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Violence et télévision

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Jean-Michel Lacroix

If it Bleeds, it Leads: Coverage of Violent Crime by the U.S. Television News Media

Susan Ruel

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1The late, legendary TV newsman Edward R. Murrow must have been rolling in his grave last winter, when professional standards in network television news coverage in the United States sank to a new low. Katie Couric, of the NBC news magazine NOW with Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw, made a nimble transition —what's known in the news business as a segue-way— from a report on hereditary factors in criminality. She noted that this topic also would be treated in a police drama called "LAW AND ORDER", to be aired later that night on that same station.

2Never before, in several decades of television viewing, had I heard an anchorperson use program airtime to advertise an entertainment show, mingling her message with the information on the broadcast as if it were for the viewer's own edification. It has been many years since television news in the United States was dominated by such consummate professionals as Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. It certainly wasn't the first time I had heard a dumb remark by a broadcast journalist, yet I still found Katie Couric's venal pandering a little bit shocking.

"Infotainment" and TV news

3Television news coverage in the United States has come a long way, evolving unrecognizably since the days of broadcast news icon Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s. Changes have come not only in the actual methods of transmission, which have gone front the cumbersome old days of transporting canisters of film footage to the high-tech sophistication of sending film over a simple phone line. Changes —and not for the better— also have taken place in the standards and practices of TV journalism itself. Some media watchers conclude that news executives now place at least as high a premium on entertaining as they do on informing; hence the coining of the neologism "infotainment", which has not been used as a compliment. For example, the news magazine show Dateline NBC came under a cloud last year when it was sued by General Motors for using explosive charges to simulate the fiery crash of a GM vehicle. Dateline NBC's reputation has not recovered.

  • 1 Larry Reibstein, "Cheap Thrills; Where Less is More", Newsweek, April 11, 1994, p. 64.

4Even CBS news anchor Dan Rather himself bemoaned the rise of "infotainment" in a March 8 letter to The New York Times. He said: "If we keep blurring the distinctions and standards between news and entertainment, we'll all going to have to pay. And I respectfully submit that the price is too high". TV news broadcasts compete with situation comedies, talk shows and other entertainment programs for advertising dollars — and ratings. And network bean counters realized long ago that it costs them roughly half as much to produce an hour of news as it does an hour of entertainment1.

5The competition for ratings is now so ferocious that many of the careful habits of attribution and accuracy cultivated by broadcast news stars of the past have fallen by the wayside among later generations of so-called on-air "talent". Either they never received the proper journalistic training in the first place or they have jettisoned it, the better to hype stories, particularly crime stories. An emphasis on ratings over journalistic integrity has meant the death of that sacred newswriting formula: the inverted pyramid. Too many newscasts tease viewers by dispensing information in tiny segments, in order to keep them watching through as many commercials as possible, instead of quickly telling them the five Ws of classic newswriting of the bygone era: who, what, when, where, and why. Furthermore, broadcast style itself makes it sound tedious to include lots of proper names, details, and attributions, as anyone who has ever edited wire copy for radio or television broadcast can attest. The listener's mind cannot retain nearly as much detail as can be presented on the printed page.

Local TV's sensationalistic crime coverage

  • 2 Deborah Sharp, "In Miami Hotels, Checkout Time for TV News of Violence", USA Today, June 6, 1994, (...)

6Nowhere is the declining quality of television news more in evidence than in the way it handles one of the most important stories in the United States today: the scourge of violent crime. A well-known case in point is WSVN, Fox affiliate Channel 7 in Miami, Florida, cited Jan. 26 as a bad example of local TV crime coverage by NBC's NOW with Katie Couric and Tom Brokaw — and they ought to know. According to that report, WSVN distorts the truth about the homicide rate in Miami and practices "body bag journalism" in order to titillate viewers. Its anchorman Rich Sanchez is notorious for his headshaking delivery and horrified facial expressions. While the murder rate in Miami actually declined from 637 dead in 1981 to 401 dead in 1993, WSVN bemoans the rise of slayings in Miami and sprinkles the adjectives "gruesome" and "bizarre" liberally throughout every telecast, apparently to hype their stories and make them sound more urgent and important2. On June 3, The New York Times reported that nine South Florida hotels had begun blacking out WSVN's news shows because of what one hotelier called the station's "pattern of continuous sensationalism".

