Newscasts take lopsided snapshot of our world


And the Lord sayeth to the tele-prophets: Giveth the ol' "Hook 'n' Hold."

Pronounced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) as The Word of God in local TV newsrooms, the "hook 'n' hold" is a burning bush of guidelines for assembling newscasts en route to the Nielsen Promised Land. Obedient followers (we viewers) have been worshipping at its altar forever. But it plagues both shepherd and flock.

"(Hook 'n' Hold) has led to a style of news that is predictable," the PEJ said in one of its reports. "It has also caused some viewers to give up on local TV news altogether."

If we submit every day to the religion of local news, let's examine its precepts.

Say it in unison: "If it bleeds, it leads." (Pre-bleed "Weather First" reports on KTNV-TV, Channel 13 aren't actual stories.) Murders. Fires. Car wrecks. Sobbing victims. Perp walks. "Live-local-late-breaking"-cha-cha-cha. Gotta get us to holster our remotes before we skedaddle after the murders, sobbing victims, perp walks and accidents on "CSI"/"ER."

Whoa, don't go! "Yadda-Yadda News starts right now!" Crash-boom-crime-cry. Great visuals, great voyeurism, great television.

Snoozy talking-head stories on business, education, science, technology, government, politics, social welfare? Tucked midshow, and shorter. Cue weather, sports, teasers to warnings that wearing red socks might cause brain cancer (or might not, so stick around!) and fluffy-news finales featuring puppies, kitties, diets, reunions and Britney.

With allowances for variations and deviations -- our locals often shine on featured medical and consumer reports -- it's the ol' "hook 'n' hold."

Behind the slick formula are skewed logistics: As frequent lead stories commandeering up to two minutes-plus, crash-boom-crime-cry sucks up station resources, lending spot news more reportorial depth than longer-impact civic/social policy stories. The disaster du jour can trigger "team coverage," unleashing a helicopter and news trucks angling for live footage with several reporters using more airtime to gather multiple sources and viewpoints -- cop, bystander, spokesman -- for stories that often have a 24-hour shelf life.

No crime scene tape? Go away kid, ya bother me.

Newscasts aren't built for nuanced complexity but breathless immediacy that takes a lopsided snapshot of our world. If we blindly buy that news topping the program is news that matters most, then "live, local and late-breaking" takes us through the looking glass, Alice.

And the glass is fogging up. "The tendency to lead with what is highly visual has become reflexive," the PEJ said. "The effect of these priorities on newscast content tends to go unrecognized."

But is it their fault? Or ours? If they benched crash-boom-crime-cry and led with education legislation, would we hang with 'em or ride the remote over to (yippee-kai-yay!) "Live Free or Die Hard"?

Now that's serious crash-boom-crime-cry.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

 

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