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Where Local TV News Stumbles

by John on 09/24/2012

I’ve mentioned before the benefits of local TV News.  First and foremost, local TV news does a great job of warning us: the morning traffic report; the emergency incident at your kid’s school; the tornados hitting your region.

That’s why I always tell you to turn on local TV news in the morning as you’re preparing for your day.

But local TV news has some big deficiencies.  And you need to avoid them

The Huffington Post quotes from an investigation by Free Press, a non-profit, that shows where local news stations are big protectors of their corporate sponsors.

From the HuffPost piece:

…Free Press took a deeper look news coverage in five cities — Charlotte, Cleveland, Las Vegas, Milwaukee and Tampa — where ad spending has been the most intense.

We inspected the political files of stations in these markets and pored over hundreds of hours of local news transcripts. In all five of these markets, we found that local newscasts ignored the political ads broadcast on their stations.

In other words, they provided no local stories exposing the special interests behind these ads; only one station among the 20 surveyed devoted a couple minutes to investigating whether these ads told viewers the truth.

Let’s put this into perspective.

  • Election years – especially presidential election years – are the godsend for local TV stations and the corporations that own them. Ad revenue this year will be up 23% over last year.
  • These are for-profit corporations.  They’re entitled to make money.
  • Here come the “howevers”:
  • These companies lease – for nothing – government airwaves.
  • These news stations have slogans like “Where News Comes First”, “We’re On Your Side.”

Here’s what I wrote in my book back in 2005 right before TV stations were supposed to move from the analog to the digital spectrum.

Those campaign dollars can be used to influence elected officials. Some call it a legal form of bribery. Others think it threatens public safety. For example, broadcast stations are supposed to switch from analog to digital signals that will give viewers better picture quality. But broadcasters have forced Congress to push back the switch date three years until 2009 because some people who cannot afford newer, more expensive, digital television sets might be left without television service. Caring for the little guy out in the hinterlands, you think? Yes, but here’s what the 9/11 Commission says. Those analog signals, the ones the broadcasters hang onto, should be used by local governments so first-responders in emergencies like a terrorist attack or a hurricane can talk directly to each other. 9/11 Co-Chairman Lee Hamilton said on NBC’s Meet the Press in December 2005 thatNew York City police, firefighters, and paramedics did not have that capability onSeptember 11, 2001. As a result, many died because they could not be told to escape the crumblingTwinTowers.

Informed Not Inflamed Snark: How’s that for fair and balanced and being on your side.

I break this down into two major biases from TV news.

  • The first is the sponsor bias.  TV News stations inevitably will protect the people who are paying their bills – and forego journalistic principles. 
  • The second one is the youth bias.  In some cases, even if they wanted to cover these stories on the hidden money in campaigns, the reporters are too young, too involved in entertainment news, to even put a story together.

Informed Not Inflamed Take:

When it comes to complex stories — skip local news.



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