Stop Watching Your Local News
We talk a lot about media bubbles, but the news you think is “neutral” isn’t neutral at all.
For many of us, being home for the holidays means exposure to things outside of our daily routine. For me this year, staying with my partner’s family, it meant watching the nightly television news—something I rarely do, which makes me a statistical minority in the United States.
Every night, like clockwork, the news was on at 11 o’clock, bringing a melange of information right into the living room. Weather, sports, and traffic advisories peppered with seasonally-focused segments, broken up into easy-to-digest pieces that were teased to the point of saturation.
This is not how me or my generation get the news. But it is how many—in fact, most—Americans get it.
During that time, I saw the following pieces:
— A health report on the trend of “wine moms” and how “mommyjuice culture” can “turn dangerous.”
— Numerous pieces about shopping, Black Friday, and how to get the best deals from retailers.
— An interview with an immigrant family who were celebrating a “bittersweet” Thanksgiving, due to the looming potential of deportation under President Trump.
— A short piece about concussions in youth football players, followed closely by an in-depth injury report from the local professional football team.
— Extensive coverage of a 92-year-old woman who was mugged by a couple.
There was little news about matters which directly impacted the daily lives of viewers — nothing about the state legislature or city or county policies and little about Congressional decisions. During the same period, there were no segments about the looming vote on a GOP-backed tax reform bill, the recent announcement that the FCC had voted to strip Obama-era net neutrality protections, or the investigation into the President’s possible ties to Russia during the 2016 election cycle.
Those stories were covered on the station’s website, though they trailed behind weather and pieces about Black Friday in popularity.
Between the repetitive B-roll, the one-dimensional vox pops, and and the cherry-picked “experts,” the underlying tone of many of the pieces was consistent: The world is both highly predictable but also in a state of flux. It is not what you think it is, and it’s not what how you remember it from when things were good, whenever that was. Crime is getting worse. Modern trends are necessarily worse than older ones. And that at the end of the day, the best way to solve your problems is not to vote, write your lawmakers, or get involved, but instead, to buy something.
The absence of policy discussion was also telling; “politics” isn’t as relevant as a carjacking or murder that occurs three states over. “Politics” does not impact your commute, your sports viewing, or your weekend plans. “Politics” happens in Washington DC and nowhere else.
Our dinner table conversations over the weekend, in many ways, reflected the worldview presented by the news; while talking about events of the world, sentiments ranging from “everything is a scam” to “the world seems like a more dangerous place” were not only common, they elicited nods of agreement.
It’s not difficult to draw the connection, both in my own anecdotal Thanksgiving experience and in the broader state of of our national dialogue.
This is not to say that there is no room for TV news that is produced and aired locally and with regularity—instead, it’s quite the opposite. I believe that news which presents a diverse, relevant, and actionable slate of coverage is more essential than ever. Local news affiliates provide critical jobs in journalism, an industry that is slowly becoming more centralized and less prioritized.
Unfortunately, those jobs are also becoming less about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, but instead, about creating a worldview which confirms that of its viewers.
Though there is copious, reasonable concern about the role of “fake news” and ultra-partisan misinformation shared on social media, it’s television news which remains the primary source for millions of Americans. Local news broadcasts and links to local news websites are the most common way that individuals in the United States get their weather forecasts, their breaking news—and, in many ways, their worldviews.
In Local News We Trust
At a time when Democrats and Republicans view the role of the news media very differently, the pursuit for “truth” in news is hotter than ever. To find it, most Americans still turn to TV.
Fox News, with its notably conservative lean, is the most watched, according to a Gallup Poll, while local TV news stations are second. And not only do people watch their local TV news, they trust it and find it relatively centrist or objective—they are, to many Americans, the opposite of fake news.
They are, statistically, viewed as a highly believable, trustworthy source of news. Viewers who tend to shun sites like Breitbart or US Uncut still largely find their local affiliate to be a source they can trust.
Interestingly, industry research has also found that more people are “looking to TV to reinforce their views (37%) than newspapers (23%).”
Those looking to have their own views reinforced are turning to the right place; local TV news is neither comprehensive, nor is it particularly nonpartisan, depending on the station.
In addition to the standard human interest pieces (like the “wine mom” segment), which often seek to cash in on popular ideas, local TV news tends to rely on stock subjects like the weather, traffic, local sports, and of course, crime.
And it’s crime—specifically, the prevalence and volume of crime—where many of the problems lie, particularly with regard to how the worldview of the average viewer is shaped.
“Based on the findings from the study in the U.S., long-term exposure to local television news, wherein African-Americans are depicted frequently and stereotypically as criminals, predicted increased negative implicit attitudes toward African-Americans.” —Temple Northup, University of Houston
News stations have, for a long time, covered crime disproportionately; a study from 1998 by the Kaiser Foundation found that crime was the most-covered issue for local news, while health (focused on diseases and treatments, not policy) was fifth. It’s still true today, as well—despite substantial drops in crime rates across the country.