7As the advertising slogan goes, The Rules Are Different Here, in Florida, where world attention focused last year on the murders of several European tourists. That ad campaign was swiftly cancelled when Florida officials found it too bitterly ironic, considering their state's reputation as one of the nation's most lawless —a place where the rules are different— an image borne out by Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics.

8ABC's Nightline devoted a full hour to the degeneration of TV crime coverage on December 10. The report noted that the slogan "If it bleeds, it leads" is the motto of many television newsrooms, meaning that a lurid crime report with a high body count will jump to the head of the news budget and become the lead story, no matter how insignificant its actual news value. I might add that Nightline itself confessed to a certain hypocrisy in exploring the problem. Nightline anchorman Ted Koppel admitted that in examining the excesses of violent footage on TV, the program aired more objectionable footage than ever that night.

  • 3 Jimmy Breslin, "Yes, The Report Is in Mail", New York Newsday, Dec. 21, 1993, p. 2.

9As a resident of midtown Manhattan, I know firsthand how hysterical or hyperemotional local TV news can fan people's fears. The more New Yorkers barricade themselves indoors in their well-locked apartments and watch the 6 and 11 o'clock news, the more they shun the mean streets of the city, thus the more TV they watch, and so on. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jimmy Breslin of Newsday commented acerbically on couch potatoes in the Big Apple, writing: "New York is increasingly becoming a city of bedsores... a prison where you get gas bills"3.

  • 4 Matthew Purdy, "1993 Homicides Fewer But More Clustered in New York City", The New York Times, Jan (...)

10When I first moved into a small Manhattan apartment building that lacked a doorman, an older neighbor named Ginger regaled me with gruesome and bizarre crime stories culled from the latest issue of the city's most notorious tabloid newspaper, the New York Post. She frightened me so badly that I hired a professional locksmith, installed burglar alarms, and began carrying a canister of Mace at all times. Not long thereafter, The New York Times reported that not a single murder had occurred in my entire police precinct during all of 1993, except for a mysterious category called "justifiable homicide"4. I suppose in New York City that might mean cutting someone off in traffic. But I realized that if Ginger's tabloid and trash-TV fed imagination were to come to life, the police would be hauling body bags out of my building at the rate of one per hour.

Proliferating news magazine shows

11Not only have journalistic standards fallen on network and local TV newscasts, particularly in crime coverage, but there really has been a sudden rise — in the number of news magazine shows. As I mentioned earlier, these programs are cheaper to produce than entertainment shows. The trend also illustrates a general tendency toward "soft", easily digested feature news that has transformed American newspapers, as well. Where once 60 Minutes and 20/20 and a couple of other news magazine programs ruled the field, a host of new network shows —as many as 14, and counting— have proliferated in the past two years: Prime Time Live, Day One, Now, Eye to Eye, Dateline and the latest addition: Turning Point, for which Diane Sawyer got a pay hike to $7 million a year. Turning Point advertised itself using the slogan "feels like a movie, but it's real", and its early episodes drew widespread derision for devoting full hours to a Charles Manson murder retrospective and a look at a serial killer on the rampage in Gainsville, Fla.

  • 5 Reibstein, op. cit., p. 62.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 64.
  • 7 Jonathan Alter, "It Isn't All Junk Food", Newsweek, April 11, 1994, p. 66.

