Vol. 18, No. 21Feb. 25, 1999

Study shows TV news too often distorts reality

Philadelphia and Baltimore television stations too often paint an inaccurate portrait of violent crime, leaving viewers feeling frightened, helpless and uninformed about real dangers, a UD researcher concludes in a new report.

Murder-a relatively rare event, compared to other crimes-is the most frequently covered top TV news story in both cities, said Danilo Yanich of UD's Center for Community Development and Family Policy. And, crime stories claim more airtime than any other type of story, from public issues and human-interest features to election news, added Yanich.

In reality, crime in Baltimore and Philadelphia is "mostly nonviolent" and "very rarely a homicide," said Yanich, author of the report, Crime, Community & Local TV News: Covering Crime in Philadelphia and Baltimore, sponsored by the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture, a project of the Open Society Institute. The center is a private operating and grant-making foundation, funded by George Soros.

Moreover, Yanich said, Baltimore TV stations routinely depict violence as "a social menace, creeping into the suburbs"-although crime statistics don't support this trend. Because Baltimore's broadcast coverage focuses mainly on female victims, it also fails to reflect the most common type of violent crime nationwide: male-on-male aggression.

"Crime is a significant social problem, and responsible journalists must report it," Yanich said. "But, the news is not a mirror. It's a beam, which focuses on the unusual: the man-bites-dog story. The problem is that when violent crimes are presented far more often than other news, out of context, and in a highly dramatic fashion, they begin to seem commonplace." The newscast, then, becomes "a construction, designed to deliver an audience to advertisers," he added.

The "normalizing" of violent crime on TV can make murder appear to be a routine aspect of everyday life for a majority of citizens, Yanich pointed out. In 1996, for example, a Philadelphia TV anchor promoted an upcoming segment with the teaser: "What to do if a member of your family is the victim of a Mafia hitman!"

Philadelphia and Baltimore TV stations reflect the standard of news coverage in many other regions across the country, Yanich noted. Reaching 2.7 million households, Philadelphia is the nation's fourth largest TV market. Baltimore, the 24th largest TV market, reaches 1 million households.

"These TV stations have a huge responsibility to viewers, and to their peers in broadcast journalism, to produce segments that accurately reflect what's really happening in each community," Yanich said. "My research suggests that producers in Philadelphia and Baltimore need to analyze their coverage, in light of crime statistics, and then redefine what constitutes responsible reporting."

Nationwide, a number of TV stations recently have improved their coverage of crime by establishing guidelines to help producers make wise choices. At KVUE-TV in Austin, for instance, producers at the ABC affiliate evaluate crime stories based on five key questions: (1) does action need to be taken; (2) is there an immediate threat to safety; (3) are children in danger; (4) does the crime have significant community impact; and (5) does the story suggest a crime-prevention effort?

Yanich said viewers also should critically analyze news broadcasts. "In this age of fast information," he said, "we tend to be passive consumers. We need to think more deeply about what's being presented to us as the truth. We need to think more as citizens, rather than as consumers." In other words, he said, "As viewers, we must decide for ourselves whether a particular story is relevant to our world. In evaluating each story, we should ask, 'What makes this news?' If the story meets our criteria, then we can use the information to inform our actions and attitudes. If it doesn't meet that standard, then we should dismiss it."

Yanich analyzed 847 evening news programs, which aired in Baltimore and Philadelphia on various weekdays during February (a sweeps month) and March of 1996. Excluding weather and sports coverage, crime stories claimed nearly a third of each program's total news airtime in both markets, he found. Stories on public issues (other than crime) accounted for roughly one-fourth of the remaining broadcast time, and human-interest features represented about one-fifth of each program in Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Baltimore stations tended to cover more consumer stories, compared to Philadelphia (14.5 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively), Yanich reported. And, Philadelphia stations spent more than twice as much time covering election campaigns (10.9 percent, versus 4.9 percent in Baltimore).

But, in both cities, Yanich said, "murder was the crime of choice for TV news producers," representing half of all crime stories (50 percent in Baltimore and 51.3 percent in Philadelphia). Over half of all crime stories appeared within the first news "block" for each program. And, he said, a tendency to present crime stories using a "montage" technique, bombarding viewers with a series of fast-paced images, "gives the impression that the news is just one crime story after another."

During 1996, in fact, murder accounted for only 0.4 percent of all crimes in the city of Baltimore-and only 0.1 percent in the region's suburbs, according to a study cited in the UD report, Crime in America's Top-Rated Cities: A Statistical Profile 1997-98. In Philadelphia, 0.4 percent of all crimes were homicides in the city, with 0.1 percent in the suburbs.

Between 1977 and 1996, Yanich said, the total crime rate for both cities did rise, from 8,369 to 12,001 incidents for every 100,000 citizens in Baltimore; and from 4,040 to 6,920 events in Philadelphia. Yet, murder remained the least common violent crime, rising only 0.1 percent in Baltimore's suburbs during this time period. Nevertheless, TV stations emphasized stories about violence penetrating quiet, residential neighborhoods. Such stories "suggested to [Baltimore] viewers that they were captives of a dangerous reality...delivered randomly."

Crime is part of the reality of urban life, and "it is a legitimate subject for local news coverage," the UD report concludes. "But crime is only part of city life."

-Ginger Pinholster