TV coverage of victims in three Michigan markets

Sue Carter, Michigan State University, School of Journalism


With escalating vehemence, Americans are voicing their dismay over the media's coverage of violence. They are distressed with the depictions of crime and its victims and bothered by privacy invasions. A particular target for their concern is local television news.

The print media have seized upon this frustration and have increasingly castigated local broadcast TV. Newspaper follow-up stories on the Rocky Mountain Media Watch Survey of 100 stations, that rated stories according to a "mayhem" index, tended to trumpet the survey's results. For example, The Oakland Press in Pontiac, Mich. headlined the conclusions "Study: Channel 7 Most Violent." The accompanying story revealed that the Rocky Mountain survey had named Detroit's WXYZ one of the greatest purveyors of violence. The study's authors declared the station's news coverage contained crime 92.6 percent of the time. Only well into the body of the newspaper's account was the research methodology discussed. (Crumm, 1997) It remains, according to established academic researchers, flawed.

Even the New York Times Magazine chose not to resist an attack in the January 11, 1998 article by Michael Winerip, "Does Local TV News Have to Be So Bad?" It was subtitled: "Looking for an 11 O'Clock Fix." Winerip approached his topic with fair balance of local television news coverage as seen through the microcosm of the Orlando, Fla. market. Notwithstanding the efforts to achieve balance in the magazine story, the headline certainly set the tone for the magazine's view of local television news and victims of violence. (Winerap, 1998)[SoJ1]

The critics of news as presented at local stations do have some valid claims. Scholarly research in the field has shown that the focus on crime is disproportionate to its occurrence in American society. The information supports the public's view that TV devotes too much time to covering violent crime and its victims. The Kaiser Family Foundation, in cooperation with the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. found that stories about crime represent the most commonly reported category, comprising 20-percent of a local news cast. The extensive study of 17,000 local news stories broadcast during a three-month period from October to December 1996 revealed that slightly more than two-thousand stories of violent crime were broadcast. The authors of the study noted that violent crime reports surpassed those about education by a four-to-one margin. (The Washington Post, 1998)

Given the public perception that local TV stations are excessive in the nature of coverage and the amount of violent crime stories, coupled with data demonstrating the disproportionate airing of violent crime stories, the atmosphere was certainly favorable for participant observation research into local television coverage of victims of violence. This discrete subset of crime coverage is one of the more troubling areas for viewers. They view it as a privacy violation, and can all recount-they swear-at least one reporter who has approached a victim or survivor, shoved a mic into his or her face and asked, "Tell me how you feel." Those actions are reinforced by the view of a WUSA staffer that appeared in the Washingtonian: "The closer the shot, the more pitiful the victim, the better it is."

Research Method

With a fellowship from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., this researcher engaged in an examination of local television coverage of victims of violence in three distinct markets in Michigan, ranging from major to small. The purpose of the research was to understand the nature and process of decisions made in a local newsroom with respect to coverage of victims of violence. A victim of violence is one who has been harmed by the cruel criminal act of another. Victim's groups point out that often the individual has been rendered powerless, and frequently humiliated, by the perpetrator.

The research methodology was multi-faceted: in addition to participant observation, individuals at each station were interviewed regarding their views with about crime, and specifically crime victim coverage. Further, the research was pegged against an ethical framework of decisionmaking drawn from the body of writing about broadcast news ethics that has developed during the past 25 years.

The participant observations were conducted during an eight-month period. The this researcher spent four days at two of the stations and two days at the third. At each TV station, the researcher took part in morning news agenda meetings, observed operations within the newsrooms, and went with reporters to cover stories involving victims.


There is a growing national sensitivity to coverage, and especially excessive coverage, of crime. Some stations have chosen to appreciably shift emphasis on crime stories in an effort to reduce knee-jerk reporting on sensational stories. In Austin, KVUE has articulated a set of questions to be posed when analyzing violent crime coverage. (Kneeland, 1996) Detroit's WXYZ, castigated by the Rocky Mountain Media Watch, had ironically decided to scale back its traditional emphasis on crime before the media survey was conducted. The effort was promoted by then-station manager John Lansing, who had earlier gained attention at WCCO in Minneapolis for newscasts that some termed family-friendly. (Fisk, 1997)

Despite the fact that the stations participating in the study varied widely in market size and resources, newsroom behavior with respect to covering victims was fairly uniform. That is both pleasing and disconcerting. It is pleasing in the sense that a fairly even standard of broadcast journalism operated in all three settings. It was disconcerting in that the financial resources of the larger station, and its more experienced, staff didn't distinguish the station markedly in the way it approached coverage of crime, and specifically victims of violence from the mid-market and small market stations.

