TV NewsCheck includes a story about a high school class in Louisville, Kentucky that audits local TV newscasts to find out what they are covering. It is probably no surprise to you that crime coverage is by far the biggest category of local news.
Every fall my Journalism 1 students at duPont Manual High spend an entire month watching the late afternoon/early evening shows on all four stations. They divide into groups and each group selects a particular half-hour of local TV news to watch; for example, the WDRB group watches from 4 to 4:30 p.m. while the WHAS group watches from 5:30 to 6 p.m. While watching, they tally the story topics and keep track of how many local, national and international stories are featured. Stories that air during the weather or sports segments of each show are omitted, but weather or sports stories that air during normal news segments are included. The most recent results can be seen here, but this chart sums up the relevant findings:
“But crime in Louisville is much lower than it used to be. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime in Louisville peaked in 1996 at a rate of 1,233 per 100,000 people. As of 2010, the last year for which full data is available, the rate is now 565 per 100,000. In other words, the violent crime rate has been cut in half in less than twenty years. The property crime rate has also dropped significantly, though not as much: from about 6400 per 100,000 in 1996 to about 4500 per 100,000 in 2010.”
“Despite these facts, local TV news as a whole devoted over one-fourth of their news segments to covering crime stories in October 2012, and three out of four stations (WDRB was the exception) aired more stories about crime than any other subject. Remember that there was a national presidential election in full swing at the time, but only about 12 percent of their news segments were devoted to politics. Remember that American soldiers were still deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq at the time, but less than 1 percent of local TV news stories were about our nation’s wars. Remember that the nation was still suffering from the effects of the 2008 housing crash—remedies for which were a major issue during the election—but only about 16 percent of local TV news stories covered the economy. In other words, local TV stations spent about as much time covering crime as they spent on politics, war, and the economy combined, even though many of their crime stories were not truly newsworthy and Louisville was not experiencing a record-breaking crime wave.”