Why local news is no longer appointment TV for me

The drunk police officer plowed his squad car into two motorcycles stopped at a red light. One rider was killed; two others were injured. A bungled and compromised investigation, continued bad behavior by the officer, and the slow wheels of justice kept this story at the top of the news for three years. At last, the officer was convicted of drunk driving, criminal recklessness, and reckless homicide.

WRTV photo

On the day of the verdict, I turned to local television news for the story. I hoped for reporting and analysis that would help me understand the conviction in the context of the investigation and the trial. Instead, the station I chose led with — and heavily promoted — the emotional reaction of one dead rider’s mother as the verdict was read.

Then the newscast cut to an early weather report, and made no more mention of a top local story of this decade.

It’s not like most viewers didn’t know of this story, which was heavily reported over the three years between accident and conviction. But there was so much more to tell that evening: to recount the story’s timeline, to summarize the trial, to connect the dots that led to the guilty verdict, and to share the day’s courtroom drama. The mother’s tears were rightly part of that story. But they were not the story.

To be fair: a good television news program shows the news as much as it tells it. Without action video, all that’s left is talking heads. When I was a boy 40 years ago, local TV news was balding men in gray suits, sitting at a desk, droning on about city-council meetings. Yecch; who wants to watch that? Unless those council members were throwing punches at each other, there was nothing to see.

Also, many stories would benefit from explanation and analysis that television doesn’t have time for. Even if it did, television news is by its nature a short-attention-span theater. People watch the news while living their lives: getting ready for work, sending kids off to school, making dinner.

But even within these realities, an average TV newscast was once a good enough summary of a day’s events. I don’t find that to be true anymore. Instead, I find TV news trying to keep me on the hook by driving strong emotions.

I’m no industry insider, but here’s what I think is going on. Thanks to hundred-channel cable and the Internet, viewers have more choices and any single news outlet has to compete harder than ever for viewers. Younger viewers favor these other choices so overwhelmingly that the TV newscast viewer’s average age has risen sharply away from the younger viewers advertisers want — and the remaining audience that remains. And the large corporations that own most television stations today have shareholders to please and/or enormous debt loads to shoulder, so they cut costs to the bone.

It’s driven TV news to rely increasingly on young, pretty, and presumably inexpensive talent, and to focus on dramatic stories they can tell easily and quickly. Bus crashes, police standoffs, drive-by shootings, train derailments, shackled felons shuffling into jail — these stories create compelling video and generate a dramatic, fast-paced news program.

I live in the 27th largest television market in the United States, which I would think would have a glut of experienced reporters to choose from. But in the last ten years or so, I’ve watched many middle-aged, experienced reporters disappear to be replaced by good-looking youngsters. They can’t possibly have their predecessors’ experience or contacts.

I don’t know whether it’s their thin experience or corporate edict, but their reporting often shuns depth and context in favor of immediacy and drama. A reporter stands live at the scene, even when the story happened eight hours ago and the place is empty and quiet now. She reports what she sees and perhaps what a police spokesman told her. She asks a man on the street for his opinion or gets a teary-eyed victim to emote for the camera, and then tosses back to the anchor. I come away knowing only that the thing happened and someone was upset about it.

And then there are the fear-inducing health and safety stories and the ambush-style “tough questions” that masquerade as investigative journalism. It’s all wrapped in a shiny package of needless, endless swoosh sounds and “Breaking News” banners.

Well, I’m repelled by it all. The 6:00 news used to be appointment television for me. But over the past ten years or so I’ve watched less and less of it. I catch it when I happen to, and when the weather is bad.

I’m not suggesting that local TV news return to 40 years ago with the middle-aged men and the droning. The things I mentioned above are not all inherently a problem. The over-reliance on them is.

So TV news: To win me back, dig deeper into your stories and tell them straight up, without only playing on my emotions. And when a mother cries as her son’s killer is convicted, go ahead and show her tears. Just wrap them in the bigger story that shows those tears’ context.


25 responses to “Why local news is no longer appointment TV for me”

  1. traveller858 Avatar


    I feel you are describing the happenings throughout media in the UK as well. Not only the “News” programmes take this approach but, what used to be “serious” programmes seem to be moving down the diluted route.

    I’m not sure there are any true news programmes left. Everything is moving towards “magazine type” shows.

    Perhaps it’s an age thing!!!


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I do wonder whether my advancing (middle) age is at play here. Maybe I’m wiser and/or more cynical now.

    2. loneprimateinto Avatar

      Barry, if you feel that way, I guess it’s over. For my money, the best news organization in the world (or at least the Anglosphere) is the BBC. I went out of my way to get BBC World News on cable (it’s a second-tier option in Toronto), and I still think it’s stellar. Okay, you’re not going to get local news on it (sorry, Jim :) ). But if I want to know who won the election in India last night or what’s up in Kyrgyzstan, I have a place to turn that isn’t A) primarily about Canada or B) primarily about which celebrity is being chased by the cops down the highway in southern California.