In the stations observed, much of the decisionmaking that sets up the news coverage for the day occurs at the morning meeting. The typical meeting involves the news director, the producers, the assignment editor/s and some reporters. The daily morning meeting is critical to ensuring the freshness required of news as an expression of timeliness, but reliance on filling the bulk of a day's newscasts from material discussed at a meeting earlier in the day underscores the lack of long-range anticipation, and long-range planning. The breaking stories of the day are often crime-centered, and their subjects the victims. Consequently, the overabundance of crime reporting becomes clearer.

TV newsrooms are replete with monitors of all sort: police and fire scanners, weather monitors, and TV monitors of all competitors. The temptation to mimic another station's story rundown is enormous. Despite examples like those set by KVUE and WCCO, the visceral response of the television news broadcaster is to cover the stories that other news centers are covering, and often that is crime. The feeling of being beaten ("They whipped our butts on this story last week.") is a feeling that news managers and reporters try to avoid at all costs. It is important to remember that news managers are removed from the field. They sit in, as one major-market reporter described it, "fluorescent-lighted, climate-controlled rooms stuffed with monitors." The new information they are responding to comes from scanners, phone tips, and their competitors' news product. These elements constitute much of the news managers stimuli. Aggressive and competitive by training and nature, these are not people who like to be left in the lurch. Beating their competitors becomes the standard by which they make immediate judgment of their own product, not viewers response. That is far slower in coming. Based on observations made by the researcher, the success of the day is measured in part by a particular station's relative position to other local television news outlets.

Even for those stations or individual reporters who are themselves concerned about excessive crime and victim coverage, there is no large body of local television stations presenting alternatives to heightened reporting on crime. To the contrary, the more graphic representations have won the ratings war in several markets, leaving less support for a more tempered approach. Leadership in the form of a wider engagement of thoughtful approaches to crime reporting has not matured.

The need to go live predominates. Reporters and news managers are trained to be immediate. The audience has come to expect it. ENG has significantly altered the gathering, editing, and distribution functions of news and, in some respect, the content adaptations have been slow to catch up with the technological advancements. A fuller understanding of "real time look-down" is required.

Frankly, victims are often visually compelling. Reporters and news managers at the stations observed understand the dramatic appeal of people in emotional or physical disarray. Far more provocative is a parent in despair than a talking official. In the newsroom's judgment, the choice of a lead becomes clear.

In addition to being visually compelling with the potential to "snag eyeballs," crime is inexpensive to cover. Little in the way of extraordinary resources is required to tell the story of local crime. As distinguished from investigative pieces, it is not a budget-buster, and the images can be mesmerizing.

At the stations surveyed, the view of the videographers was to shoot everything and the tendency was to shoot it tightly. The video was gathered, even when those in the field knew with certainty that it would not, and it should not, be used. The danger there is two-fold. First, there is the possibility that the video believed by the reporter or videographer to be too graphic will inadvertently be used. Second, that a videographer's judgment in the field will be overridden in the field and that the questionable material will be aired. One could make the argument that if the video is in the station, its likelihood of being used increases. At one station that was observed, the reporter in the field was careful to instruct the videographer not to transmit all of the tape shot at the scene. Part of her discussion with the interview subject on the topic of police presence had been off the record, and she wanted to make certain the tape would not be aired. "I don't want to burn him" was her comment.

No matter what the size of the station, there was a surprising lack of formal training in news judgment, ethical decisionmaking, and an overall understanding of core news values by the staff as a whole. Many of the reporters and news managers have extensive experience and sound intuition, but are pressed to discuss news values. They operate, rather, from an ad hoc decisional platform-what's right in this instance. The major market station that was observed did generate several sets of guidelines addressing suicides, confrontational interviews, and sex abuse stories (Appendices A, B, C) arising out of specific instances of coverage. The guidelines, it is noted, did not reference external sources. The foundation for them was not clear.

There was a general lack of dialogue with victims, victims' rights advocates, and state or national organizations of victims and violence. The conversations between the news rooms and the victims have been situational and sketchy, generally propelled by the perception of intrusive or inappropriate reporting. At none of the stations observed had there been a concerted effort to seek out victims' groups and solicit their views of the TV station's coverage.

There appears to be a culture among a small group of older male reporters and news managers that finds some level of humor in violence, notably, though not exclusively, violence involving a male perpetrator and a female victim. At one station, a 30-year veteran of the industry, upon learning of the verdict in the case of nanny Louise Woodward, commented that he was canceling her as his baby-sitter. Interestingly, the younger staffers did not join in the effort to make a joke about the trial for a baby's death, and some of the reporters seemed uncomfortable at the remark previously was dismissed as "gallows humor."