12Outcry over the low standards of these shows and their obsession with violent crime has been vociferous and nearly unanimous. TV critics Walter Goodman and John O'Connor of The New York Times have saved their most sardonic barbs for TV news magazines. "Competition in mass media doesn't weed out the bad, it weeds out the good", Goodman told Newsweek5. The Washington Post's media critic Howard Kurtz has written a book-length diatribe entitled Media Circus. He charges that highly paid news personalities ought to use their clout and stand up to producers who want to air violent or exploitative stories6. Yet, instead of defying the producers of ABC's 20/20, who gave unprecedented coverage to the Lorena Bobbitt case, 20/20 anchorwoman Barbara Walters simply shook her head and disingenuously told viewers that 10 years earlier, such a story might never have been aired. She did not use her influence to stop it, of course. Surprisingly, media critic Jonathan Alter of Newsweek noted that for all its crudity and tawdriness, TV news magazine shows have covered at least a handful of worthwhile topics —such as Washington waste and women's health— and have won a couple of prestigious Peabody awards for their better work. We may one day look back on this period as a kind of "golden age of TV news", Alter wrote7.

13Yet for weeks, during the cruel, snowy winter of 1994, the news magazine programs seemed caught in a Whirlpool of sleaze and gore. Dateline NBC felt the need to revisit every lurid detail of cannibalistic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's crime spree upon the release of his father's new book — for, as you know, everyone connected with a sensationalistic crime in America can count on becoming a millionaire by selling the book and movie rights to his story. In the journalistic equivalent of rubbernecking, the airwaves were jammed with monotonous reporting about Lorena Bobbitt, Tonya Harding, the Menendez Brother murders, and the Michael Jackson child molestation charges. For those who haven't heard, Mrs. Bobbitt admitted to castrating her allegedly abusive husband with a kitchen knife, the Menendez brothers shot their wealthy parents to death, then sought pity because they were orphans, and Tonya Harding... well, you know what happened to Nancy Kerrigan. Old newspapermen are fond of the aphorism: "There are a million stories in the naked city". But according to these news magazine shows, the entire planet Earth, with its myriad complex, fascinating and obscure stories, seemed to shrink down to a tacky little trader park populated only by the aforementioned cast of violent offenders. The nadir was reached when a tabloid show featured a double-barreled broadcast: revelations about the alleged sexual misconduct of Michael Jackson and President Clinton. As Maureen Dowd observed last month in The New York Times Magazine, Paula Jones's allegations of sexual harassment by President Clinton have put the Oval Office on a collision course with the tabloid TV show A Current Affair.

14This tidal wave of yellow journalism was interrupted last winter only by the sudden, almost welcome appearance of a brand new serial killer, one of America's Most Wanted: Argentine Ricardo Caputo. He granted an interview to Prime Time Live just minutes before he turned himself in to police after nearly 20 years on the lam. His dubious claims that he suffered from multiple personality disorder and repressed memories only seemed to bring glee to television producers. More sober reporters pointed out that at least one of his personalities had remembered to get his tattoos removed and a hairpiece surgically implanted to disguise his appearance while he was on the run.

Rising influence of trash TV

  • 8 Richard Zoglin, "Easing the Sleaze", Time, Dec. 6, 1993, p. 74.

15A New York Times opinion piece by tabloid TV producer Bill O'Reilly offered one explanation for the "checkbook journalism" practiced by tabloid TV shows such as Hard Copy, A Current Affair, and Inside Edition, which sometimes pay their sources big bucks for interviews. O'Reilly argued that this is the only way tabloid TV can compete with more respectable news organizations. After all, they too have lowered their standards and are now chasing the same sleazy stories8. Even more fascinating was the revelation that a top producer at Prime Time Live had been hired away from a previous job at Inside Edition.

16Ifs not surprising that O'Reilly made such an excuse. After all, NBC News and The New York Times had blamed the tabloids for "forcing" them to cover Gennifer Flowers's allegations about Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign — and for "making" them reveal the name of the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape.

Crime as a major story

  • 9 David Barry, "Screen Violence: It's Killing Us, Harvard Magazine, November-December 1993, p. 38.
  • 10 A.M. Rosenthal, "God Help New York", The New York Times, April 15, 1994, op-ed page.