Journalism students in Louisville who tracked local news coverage found that “over half (52 percent)” of one station’s 6pm news segments were about crime. And while this has almost certainly added to the perception that crime is increasing in general, the way that crime is covered on local makes the picture painted by local news even more harmful and inaccurate.
For example, there’s a documented pattern of biased representation of marginalized communities in local TV news; beginning in the late 1990s, a sizeable body of research was developed demonstrating that people who watch local TV news are likely to see Black or Brown people committing crimes in disproportionate numbers, creating a culture of fear and suspicion among white people. And the evidence is growing.
A 2014 study published in the of Journal of Mass Communication and Journalism looked at the coverage of Black men in Omaha, Nebraska. In spite of the fact that Black people make up under 5% of the state’s population, the researchers found that they were disproportionately shown as the perpetrators of crimes.
“Crime-related stories account for more than 60% of lead news stories in Omaha, and Black males were featured in the primary crime story subject nearly 70% of the time even though crime statistics show that Blacks are only responsible for 31% of arrests during the same 3-month period.”
Another study, this time from 2012, looked into the crime coverage in Salinas, California, a city that has developed a reputation for being dangerous and which has a majority—at least 75%—Latinx population. Coders recorded the segment frequency of the 11pm news coverage at local stations every night for two months. They found that Latinx people were underrepresented as both the perpetrators and the victims of crimes—29% of perpetrators and just 7% of crime victims portrayed.
“The large Latino population is not reflected in identification of Latinos as either perpetrators or victims,” concluded researchers, who also noted behavioral patterns which cultivated a feeling of fear, particularly for white viewers.
One example that the researchers point to is Manhunt Monday, a weekly franchised segment that determined much of the other coverage throughout the week as well. According to researchers, Manhunt Monday “often extends into different days of the week in the form of follow-up stories [which] maintains a climate of fear about crime and is a constant reminder to the audience that criminals are on the loose in their community, beyond such Monday updates.”
The segment also lent additional time to underscore racial biases, they added.
“It was also noted during this period of closer examination that the criminals featured on the segment are frequently Latinos or from another minority group.”
This kind of bias has become the center of the conversation around how news sites and stations report on instances of massive violence; though white men are responsible for the majority of mass casualties in the United States, they are also more likely to be deemed “lone wolves” than terrorists.
This extends into TV news, too; former Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn’s “Terror Tracker,” which is run on local news stations across the country as well as hosted on their websites, presents “terrorism” as the sole purview of individuals from the Middle East. Similarly, TV news tend to cover terrorist attacks perpetrated by Middle Eastern individuals more heavily, leading to an outsized fear of Brown terrorists—and a willingness to act on it.
Researchers at the University of Michigan “discovered that after participants watched the negative news clips, they supported all kinds of unconstitutional policies targeting Muslim Americans,” according to an NPR story in June.
This means that viewers—who flip on their TV at 11 o’clock to see straightforward reporting and a general overview of the state of the world—aren’t getting what they think they’re getting. Instead of seeing a snapshot of breaking news and local and world events, they’re being served a dish that is disproportionately heaped with crime, fear, and racial bias.
And they trust that it’s not only true, but that that’s all there is to know. And then act on it.
How the Segments Get Made
These issues are not, it’s important to state, due to a lack of ethics demonstrated by producers and journalists. Many professionals who work for local TV news stations produce essential, thorough reporting, in spite of often terrible hours and even worse pay. The amount of labor that goes into chasing down stories, interviewing bystanders, and trying to get a straight answer is laudable.
The issue, though, is with the industry itself.
Despite what those who work for local TV news stations will say and believe about their role—that they go to work each day to inform the public of the relevant events and information—the truth is that television news stations owned by conglomorates exist for the sole purpose of generating revenue.
The driving factor in coverage—what viewers see, how they see it portrayed, and importantly, what they don’t see—is not whether or not it is important or meaningful or relevant, but instead, whether or not viewers will watch it, will click on it, will share it, and ultimately, will make the station profitable.
According to a factsheet from the Pew Research Center for Journalism & Media, it’s a hugely lucrative industry. Additionally, TV revenue, not online ads, still accounts for the lion’s share of the cash. From that report:
Advertising revenue for 832 local TV stations defined as “news-producing stations” (i.e. stations that have a news director and are viable, commercial and English-language affiliates) was estimated at $17.3 billion, which is 84% of the total $20.6 billion revenue for the industry overall, according to BIA/Kelsey data.”
TV news stations see digital advertising as a new frontier, particularly if local news stations can grow their social audiences. In fact, creating a buzzy social media page is the primary objective for many stations right now because it’s a way to capitalize on new revenue channels that were previously unavailable.
News stations—local news stations in particular—are most driven to create content which pops, which goes viral. That is the ultimate goal. There is money to be made in fear, salacious details, gore, feel-good news that confirms existing power structures, and othering. There is little money to be made in nuance, disruption, or discomfort.
This has been the case for decades — it’s the plot of Network and has long been a complaint of viewers. It still drives what you see on your local news station, as well as the stories you see in your newsfeed.
