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Study: TV news big on violence

Dec 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Los Angeles television stations skew their coverage toward car crashes, murders and other violence to a degree that reflects disproportionately what really happens in daily life.
That is the conclusion of a study by the UCLA School of Public Health published in the December issue of Western Journal.
About 65.6 percent of all traumatic deaths covered on television news in Los Angeles were the result of homicide, plane crashes, fires and natural disasters, though those deaths made up only 31.4 percent of actual traumatic deaths in the county, according to the study.
“Traumatic injuries and deaths as presented on local television news and the true occurrence of these deaths and estimated occurrence of these injuries are grossly dissimilar,” the study said. “The primary focus of local news is on events with high visual intrigue, e.g., air crashes, homicides, and stories about deaths and injuries with lesser visual content are rarely shown. In addition, many of the causes of deaths and injuries emphasized by local television news tend to have high relationship to crime, real or inferred, and those that are de-emphasized have a much lower likelihood that a criminal act was involved.”
David McArthur, Ph.D., a trauma epidemiologist at UCLA School of Medicine, is lead author on the first study of its kind that compares television coverage with actual statistics on murders and injuries in the market. He said the study is based on the years 1996 and 1997 because videotapes from those years were available at UCLA’s Film and Television Archives.
He said the study aims to take a scientific look at how the ratio of events on television news compared with actual statistics.
“What we’re seeing is an overemphasis on certain causes of deaths and under-emphasis of others,” Mr. McArthur said. “What it tells us is that the decision about what’s newsworthy seems to be driven by tried-and-true formulae … and is also driven by the camera-readiness of the story.”
While Mr. McArthur said it’s understandable that stations rely on news that is visual, he said such coverage lacks analysis and context, such as the kind of analysis given to legal stories.
“Without that kind of context-setting, the viewer is left with an impression that’s not the same as what happens in the real world,” Mr. McArthur said.
KTTV News Director Jose Rios said it’s the stations’ responsibility to not rely solely on police scanners to cover news.
“I think it’s not so much an issue of it being video driven, I think it’s also an issue of the sources you choose in news gathering because if all you’re doing is using police, fire and emergency services, you’re not doing enough,” Mr. Rios said. “Stations have to pay attention to the sources they use to gather news because an awful lot of stations rely solely on police, fire and emergency services.”
UCLA researchers reviewed news programming on nine channels, including Spanish-language stations, analyzing a total of 1,134 broadcasts from late 1996 to early 1997.