17Some may ask, what is the harm in TV newscasts that offer up a kind of "murder du jour", to use a phrase turned wryly by one New York police detective? After all, the violent crime rate in the United States has risen dramatically in the past few decades, according to FBI statistics, although some pundits cannot decide whether to blame the trend on guns, family breakdown or on television itself. Adjusting for population growth, the U.S. homicide rate doubled between 1950 and 1990. The FBI reports that the number of American youths committing murder with guns rose 79 percent in the past 10 years9. Murders in New York City have risen from under 400 a year in the 1950s to a steady pace of about 2,000 a year10. If lined up end to end, the corpses would stretch from one tip of Manhattan island to the other, as the former police commissioner likes to remind people. At the first of the year, a new "gun clock" was installed in New York's Times Square to record the rate of gun deaths nationwide. Its count for 1994 stood at more than 16,000 when I left New York in mid-June, a rate of approximately four deaths an hour. Americans now own an estimated 223 million guns, one for nearly every inhabitant. In his State of the Union address on January 25, President Clinton said that "violent crime and the fear it provokes are crippling our society, limiting personal freedom and fraying the ties that bind us".

18Yet the monotonous and myopic manner in which U.S. television news reports on violent crime is not adding much to our understanding of what causes crime or how to stop it. Too often, it seems to simply exploit the suffering and death of victims and their loved ones in order to entertain viewers. Furthermore, it pushes a lot of more significant, yet less visually compelling stories off the air. At a time of unprecedented global interdependence, Americans seem less interested than ever in keeping up on foreign news. The contrast with, for example, French newscasts, which spend an hour on one important world news story each night, uninterrupted by commercials, could not be more telling. And long, complex, yet inexorable stories, such as health care reform or the savings and loan debacle, for which U.S. taxpayers will be shelling out billions of dollars over the next 30 years, are given short shrift or pushed off the air altogether.

What isn't being covered

  • 11 Reibstein, op. cit., p. 63.

19In February 1990, when Nelson Mandela got out of prison after more than 27 years, TV news in New York was dominated by the story of Donald Trump's extramarital affair with Maria Maples. On the night Peter Jennings did a critically acclaimed hourlong special on Bosnia, most viewers were watching the situation comedy Seinfeld or Diane Sawyer's interview with Charles Manson11. When President Clinton signed an historic arms agreement in Moscow, coverage of Lorena Bobbit's trial was not interrupted.

20If important foreign stories do make it onto American television for the few seconds or minutes they are alloted on network newscasts, too often they are reduced to bloody, violent footage that has led to simplistic formulations of U.S. foreign policy. A case in point is Somalia. Agonizing film clips of emaciated Somalis spurred the United States to intervene during the waning days of the Bush administration. Months later, footage of the bodies of U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu led to a public outcry for troop withdrawal.

The push for TV censorship

  • 12 Susan Chira, "Hillary Clinton Seeks Balance in News Coverage of Violence", The New York Times, Mar (...)

21According to a recent study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, the amount of network television news airtime devoted to covering violent crime has doubled in the past year, while the overall crime rate in America has remained stable. First Lady Hillary Clinton cited that study when she inveighed against the pernicious influence of crime coverage last March. She spoke via satellite from the While House to journalists attending a conference on "Children and the News Media" at Stanford University12.

  • 13 Barry, op. cit., p. 41.

22Threatened by Attorney General Janet Reno with censorship of violent entertainment shows, the networks in the United States last summer began doing what their Canadian counterparts have done much more thoroughly for some time: deleting the most violent material and instituting parental advisories that warn of objectionable content. But their counterparts in the 500-channel world of cable television have yet to follow suit —and cable TV is even more violent. Furthermore, 25 percent of the most violent network programming is found on children's shows— particularly cartoons. Experts have known for many years of the undeniable links between youngsters' exposure to violent television and aggressive behavior later in life. Like tobacco companies continuing to quibble over whether cigarettes cause cancer, the entertainment industry alone continues to question this data13.

