News industry’s ‘bleeding leads’ good for business, bad for the country

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“If it bleeds, it leads.”

That’s a long-running article of faith in local news: To gain viewers or boost readership, cover violent crime big-time, whether on the front page or the top of the newscast.

But those very methods contribute to the madness many now feel about the nation’s unhealthy dependency on police and prison to solve every problem. Journalism needs to accept its share of responsibility and change how it does business.

Crime as a news staple is nothing new. Readers in the late 1800s snapped up blood-soaked “penny dreadful” magazines, and graphic mayhem dubbed “yellow journalism” was a newspaper mainstay for the first half of the last century.

More recently, crime coverage dominated again as felony and murder rates shot up in the 1970s and 1980s. This coincided with the growing prominence of local TV news: As afternoon tabloid newspapers faded away, TV picked up the mantle, elevating the police blotter to the top of every newscast.

I worked in local TV news for most of the 1980s into the 90s — where, yes, it was all crime all the time, pandering to an understandably frightened audience. But then something strange and unexpected happened: Crime rates began to fall. They fell every year. Year after year.

By 2016, the overall crime rate was less than half of what it was in 1991. Murder rates were cut in half. And yet, surveys indicated time and again that Americans believed crime actually was increasing. A Pew Center poll in late 2016 revealed that 57 percent of registered voters felt crime had gotten worse since 2008, even though FBI data showed violent and property crimes had decreased by double digits over that period.

In the 2016 election, Donald Trump played on that mistaken belief, making a nonexistent national crime wave the cornerstone of his “American carnage” campaign.

Why the disconnect? As times changed, news did not. Local editors and news directors clung to a formula that had been working forever: Crime pays. A 2011 report in Psychology Today labelled it “fear-based media,” creating a body politic that, against all evidence, overestimated the chances of becoming a crime victim.

One result: As crime dropped to record lows, local police funding increased. Much of that funding went to a 1997 program that allowed local authorities to buy low-cost surplus military equipment, everything from grenade launchers to armored vehicles. All to address a crime problem that existed mainly in the minds of fearful constituents gorging on an outdated diet of “If it bleeds, it leads.”

But changing the news business will be difficult. Local journalism is undergoing severe contractions — smaller staffs, fewer resources. Covering municipal government is hard, tedious work; police blotter stories are relatively simple and cheap.

Crime also is universal. For the same reason everyone slows down to look at a car wreck, our brains grab onto to murder and violence, even if it isn’t in our town and doesn’t affect us. In a major market like Chicago, a local TV newsroom is trying to offer up stories that will appeal to 9.5 million people in a huge metropolitan area. The town water board in Evanston isn’t going to move the ratings needle, but a Southside drive-by shooting will.

Viewers and readers share in the blame. Other news stories sometimes demand action from the person on the couch: Investigations into poisoned water in Flint, Mich., and Love Canal, N.Y., compelled everyday people to battle powerful interests and set things right.

Crime stories ask nothing of us. They are emotion-based only. Like a good horror movie, they play with your sense of fear and keep you engaged until the monster is trapped and the end-credits roll. Too many newsrooms are just like movie studios, serving up new monsters, fresh sequels, to make sure you don’t change the channel or cancel your subscription.

The nation is now looking closely at new forms of policing. But we need to understand that nothing will shift if local news doesn’t also find a new form of journalism — moving away from modern versions of the penny dreadful into something that more closely reflects everyday reality instead.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.

Tags Crime Crime statistics Donald Trump Law and order Local news News Penny dreadful police funding policing reform US news media violent crime

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