Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Too Much Crime Coverage by Austin TV?

Covering Cops

“Isn’t there more crime coverage in Austin now than before,” a friend asked me a few weeks ago. I too harbored the same suspicions. It seemed like the top of every TV newscast led with crime scene video, and mug shot, and more. The Austin American-Statesman’s page 2, B-section has a box filled with a digest of death and criminal deeds. I fear that we are desensitized by all the entertainment crime shows which come close to reality. Having covered cops, I watch few crime shows. I don’t need to watch when I’ve seen the real thing.

In this age of doing more with less, crime coverage is fast and easy, down and dirty. All of the available facts are fed to you. The video is often compelling. Fires also fit into this category. It is ironic; however, that the green reporters are given the cop shop/crime beat. “Covering crime should not be easy, rather it should be one of the most difficult stories we take on,” says Kevin Benz, News Director of News 8.

Covering cops and crime is fraught with danger. Yes, my life was threatened several times. Indeed, after an inmate in the Travis County Jail called me at home at 2 a.m. after I covered his murder arrest the previous day, I had my home address erased from the phone book. More, crime reporters need to know applicable laws and answers to numerous ethical questions.

It was this perceived increase in crime coverage that lead to my recent content analysis of Austin TV stations. Is it real or perceived? The snap-shot analysis was for the newscasts Friday, August 28th and Monday, August 31st looking only at the 6 and 10 O’clock newscasts. I cannot compare crime coverage to another bench mark. I can only draw conclusions from these two days newscasts. Of course, there isn’t major crime and/or catastrophe every day, thank goodness.

Crime or mayhem, such as an apartment fire led the newscasts seven times out of 17 newscasts viewed. Another story of that type was often the second story.

By far, the station with the most crime coverage was KXAN TV (NBC) with 23 stories, often with live shots or full stories with a reporter’s voice track along with sound and video, commonly called packages. Coming in second for crime coverage these days was KEYE (CBS) with 12. KVUE TV (ABC) had ten, and News 8 (Time-Warner) had only one. It is noteworthy that in Friday’s 6 O’clock KXAN’s David Scott covered a community meeting where residents were working to reduce crime. That did not count as a “crime” story per se.

So, if it seems to you that there is more crime coverage nowadays, you may be watching KXAN. They definitely had the most these two days. In the Friday, August 28th 10 O’clock, their first seven stories were about crime or fire—almost all of the first segment. There were only two short stories before the first break at 10:10 p.m. The first five stories were also about crime or catastrophe on KEYE. One KVUE the first three were about the three-alarm fire that evening or crime. All, of course, led with the three-alarmer. “Flamage” is always compelling video. Who will turn away from a raging fire?

Now, a little history:

When I came back to TV news in 1983, I wanted to cover politics, but Carole Kneeland was covering the Capitol for both WFAA and KVUE. So, I picked the copy shop, knowing one could always find a story there. In the mid-80s Austin had a record year for traffic fatalities and homicides. We decided not to air video of all of them, not wanting to have bodies on the air almost every night.

By 1989, I was at KXAN and Ms. Kneeland was now news director at KVUE and later vice president for news. She enacted a five-point policy on crime coverage that received national attention. KVUE news managers must measure coverage by the answers to five questions: Is the crime a threat to public safety? Is the crime a threat to children? Does the viewer need to take action? Will it have significant community impact? Does the story lend itself to a crime-fighting or prevention effort? Critics said that such a policy would filter the news. Kneeland, on the other hand, sought to move away from what she saw as gratuitous or sensational coverage that glorified the crooks instead of providing useful information to viewers.

Kneeland lost her battle with breast cancer at 50 in 1998. After Kneeland’s death, friends and husband Dave McNeely, created the Carole Kneeland Project for Responsible Journalism to train news managers in ethics and leadership. News 8’s Kevin Benz is a trainer for the Carole Kneeland Project.

