals: White Collar Crime In Contemporary Society, by David Friedrichs, Wadsworth Publishing, 1996.
  • Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting – crime reporting section – www.fair.org/issues-news/crime.html
  • Project on Excellence in Journalism – www.cjr.org/year/99/1/pej/
  • Rocky Mountain Media Group – www.bigmedia.org

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Recommendations for the Media

  1. Treat crime as a public health issue. This would insure that other perspectives (social workers, neighborhood organizers, violence prevention workers, etc.) would be included in news stories about violence in our community. The law enforcement perspective is generally the only one presented.
  2. Be more sensitive to victims of crime and their families. Violence can be traumatic and victims and their families often need space and time to deal with this trauma. Constantly putting pictures of victims on TV and in print is hard on the families.
  3. Give the public more news about activities that empower the community. For every story about a shooting or a burglary, a story could be done about crime prevention in neighborhoods or youth programs. There is no shortage of these stories in West Michigan.
  4. Do more stories on violence prevention programs in the community.
  5. While murders are being reported, phone numbers could be run at the bottom of the screen for support groups and other social service agencies.
  6. Minimize lead stories that are violence-based.
  7. Minimize stories on car crashes and fires or run them at the bottom of the screen in the same way that sports scores are sometimes run.
  8. Do more investigative stories on institutional violence (government, corporate, etc). This can help the public avoid the perception that only individuals commit crimes.
  9. Don’t demonize victims because of their pasts. If someone who was working as a prostitute is murdered, don’t minimize the crime. Remember that the perpetrators are the ones responsible for the crime, not the victim.
  10. Be careful not to report on a disproportionate number of poor and minority crimes. White collar and suburban crimes also occur in West Michigan.
  11. Cover issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault on an ongoing basis, rather than just during times of the year that have been designated to them, e.g. Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
  12. Be more selective about news stories that are national and international. A disproportionate number are violence-based and may mislead viewers about other countries or cultures around the world.

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Who to Contact

WOOD TV 8
120 College SE
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49503
456-8888
News Director: Jim Loy

WZZM 13
645 3 Mile Rd NW
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49544
785-1313
News Director: Sheryl Grant

WXMI 17
3117 Plaza Dr. NE
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49525

364-8722
News Director: Tim Dye

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