Why Local News Is Awful — and How to Fix It

The Lear Center’s Kaplan grilled: “People don’t want candy and crime all the time — they’re worried about their schools and clinics”

In exchange for access to the publicly owned airwaves, stations promise the Federal Communications Commission they will present programming that’s responsive to the needs of their local community.

For a study on local news, Martin Kaplan, director of the USC’s Norman Lear Center, and Matthew Hale, a professor of public health care at Seton Hall University, examined more than 500 hours of  programming from eight Los Angeles stations. They concluded that the channels were not fulfilling their end of the bargain.

On the heels of the study’s release last week, Kaplan spoke to TheWrap about what went wrong with local news and why he’s hopeful it can become about more than true crime, Lindsay Lohan and cute pets.

Do you watch the local news?
I do watch local news, but I don’t watch it live. I like stories of three-headed fish as much as the next guy, but there’s only so much you can take.

Were you surprised that Los Angeles news was as bad as the report found?
What I was most surprised about is how little actual local news coverage there was. Only a third of what gets covered actually happens in Los Angeles. I would have thought that during a recession, local business and how the economy is impacting people would get attention. Instead, we found that only 29 seconds per hour is spent on that.

There’s shockingly little about local government. I’m not a dodo, I don’t think that everything in city hall deserves air time, but we are in the midst of a huge fiscal crisis, and we’re bleeding red ink. If it were real blood they’d cover it.

"If it bleed, it leads"?
Absolutely. One out of three broadcasts led with crime compared with one out of 100 that were devoted to the L.A. budget and one out of 200 that were about the economy.

Is all this focus on crime painting a skewed view of reality?
There is something researchers have labeled Mean World Syndrome. That’s where if you’re at home watching local news, you come to think that there is a non-stop gun battle going on outside. In fact, crime is down. All the fear and violence and mayhem keep everyone who watches scared to leave their own houses.

It’s not just local crime. They cover crime all across country, from Maine to Florida to Oregon, with no more rationale than the fact that something bad happened somewhere.

Don’t stories about bad things sometimes serve a public good?

On one hand, wildfires or a water main breaking are of civic importance, but a wave sweeping people off a pier in Maine is just eye candy.

Has the FCC done enough to demand that local stations air more civic minded programing?

The FCC commissioner himself has complained that they’ve been paper tigers when it comes to enforcement of these rules.

Up until the 1980s, the commission required some proof that the stations were doing what they promised to do in order to use the television spectrum for free. That largely ended with Reagan era deregulation.

These stations get billions of dollars, but the airwaves belong to the public, and in return for allowing them to make money off it, they should honor their promise to do something for the public interest.

If they stations aren’t honoring their commitment to be civic minded, who should decide what programming is in the public interest?
Stations should go out into the community and ask people what issues are important to them. I bet they’ll find that people don’t want ice cream and candy and crime all the time. I bet they’re worried about their schools and clinics.

It doesn’t have to be a Gallup poll, but stations used to engage in something called ascertainment, where they would go out and talk to people in these communities. They had to prove they’d done this. Stations seem to believe that by watching the ratings meter on a minute by minute, second by second basis, they have a higher ascertainment of what people want.

Well, we all have lizard brains, and if you feed us we’ll react in a certain way. It’s not the same as having a conversation.

Is it possible that stories about the city budget or health care simply don’t make good television?
Any journalist worth his or her salt should be able to turn any good story into compelling TV. That’s the reason people become journalists. There is a poverty of imagination rather than something inherently un-telegenic.

Maybe you take a look at one family, film them in a way that you get to know them and their problems. You’d have a wonderful portrait of an issue rather than a stand up in a parking lot, which is what stations usually do.

Do people want to eat their spinach? Won’t ratings be impacted?

Over the years ratings have declined with the raise of the Internet and cable news. But it doesn’t have to come at the expense of ratings. The Walter Cronkite Award winners are not just good news stations, they are also ratings leaders.

Take the Hearst-Argyle chain, it’s a corporation that is worried about ratings, but it’s telling compelling television stories in a way that is not spinach, and still attracts audiences.

What do you hope will happen as a result of your report?

I hope the FCC will figure out ways to hold stations accountable. Right now, they just have to send a postcard in every eight years and there’s no requirement beyond that to get renewed. Make it a real license renewal process, not just something that’s pro forma.

I also hope that stations will look at best practices of other stations, instead of turning to consultants who insist that putting politics on TV is ratings poison.

Have you heard from any of the eight stations profiled in your report?

I heard from one station, I won’t say which one, but it was very encouraging. The news director requested a meeting with his staff, so we could discuss that they were doing well and what they could improve.