There is an extensive and sometimes conflicting relationship between reporters and police that, according to the researcher's observations, impacts coverage of victims of violence. Many local television newsrooms tend to have their "buffers" - those who are energized by police and fire fighters in action - and they exist in the stations observed as well. There is value to the buffers constant monitoring of police and fire scanners as their vigilance can keep their stations on top of significant breaking news stories. However, over reliance on law enforcement for newscast content exacerbates the disproportionate and inappropriate coverage of crime and its victims. The stations observed fit the pattern of the TV newsrooms deep interest in all aspects of crime. As examples, at one particular Detroit TV station, an assignment manager has one scanner in his car and another built into the headboard of his bed. (Kiska, 1997) At the small-market station visited by the researcher, silence was called for in the newsroom when word of a shooting came over the police scanner. Despite the fact that the reported incident was nearly 60 miles away, and in another coverage area, an assignment editor instructed a reporter to "make a call."

The apparent fascination with law enforcement by a core of reporters, as witnessed in the news rooms observed, has the capacity to make crime stories, and the portrayal of victims more frequent subjects of reporting. Those stories tend to rise higher in the newcast. The news, simply put, reflects the reporters and news managers interests more than that of the viewing public. A 1997 national survey found that four out of five respondents agreed that the press is insensitive to people's pain when covering disasters and accidents. (Roper Center, 1997) Another survey of local television news viewers agreed by a two to one margin that too much time is spent covering crime and disaster. (Kiska, 1997)


Based on this participant observation study of three television stations in different-sized markets, the researcher arrived at several conclusions with respect to local coverage of victims of violence.

One, there is general awareness in the newsroom by managers and reporters alike of public distaste for graphic and insensitive coverage of victims of violence, but there are no firm standards in place to guide coverage. Codes, standards, and rules that do operate tend to be ad hoc and instituted after a story gone awry rather than before.

Two, the temptation of the technology is substantial. Because the capability of "going live" is readily available it is frequently used and live shots often lead the newscasts. In two instances the researcher observed two stories about crime that featured victims leading the noon newscast. Each time, the story was after-the-fact and each time the story about the victim was rendered more significant than it actually was because of the capacity to go live, not because of the story content.

Three, parallel to general trends in local television news, crime and the victims of crime were reported disproportionate to their occurrence. Because crime is inexpensive to cover, there are more stories about crime and its victims than there are about stories on the economy, or politics, or education. These stories often require a greater investment of time on the part of the reporter, the videographer, and the producer.

Four, victims of crime and crime itself leans toward the shocking and can be visually grabbing. At all three stations, the practice was to "shoot tight" and to capture everything on video. The prevailing view was to use it "because it's there."

Five, competition between stations for viewers who translate into rating points affects the way in which victims are covered. TV stations as a group, and these three were no exception, dislike being beaten by competitors to a story, and that includes all aspects of story coverage. At one station, a particularly graphic description of a victim's mutilation given by a witness was aired "because the other station had it." The implication was that the other station would use it so, not be outdone, a reporter at the station observed included the soundbite in her report.

This study has also prompted several other areas for research, including an examination of the correlation between levels of education and views of violence coverage; a study of the relationship between newsroom budgets dedicated to investigative and special projects efforts and the percent of crime stories in newscasts; and the development of model policies based on conversations between victims and news room managers and reporters.

Works Referenced

Crumm, C. (1997, May 11). Study: Channel 7 most violent. The Oakland Press, p. A-1.

Fisk, A. (1997, August 28). Vocal Channel 7 news exec leaving to head Cleveland sister station. The Detroit News, p. D-7.

How the public views the media: A study by the University of Connecticut's Roper Center. (1997, March 2). Parade.

Kneeland, C. (1996, Fall). A Grueling Standard to Live By. Nieman Reports, pp. 15-16.

Kiska, T. (1997, March 28). This Just in ...: With scanners, beepers and computers, Channel 7 reporters face a daylong scramble to be first on the scene. The Detroit News, p. E1.

Kiska, T. (1997, June 15). Crime Time Live: Viewers Speak Out: TV news: Fueling our fears-Detroit News survey. The Detroit News, p. A1.

Sounds Very Familiar, (1998, March 12). The Washington Post.

Winerap, M. (1998, January 11). Does Local TV News Have to Be So Bad? The New York Times Magazine, pp. 29-36, pp. 50-63.