Benz broadened Kneeland’s crime questions to more than four pages of guidelines given to his staff. There is little wonder that News 8 had the least crime coverage in the content analysis. “Too often when it comes to crime coverage, newsrooms work on gut reaction. We tend to report first and discuss second,” Benz says. His guidelines require reporters to “dig deeper, ask more questions, and reflect on what we are saying to our viewers.

Current KVUE News Director Frank Volpicella also has a passion for the correct way to cover crime. “The Crime Project was a very noble initiative. It came about after careful consideration and concern that crime coverage was taking up too much of KVUE’s air time. I didn’t agree with the entire policy when I arrived at KVUE nine years ago. I still don’t,” Volpicella says. “While noble in creation, it also created a culture of laziness. If the story didn’t meet the guidelines, it likely was automatically dismissed. No one made a call. No one asked the tough questions. “

“The KVUE staff discusses crime coverage on a daily basis, like it does economic or education stories,” Volpicella continues. “If the crime is stranger-upon-stranger, or if it exposes a deep social ill, like domestic violence, then it will likely will get air time and reporter treatment. If it lacks those elements, it may be ignored completely, or reduced to a short word or video story of :15 seconds.

“KVUE is very sensitive to airing graphic images. We do not air video of covered or uncovered bodies. We don’t air body bags. We don’t show blood or gruesome images. While I don’t want to sanitize the news, I also don’t want to offend our viewers, or the victims of crime, either. Certainly there are exceptions to this rule. If the images are relevant to the story, we’ll take that into consideration. 9/11 for example.

Benz also has a list of disturbing things that will not be on News 8, but “if you feel a graphic image is critical to your story, it must be approved by a news manager.” News 8 was the only Austin TV news department that didn’t show the full, graphic police dash-cam video of the shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II. Benz says they decided to use it up to the second of the shooting and then they edited still frames to tell the story. He says he might have chosen different had the story been only for the late news, by News 8 airs in 24-hour cycles.

One time I covered the death of a toddler who drowned in a mop bucket while his mother was smoking crack on the front porch. As a part of my 10 O’clock package I used (with permission) a :19-second uncut clip of the medical examiner carrying something in a very small blanket to the truck. An appalled viewer called immediately after the story aired. “That was outrageous,” she screamed! “Yes, yes it was. That is precisely why I chose to use the video,” I answered. She understood.

This post cannot capture all of the elements of crime coverage. Books have been written on the subject. Further, I cannot include the comments from all news directors in town. I chose to talk with Volpicella and Benz because of their connections to Carole Kneeland and/or KVUE. Viewers can judge for themselves. Viewers have agency. They make decisions every day on whether they or their children should watch certain content.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...

Regardless of Carol or Kevin's efforts, and there is nothing wrong with dealing in the theory of journalism, one fact rings true and in this case louder than your point.

There is far more crime in Central Texas now than in decades past. I didn't say Austin. This isn't the sleepy little hippy/lawyer town of the 70's or even 80's. It is a big city and MANY of the people that view Austin as the hub of Central Texas, don't live in Austin.

You probably would have given credibility to your blog by getting a sound bite from the news director at KXAN, since you essentially ripped him and his staff for their coverage of crime.

Call it what you will, but if you believe it, you are more of a danger to journalism than those who DO report on it. It is a growing problem and APD's propensity to shoot to kill makes obvious the point that "it's dangerous out there."

Here's what your headline probably SHOULD read.

"Too Much Crime in Austin"

Anonymous said...

Hey Anony,

Wow, you kinda are taking this a little too much to heart. Like what he said cut a nerve. In any case, I happen to agree with him. Crime is easy. I worked in a top 25 market with one station there who hammered crime like it was nobodies business. Any crime, even purse snatching crimes 4 days old.

