Bad News 

TV news makes us dumber

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I was in the Kingsbury Hall audience in June to listen to Ira Glass. He has achieved celebrity status in radio despite having the voice of a 14-year-old. He has worked in public radio for 30 years, and although he is credited with launching David Sedaris’ writing career, Glass is best known for his program, This American Life, which is broadcast by 500 stations across the country.

Glass is not my favorite radio personality, but I was interested in what he had to say about narrative technique and how particular qualities of broadcast media frame a story. One of the things he said about television news programs struck a responsive chord. “They make the world smaller, dumber and less interesting,” he said. I found myself nodding in agreement. As a regular viewer of Salt Lake City’s three 10 p.m. newscasts, I am frequently appalled by what I see.

But a hit-and-run indictment isn’t fair. In choosing a high-octane, damning verb like “appall,” I incur an obligation to justify its use. Empirical data are preferred, but having none besides the Nielsen ratings, I undertake an unscientific survey. I spend one Wednesday night flipping back and forth between the late newscasts on channels 2, 4 and 5. Here’s what I saw:

Between the lead story—often trumpeted as “Breaking News”—and the highs and lows of the weather report, each station aired eight stories of varying length. Of the 24 stories, only two were covered by more than one station. A drowning at Deer Creek Reservoir made all three newscasts. A 600-calorie-a-day diet that might reverse diabetes was reported in two.

Station A ran six crime/accident stories back-to-back before ending with a feature about a cancer survivor and the diabetes story.

Station B led with the drowning, followed with some network footage of a New Mexico wildfire, and a stand-up at the Tower Theatre about the documentary film being screened there. The next three stories were datelined out of state: from Washington, D.C., Obama vs. Republican hardliners and the announcement that Michelle Obama was coming to Utah; from Florida, an update on the Casey Anthony trial. The newscast concluded with a long story on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and a house in Daybreak.

The Deer Creek drowning was the lead story on Station C, after which the female anchor appeared in the employee breakroom to hold forth on the effects of water temperature. Up next were a piece about unsafe intrusions on a UDOT construction site, footage of the swollen Weber and Logan rivers and a few words about Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff’s planned challenge of the Bowl Championship Series system. Then to a live report from Los Angeles, where a Utah woman was a finalist on The Voice. Before ending with a feature on energy from algae, Station C ran the diabetes-diet story.

Survey concluded, I put Glass’s disparagement to the test. Having watched the day’s news on television, I asked myself: Is my world diminished? Dumbed down? Less interesting?
The only interesting story was the one on algae. That is a subjective judgment. Others would react differently. Diabetics would certainly be intrigued by the results of the curative, low-calorie diet. Fans of college football might be interested in Shurtleff’s legal gambit. All of us, whether we care to admit it or not, have a powerful, subliminal attraction to crime scenes, fires and accidents. It is what causes rubbernecking at freeway crashes, and I suspect it is related to our fascination with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Casey Anthony.

Airing episodes of minor misfortune dumbs down “the news,” just as Glass contends. Station A’s six crime/accident stories do not improve me in any way. I am neither a better citizen nor a more-informed consumer for having watched. Station A has broadcast sketchy details of six ephemeral events. In doing so, no time is left for the pressing issues confronting us in Salt Lake City—air pollution, impending water shortages, cell-phone-impaired drivers, underfunded schools, scam artists, loony legislators. It is a long list to put aside to send reporters to stand in front of burned buildings and barriers of yellow police tape.

When Glass criticizes television news for “making the world smaller,” I believe he means that our collective experience as Utahns is rendered less consequential, less robust. Perhaps it is even demeaned. To enlarge the world is to try to make sense of it. That is why local news is so important. I have a dozen options for out-of-state news, from The New York Times to Jon Stewart. I depend on Salt Lake City news media to report the city’s stories and to keep a watchful eye on loony legislators (as ABC4’s Chris Vanocur does pretty well). Station B violated its local-news charter by airing stories taken from network feeds.

I suppose it comes down to which stories merit coverage. Which story enlarges our world, fills gaps in our knowledge, challenges our intellects or holds us in thrall? In a perfect world, each station would report the day’s eight most-newsworthy stories in order of importance. A convenience-store robbery or an auto accident would never make the cut. There is not enough time for the inconsequential. A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University finds most people prefer “issues-based, policy-relevant stories” to those about crimes, accidents and fires. Herein lies opportunity for ABC4, which trails KUTV and KSL in viewership. Instead of broadcasting banality, it should heed Ira Glass. An investment in engaging, substantive stories might well return dividends in more viewers and higher ratings. What’s to lose?

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