I know this because for several years I worked in the digital division of my local TV news station—which, while I was employed there, was purchased by Sinclair. My job was to create headlines that were clickable, to help drive social media shares and comments, and to stir the pot.
There were days when the numbers were low and we’d ask questions that we knew would infuriate people just to drive engagement. We were specifically instructed to re-write AP headlines to make them more likely to get shared, even if people didn’t actually click through and read the entire story.
I remember being pulled into a conference room for instruction on SEO and how to optimize our station’s platform; I never received similar instruction about ethics or about how to be informative.
Of course, none of this is new. Despite hand-wringing from older generations about the days of Murrow and “just-the-facts” journalism, this has always been the case.
In local TV news, the old adage remains as instructional as it ever was: If it bleeds, it leads. Triteness wins. Stereotypes win. Single-dimensional judgment wins.
This is true and remains true because it continues to work; consumers do click on some stories more than others much as they may rail against “clickbait.” Station managers—who are overwhelmingly older, white, and male—are often reliant on industry standards and averse to change. They also are more likely to think that audiences think like they do, regardless of who the audience really is.
The ongoing lack of diversity in newsrooms is no secret and it has real impacts.
Consider the story that aired on Thanksgiving, which painted a family’s fears of deportation as “bittersweet” as they gathered around the dinner table. Their fears of deportation were nebulous—at no point was a single policy or lawmaker to blame, nor were racist ideologies mentioned.
Consider the story about concussions in football which interviewed only white mothers and made no mention of the racial implications of sports recruiting and economic opportunity.
Consider the story about wine moms, which painted women in pain—specifically, millennials—as somehow frivolous.
Additionally, more and more, it’s a remote higher-up that’s calling the shots, rather than the mid-level managers at local TV news stations. That means that the decisions about what to cover, when to air it, and what the slant may be are all in the hands of someone like, say, a Trump-backing company in Baltimore.
Consider a story reported by the New York Times following the Sinclair acquisition of Seattle’s KOMO News (where I worked in 2013):
KOMO journalists were surprised in January when, at a morning planning meeting, they received what they considered an unusual request. The station’s news director, who normally avoided overtly political stories, instructed his staff to look into an online ad that seemed to be recruiting paid protesters for President Trump’s inauguration. Right-leaning media organizations had seized on the ad, which was later revealed as a hoax, as proof of coordinated efforts by the left to subvert Mr. Trump.
Only after reporters had left the room did they learn the origin of the assignment, two of them said: The order had come down from Sinclair.
Seattle is, of course, a city with a decades-long history of protests—and often, even the whiff of a protest will send news choppers into the air over downtown. Breathless coverage of local protests combine all of the parts that fuel local news—traffic reports, potential property damage, vox pops of concerned parents, and a collective chance to scowl at radicals.
But paid protesters? That’s not something that local station managers would typically care much about—nor is it something that the average viewer would necessarily need to know.
Tonight at 11, This Problem is Getting Worse
Cable news tends to receive the bulk of the attention with regard to media criticism—and for good reason. Stations like Fox continue to be hugely influential and persuasive. What people see on these stations impacts their behavior.
But the consolidation of news stations—and thus, the concentration of messaging—has the potential to be extremely detrimental as other local news outlets, like daily papers, independent weeklies, and public radio are all fighting desperately to stay afloat.
More and more, the 11 o’clock news is the go-to for breaking alerts, weather, traffic, and a window into what we should all care about. And more and more, it’s being decided by just a handful of very wealthy, very conservative individuals.
This concentration of the market isn’t an accident—it’s the goal. The FCC has made it easier than ever for news corporations like Sinclair to snap up local stations and, as a result, run their own programing during prime dayparts. This is exactly what they (and their lobbyists) are pushing for; Sinclair spokespeople have noted that they would ideally reach 90% market saturation.
Consolidation of news has the potential to be more insidious than Russian Facebook pages, MagaPill.com, or even documented shift of Fox News further to the right because unlike these other notably partisan sites, TV news is viewed as neutral and trustworthy. Whereas viewers may double-check their sources when a link comes from Breitbart, they are more likely to assume the truth from their local CBS affiliate.
However, it’s also not avoidable—it just requires news consumers to change their behavior.
That might mean abstaining from sharing stories from local news stations that are owned by Sinclair, or ceasing to watch the nightly news. It might mean taking steps to encourage advertisers to avoid buying time on those stations and supporting local journalism that isn’t attached to a larger corporation and doesn’t take part in questionable coverage—whether that’s a non-profit model or a for-profit outfit that actively pursues more diverse, comprehensive coverage of issues. It might mean talking to your family about where they go for their news and where else they might consider.
It also might mean larger, more systemic changes, like reforming campaign finance laws to cap spending on TV news ads and voting for lawmakers who support stronger consumer protections against monopolies at the Federal level.
Though fake news absolutely presents a threat to information and the education of the American voting body, real news, willfully misapplied or wrongfully deployed, is just as much a danger. As part of our collective hunt for greater media literacy, it seems important to look to the more innocent, more trusted outlets, as well, and ask what is (and is not) being fed directly into our homes and how it makes us see the world.