Ya see, it's sooooo easy to do. Just get the salacious hi-lights from the police report, some real estate of the scene, and some sound from a victim or complete stranger who mumbles "I'm shocked it can happen here". That station had great ratings and fiercely loyal employees who would fire back just like you whenever someone doubted the legitimacy of their work.

The fact is, in todays journalism world crime pays. Cheap, green newbies are a dime a dozen and will happily report any beating, rape, or murder. It takes about an hour to produce such drivel. Plenty of time to shoot and write a few more stories. It's all bottom line based and until people reward good reporting with ratings it will only get worse.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's note:

Actually, "Anonymous" #1, you're wrong.

There is NOT more crime now. If you'd read the post, you would have noticed that the record year for homicides and fatalities was in the mid-80s. Violent crime rates here have been down over recent years. There has been growth in property crime.

Further, "Anonymous", you are not aware of the dynamics of the market.

If you'd read the post, you would have seen why I choose to cite only two news directors, but since you asked, the News Director of KXAN says he will not comment to me, even though I gave 16 years of my career there, and I own LIN TV stock. I understand there may be a lot of pressure in his job. I've been there. Not commenting is NOT the way to get rid of pressure. Sorry.

I have lots of friends at KXAN, and I invested a lot there. Robert, Leslie, Spencer, and Roger are wonderful. Their producers are good friends. Most of the photographers who were there when I was there are still there, and we are friends.

Their management, however, does not like criticism, even when it is true and deserved. They haven't listened for years. I have tried as well as others.

When I started this blog, relations became more strained. Oh well. I'm going to write the truth.

And you, "Anonymous", should write the truth too. I'm tired of the self-righteous posturing.

Tonight, I'm not in a good mood. It's my blog. Instead of letting you twist slowly in the wind, I thought it it was time to make you twist a little faster.

"Anonymous", you don't get it.



Anonymous said...

Just curious, Jim ... did Fabac and/or Lassberg cite a specific reason why they will no longer chat with you? Clearly you didn't report erroneous information, or a simple correction would have resolved it all. I always love when TV stations make a point of saying so-and-so wouldn't comment ... and then they do the same thing when they drop an anchor, ax a newscast, etc.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note:

To the above "Anonymous" voice:

This is a blog encumbered with all the connotations that go with it. I, however, am still a journalist using this 21st century medium.

My intent is to write the truth. When I write opinion, I say so.

I will always write corrections or clarifications if I am shown that I have written something that is not true or even unclear.


Anonymous said...

It's not just TV. Anyone who has worked under the current news director at a certain local news/talk station with presidential call letters knows firsthand of his love-fest with crime stories. It's a steady diet of crime over there.

Worse yet, the leads he writes to intro the crime stories are exaggerated and sensationalized for maximum effect.

It's sleazy. It's lazy. And it's low-rent.

Kinda like the radio show he did that got yanked this past summer.

Anonymous said...

I still look back and wonder about the overall value of covering crime and fatalities. July 4th, 1984, as a KXAN (KTVV) Photog, I was simply sent to "stake out"
RM 2222. By noon there was a triple fatal at the
descending radius chicane just west of Mt. Bonnell
Rd. A BMW convertible was hit head on by a '67 GTO driven by a drunk. I was first on the scene, and could only put the camera down and attempt to comfort and distract the wife. Then around 4, 3 kids wrapped a Camaro completely around an Oak tree near the base of the big hill. I ended up following the DPS in. The passenger flew down a barbed wire fence. 6 in a day is probably still the standing record. Was any of that news, I don't know. Did the road get widened and a center lane added because of my video? Doubt it. Were DWI laws strengthened because KTVV covered it.
Doubt it.

NewsMcNabb said...

Actually, "Anonymous" from September 15th, the coverage may have made a difference. I remember that day. I was at KVUE TV at the time covering cops. After that, white crosses started appearing on RM2222. The publicity and the public pressure led to widening and straightening the road. It is those times when the media puts a spotlight on a problem and the problem is addressed that I still believe.