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Friday, Nov. 16, 2007

Why We Hate Local TV News

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In recent years, it seems that Milwaukee's local TV news operations have far too often done it wrong.

Karen Slattery, an associate professor of journalism at Marquette University, and a former TV reporter herself, is troubled by a decrease in substantive local news and an increase in "sensationalism" that she sees in local TV news.

"If it bleeds, it leads, and that has been going on for some time in TV news," Slattery said. "But I think the same rules that apply to professional journalists anywhere on the planet need to apply to local TV news … do you follow practices of good, responsible journalism?"

Former University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee journalism professor Dave Berkman was even more direct in saying that the lack of quality local news "just proves there is only variation in the quality of the turds."

When print journalists discuss the strengths and weaknesses of local TV news, there is an acknowledgment that TV news is able to get stories out more quickly than print news, while also adding sound and video to news stories that can enhance a viewer's emotional reaction.

But there are also far too many elements that seem unprofessional and even irritating to both the print journalist and the general public when watching Milwaukee's TV news. Many of those criticisms dwell on whether the local TV news is actually a newscast these days or simply another television show.

With the May sweeps just ahead, you can expect to see even more of the types of stories that make us uneasy, like finding the Internet porn sites that school kids like best—and inadvertently explaining just how to access those sites.

Here is a list of some of the things we hate about TV news and why we hate them:

• Plugging entertainment shows on the news. It has become a staple of local news to give the evening's prime-time lineup during valuable news time, as if it was as important as a news story. The most egregious crossing over of what should be a bright line occurs when the local TV news department tries to link those entertainment shows to their news. Fox 6 News does the "What would Jack Bauer do?" stories after it airs "24" on Mondays, as if a fictional character should have that kind of impact. Why not ask "What would Homer Simpson do?" when faced with eating a poisoned pie?

• Sticky-sweet personal stories. Speaking of the Simpsons, one of the best spoofs of local TV news occurred when kid TV reporter Bart Simpson delivered a silly feature called "Bart's People." Any time you have somebody become anybody's "people" you know a schmaltzy soft-news feature will be uncanned on a slow news day … like "Perry's People" on WITI-TV6.

• Useless local coverage of national stories. Just what is a slow news day? If local TV news used their reporters more regularly to actually cover local news—as opposed to sending them on useless jaunts to the scenes of big national stories—there might be fewer slow news days. What did WTMJ (Channel 4) add to the coverage by sending not just one but two reporters to the scene of the recent Virginia Tech massacre? Nothing. It was mere redundancy of national coverage. Any local angles could have been covered more effectively here. These jaunts are the glamour shots for local TV news and their reporters and are a waste of resources and our viewing time. (Please see WTMJ's Mike Jacobs' trip to Rome to cover the papal transition for another example.)

• Repeating an earlier story. How about those stories that are obviously a mere recounting of the story that already ran on that affiliate's earlier national news? Sometimes the story's video is exactly the same, with a local reporter simply reading from a script. How is that bringing Wisconsin viewers any additional insight?

• Overly dramatic or sad music. It seems that viewers are too stupid to know when a story is important. So the heavy music is inserted to remind us to be scared, sad, moved or impressed.

• Keeping a dead story alive. What is accomplished when a reporter is "live on location" after a story is long over? When the weather makes it all the more difficult to report, it seems even less reasonable or necessary. Pity the reporter, for instance, who senselessly stands out in the parking lot of the meeting hall for hours after the session ended, simply so the hall can be in the live news shot.

• Sting stories. These are the very kind of ersatz "investigative journalism" pieces that may well have driven real TV news people like Mike Gousha from TV. How many "Contact 6"-style knockoffs do we need? "Dirty Dining" acts as if it was Upton Sinclair exposing the meat-packing industry. And John Mercure might as well put on a police uniform, considering his overly publicized role in catching Internet pedophiles. (Isn't that work the police should be doing without reporters?)

• Animated anchors. It seems like local TV news anchors have watched more video of Stephen Colbert than Walter Cronkite. One morning anchorwoman dances on a commercial, another morning TV reporter will "go" anywhere and usually comes back with meaningless stories, and another anchor will howl or shout at strange times. Many of them strike coquettish or manly poses to promote their perceived image. Viewers have come to expect this kind of conduct on "SportsCenter." But it looks silly when delivering what should be straight news.

(Also, spare us the supposedly unsolicited audio endorsements of anchors by "local citizens" who are often just models, public relations people or the general public hoping to get on the air.)

• Get the name right. Of course, Milwaukee is just a step on the ladder for many anchors and reporters, but shouldn't somebody in news production teach reporters how to pronounce names like "Kinnickinnic," "Waukesha" and "Oconomowoc" correctly? It's even more inexcusable when longtime anchors like WTMJ's Carole Meekins still mispronounce names.

• If it bleeds, it leads. Before the viewer gets to all this fluff, the top stories are usually a simple recounting of how people are killed in high-crime areas. But when was the last TV news story you saw that examined some of the underlying reasons for crime? Or a story that discussed what is being done behind the scenes to try to address underlying problems of crime like unemployment, drug addiction or the lack of a driver's license?

Yet you can be sure that you will see video of a silhouetted hooker or an anonymous person shooting up drugs or smoking a joint. That is the kind of stuff that gets us right to the heart of a problem, after all.

• Random video from somewhere. Then there are the stories from places we don't care about, simply because the station has the video. The man who gets gored during the running of the bulls is one example. Then there's the overturned train footage from somewhere down south. How about the tornado that touches down somewhere in Oklahoma? Meanwhile, many local stories—even some about the weather—go uncovered by lackadaisical TV news departments.

• Lack of meaningful political coverage. During the November campaigns, several watchdog groups reported on the appalling lack of coverage on political issues. And even when there is coverage, the stories almost always focus on the horse race rather than the issues. There was a time when stations like WISN-TV 12 had regular political experts in house to analyze elections and campaigns. Apparently that wasn't sexy enough.

• Exaggerated weather stories. Several times this past winter, it seemed like Wisconsin was going to be buried under a glacier, based on the breathless reporting about storms "headed our way." But that wrong information can often have other far-reaching, unintended impacts. (And, please, enough already with the anchors getting angry or happy with the weather guys because of the weather.)

• No follow-up. Remember what happened last month, or even last year? Apparently local TV news doesn't, because they rarely follow up on stories, particularly those about "seriously injured" people or unsolved crimes.

• Re-enactments. Do we really need to see the cameraman jogging around the school to recreate the steps of the person who broke in?

• Calling or stalking a family who just lost a loved one. Local TV news has brought this practice to an all-time low. The example of WTMJ's Courtny Gerrish calling the family of the Waukesha boxing coach before they knew he had been killed during a gas station robbery was the most recent disgrace. But local TV news has also become infamous for staking out the homes of people hit by tragedy just when they least need such an intrusion.

• Fake emotions. Are these people news reporters or actors? As Don Henley so accurately described in his "Dirty Laundry" lyrics, "Well I could have been an actor but I wound up here. I just have to look good. I don't have to be clear." It's sad enough that average-looking reporters can't make it on TV, but do these pretty people also have to have an acting coach as well?

Now it's your turn. Have we been unfair or have we only skimmed the surface? Please comment on this story and local TV news at www.shepherd-express.com. Next week, we will print some of your responses as a follow-up to this story.

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