“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
© Jim McNabb, 2009