      Wouldn’t it primarily be the Beeb who’s still covering most of the local news in Britain? And I wouldn’t be surprised if RTE is contracting them to do the Irish stuff. :D

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        Once in a while I catch a BBC newscast on the radio — our public radio station airs it occasionally. It’s a 5-minute cast. I always come away astonished by how much I know about what’s going on in the world.

  2. hmunro Avatar

    I’ve quit watching the TV news precisely for the reasons you cite: It’s sensationalized fluff, only a couple of steps removed from the grocery store tabloids that try to lure readers with their fantastical headlines (“Could that cough be ebola?”). It’s a shame, but I think it’s an inevitable outcome of our collective increasingly short attention span — and our ridiculous choice of news outlets. Even worse? I don’t think it will change until people stop watching altogether. Sigh.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Here’s something I know: nobody ever went broke underestimating the American people. I’ll never forget, during my radio days, when the program director said to me: “Jim, if pigs oinking got better ratings than the music we play, I’d program the pigs 24/7.”

      1. Lone Primate Avatar

        You ought to try BBC’s podcasts, Jim, either on your phone or computer. I used to go for walks at lunch time last summer listening to them. The variety of subjects is astounding. I listened to an hour-long show by a woman from the States who was tracking down an early jazz woman in one of them.

        Okay, I’m straying a little from your local news theme here. Sorry. :) But they really are tremendous.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I’ll have a look!

      2. hmunro Avatar

        Sadly, I’d rather listen to pigs oinking than much of what airs these days. (Looks like I just officially became a fogey!)

  3. sobershutter Avatar

    See the movie “Nightcrawler”, besides being a super movie it tells what to me is an accurate account of the modern media. Here on my coastline, along with the screaming woman of the day we get talked down to by the news people with “reminders” not to leave our dogs in closed cars, that road potholes can damage our cars, and to BUNDLE UP!, its cold out there! I almost never watch the news, I read it on the net just so I dont have to hear their voices. S

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, like nobody knows that when the temperature is high, it’s hot outside!

    2. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

      I’ve never seen Nightcrawler, but I have seen Network. It’s scary how true it’s becoming…

  4. Dennis Wagoner Avatar

    I have not been able to stomach the local news stations here for many years for the very reasons you mention!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What I can’t figure out is how to get local news without these programs. I gave up on the paper years ago.

  5. Carole Grey Avatar
    Carole Grey

    Right on, Jim. News is now entertainment. And,”Mommy” telling me to bundle-up is not news!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks. There’s still enough of an audience for the news as it is for it to continue this way. So why is it that this post is resonating with so many readers today?

  6. Kif Avatar

    Don Henley had it right with his song more than 30 years ago. One observation I have made might offer perspective: when I was a teenager in the D.C. area in the 80s, Maury Povich was a respectable evening anchor for a local Washington D.C. affiliate. He switched to more sensationalist endeavors not too long after. I guess he was a pioneer as now there’s a lot of TMZ in our NBC (or CBS, ABC, or FOX.)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Lots of people who just want to be on TV and get famous end up doing news. I think that’s probably Maury’s story.

  7. pesoto74 Avatar

    About the only time I pay much attention to the local tv news is during the spring storm season. And I have to admit that two of the local stations do a good job with that. They will broadcast without commercials and give solid information. Other then that I am not much of a judge of what they do.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Every time I tune in to catch bad-weather coverage, I’m happy. They do sometimes over-focus on the dangers, but I love how they follow the storm through the viewing area.

  8. davidvanilla Avatar

    You write truth. Yet another factor to be considered, I think, is attention span of the viewer. In our “fast paced” lifestyle it has been whittled to almost nothing. “oh, loo. . .” Nevermind.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      When I was a kid, our dinner was done and we were all gathered in front of the TV in time for at least the national news at 6:30 and usually for the local news at 6:00. Today, that’s just not the case for most families — we’re all so busy and active.

  9. Steve Miller Avatar
    Steve Miller

    I blame MTV — flash cuts for everything has destroyed the viewer’s attention span. That’s how five-seconds of video stretches for a 25-second story. They run the video five times, counting on our short bursts of coherence to disguise the repetition.

    It’s all background noise…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, I’ve noticed the repetition, especially whatever the “money shot” is of the news story. They run it five times during the report and three times teasing the story!

  10. Nancy ( Roe ) Stewart Avatar
    Nancy ( Roe ) Stewart

    We have sure come a long way downhill since we watched Huntley and Brinkley back in my day !! Now it’s the murder of the day, the politicians hurling childish accusations back and forth, and the latest love fest the media has with Kanye, Kim, Taylor or Justin !! I watch PBS and listen to NPR more and more.

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