  • 14 Sharp, op. cit., p. A1.

23How have these findings on the link between violent television and actual crime been manifested in TV news coverage? A handful of stations have instituted what they call "family sensitive" broadcasts, particularly during the 5 and 6 o'clock reports, when children may be watching. However, when WCIX in Miami switched to this kinder, gentler style, its ratings sank14.

The long blood trail

  • 15 Tom Goldstein, The News At Any Cost: How Journalists Compromise Their Ethics to Shape the News, (N (...)

24Perhaps the biggest failing in TV news coverage of violent crime in America is its tendency to flit from one heinous crime to the next, as if murder were as ephemeral as yesterday's paper. It may be a function of the maddeningly fast pace at which journalism today is conducted, with cable news and high-speed transmission multiplying to an exponential level the amount of information conveyed. This is more commonly referred to as the Information Glut. Too many news organizations have tried to quicken their own metabolisms in a vain effort to keep up, rather than weeding out what is insignificant. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted some years ago: "Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the 20th century, and more than anywhere else this is manifested in the press"15.

25Too often, it takes a personal confrontation with the hellish, long-term consequences of a violent crime to get the message across. Otherwise, there is a tendency to treat this grotesque subject with the kind of gallows humor I have indulged in today. My own introduction to violence came 20 years ago, when I was getting ready to leave Harvard for my junior year abroad here at the Sorbonne. Then my closest friend died of a gunshot wound. Grief-stricken, I cancelled my trip to Paris and only recently was I able to bring myself to visit this beautiful city for the first time. The memories of violence are devastating, and they last far longer than a news cycle. They can last a lifetime.

Bibliography

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Benedict Helen, 1992, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, New York, Oxford University Press.

Goldstein Tom, 1985, The News At Any Cost: How Journalists Compromise Their Ethics to Shape the News, New York, Simon and Schuster.

Goldstein Tom, ed. 1989, Killing the Messenger: 100 Years of Media Criticism, New York, Columbia University Press.

Kurtz Howard, 1993. Media Circus: The Trouble with America's Newspapers, New York, Time Books.

Pippert Wesley G., 1989, An Ethics of News: A Reporter's Search for Truth, Washington, Georgetown University Press.

Notes

1 Larry Reibstein, "Cheap Thrills; Where Less is More", Newsweek, April 11, 1994, p. 64.

2 Deborah Sharp, "In Miami Hotels, Checkout Time for TV News of Violence", USA Today, June 6, 1994, p. A1.

3 Jimmy Breslin, "Yes, The Report Is in Mail", New York Newsday, Dec. 21, 1993, p. 2.

4 Matthew Purdy, "1993 Homicides Fewer But More Clustered in New York City", The New York Times, Jan. 10, 1994, p. B1.

5 Reibstein, op. cit., p. 62.

6 Ibid., p. 64.

7 Jonathan Alter, "It Isn't All Junk Food", Newsweek, April 11, 1994, p. 66.

8 Richard Zoglin, "Easing the Sleaze", Time, Dec. 6, 1993, p. 74.

9 David Barry, "Screen Violence: It's Killing Us, Harvard Magazine, November-December 1993, p. 38.

10 A.M. Rosenthal, "God Help New York", The New York Times, April 15, 1994, op-ed page.

11 Reibstein, op. cit., p. 63.

12 Susan Chira, "Hillary Clinton Seeks Balance in News Coverage of Violence", The New York Times, March 5, 1994.

13 Barry, op. cit., p. 41.

14 Sharp, op. cit., p. A1.

15 Tom Goldstein, The News At Any Cost: How Journalists Compromise Their Ethics to Shape the News, (New York: 1985), p. 9.

Author

Department of English, University of Delaware, U.S.A.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1997

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