What I ask of late-night local news is what I seek in a nightcap at 11 p.m.: Make me feel my world is intact. Quickly review the significant news of the day on the world, national and local levels. Throw in a few human happenings, then switch to weather and sports. If Richmond is to be center stage for a calamity overnight and evacuation is imminent, I do want this information. That being said, all crime information can wait until morning when the waking mind is less reactive to blood-stained pavements.
In the State of Media Report for 2006, the average time spent on crime stories (44 percent) took the top spot on local late-news broadcasts by a margin of 2 to 1 over the next category, domestic happenings (23 percent). Add in accidents (6 percent), and the three categories account for 73 percent of all local topic coverage, a very one-sided approach. On the far end of the scale, science and technology occupied just 4 percent of airtime. The downsizing of planets does not happen very often, but medical discoveries deserve a bigger forum.
Late in the day, I lean toward human interest (10 percent of coverage) and maybe a look at Wall Street (business/economy, 0 percent), presented in a pleasant manner by a newscaster not trained in the art of editorializing. And when dog bites man, I want to know what the pit bull was thinking, or at least what came out of both owner and victim's mouths after the incident. Original interviews on local late-night news are almost nonexistent. Give me a single viewpoint, and I shift the channel.
When a 10 p.m. network program breaks or ends, and the local newscaster fills the screen, I don't want the lead-in story to suggest that today is another 9/11. But that's what the "hook and hold" approach the use of disturbing visuals in the opening sequence followed by a teaser such as "More at 11" does to viewers. How much yellow police tape does it take to tie a person to a channel? Breaking news, or first-on-the-scene, doesn't suggest a higher level of information. And once the "hook" is in place, the "hold" keeps the viewer tuned in, waiting for that "next story" until it's actually delivered at 11:29 p.m.
Most stories on all four local late-news stations run about 20 to 30 seconds. Sometimes a remark by a newscaster adds more time, but with seconds to sum up a happening, just one misplaced word shifts the emphasis of the piece. Surely, most newsworthy items are worth a minute of a viewer's evening. If the story aired earlier in the day, just a summary is needed. A solid new-to-the-hour news clip deserves a full minute.
But I realize I'm in the minority. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 79 percent of Americans said they had a "favorable" view of local television news. The only media source to rank higher was local newspapers (80 percent). True, the rating has slipped four percentage points in four years, but it still spotlights the loyal fan. Americans (61 percent) also found that late local news watchers believe the majority of the local news content, compared with 53 percent who consider network news accurate, and 45 percent who trust cable news.
For devotees of more widespread news, it's difficult to find a national newscast at 11 p.m. in Richmond, even with cable access. CNN devotes the time to Anderson Cooper's take on the news; PBS runs natural history programming; the Weather Channel pushes its "Storm Stories" in this period.
Our local news stations understand "local," so much so that three out of four stories have that area connection. Those of us who become absorbed in the fourth story would welcome a world-news trailer running across the bottom of the screen during the broadcasts, or if that's too expensive, a newscaster outlining the country's news of the day. I'd sacrifice the restaurant reviews banished to the station's Web site.
Balance is the key here.
On three evenings in early November, I counted the news stories on each of the local stations to see if a trend emerged. From the lead-in piece to the first story that did not stress a crime or accident or disaster, I hatch-marked my paper.
On Nov. 3, the 10 p.m. Fox News broadcast featured seven successive crime and accident entrees before hopping to an election story. On Nov. 5, WRIC-TV 8 news ran six crime clips before a neutral piece was aired. Only WTVR-TV 6 news (also on Nov. 5) ran four election stories before the mention of the first accident.
Injecting a happy face into the news in the first five minutes does not suggest trivialization but rather a dose of innovation to make that transition from a crime spree to a kidney transplant. If area news reporters discover only bloodbaths on a certain day, the local stations need to add some national or international news to the mix. No harm done. We are a global society.
As WWBT-TV 12's nightly news fades away at 11:30, a nice aerial cam of Richmond appears as the credits zip along. I can forget that down below the city is awash in gunshots and police tape for a moment. My nightmares will start in a few hours. S
When not watching late-night news, Beth Morelli dabbles in freelance writing in the Richmond area.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.