Turn it off (or: now I remember why I don’t watch local news)

Having nothing at all to do with the practice of law…

I finished watching something on TV at about 10 last night, and before I turned off the TV, I happened to tune by all of the major local newscasts – WBBM, WLS and WMAQ – right as they were coming on with their top stories.

What were those top stories? A woman who died at Wrigley Field from choking on a hot dog, and more lurid details about the treatment of the girls who were kidnapped in Cleveland.

I stopped watching local news years ago, and this vividly reminded me why that is.

It’s the “police scanner” version of news. Or, as it used to be said, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Not to put too fine a point on it: it’s disgusting, and it is a betrayal of the public trust. (The airwaves on which local stations broadcast belong to the public.)

“News” like this sure is cheap to produce. All you need is a police scanner and a few blow-dried talking heads to intone pompously about the latest horror or tragedy. Why would anyone watch this? It’s masochistic. The answer is, fewer and fewer people do.

People of my parents’ generation grew up watching local TV news, before it was as awful as it is now (before the coming of the “action news” format), and before the rise of the internet. It was something that went on every night — part of the routine. But few people I know who are my age or younger ever watch local news. According to the Pew Research Center, “Only about a third (34%) of those younger than 30 say they watched TV news yesterday; in 2006, nearly half of young people (49%) said they watched TV news the prior day.” That’s a pretty remarkable decline in just 6 years.

Maybe even local news executives are finally figuring out that no one wants to watch what they are serving up. Their response? More sports, weather and traffic! Which seems kind of silly, considering that I can get plenty of sports, whether and traffic online whenever I want to.

Of course, it is not just the local news stations but networks like CNN and Fox, that simply cover every awful story they can find (and get lurid video of) on a national scale.

From a business perspective, you’d think that if everyone was doing the same tired thing, and that thing wasn’t working very well, it would create strong incentives either for internal change or “disruption” by a new media entrant. The fact that this hasn’t happened (unless you want to count the Daily Show on Comedy Central) is an interesting example of group-think and risk aversion at the executive levels of some of our vaunted media organizations. Perhaps it also has to do with barriers to entry and the difficulties today of aggregating an audience.

Some studies suggest a relationship between TV viewing and depression among teens. It is hardly surprising that the onslaught of violence and catastrophe on local TV news and on television in general would distort our view of the world and contribute to feelings of negativity, helplessness and depression. If all you see is bad stuff 24/7 on TV, it only makes sense that you will come to see the world as a pretty horrible place, and feel helpless in the face of it.

Of course there is plenty of crime and tragedy in the world, but there are also so many stories of people striving heroically to overcome adversity, improving the conditions of their families and in their communities, or better the world in some meaningful way. There are also hugely important, long-term issues that as a society, we need to educate ourselves about and address: poverty, urban and rural decay, catastrophic climate change, widening societal gaps in health, wealth and education, the easy availability of weapons of mass violence, the lack of mental health care, and so on. These issues have nearly no presence in the mass media (unless they result in a shooting spree, a hurricane, or some other tragedy). 

If we are to confront the enormous challenges we face, we desperately need to focus on the big picture and find inspiration and the will to collective action in the stories of people who are already taking action — creating extraordinary positive change, often with few resources and under trying conditions. Those stories are out there.

Turning off the TV would be a good first step.

Categorised as: soapbox

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