One of the most common criticisms of local TV news is that stations spend far too much time covering crime. It’s a well-founded complaint. Daily crime can be easy and cheap to cover–one stop shopping, so to speak–making it a popular rundown-stuffer. In many markets, crime is the lead story on almost every late newscast. Can anything be done to change that?
Elliott Wiser thinks there’s a better way. He’s the GM at WTSP, the CBS affiliate in Tampa, owned by Gannett. This week, his station became the latest to unveil crime coverage guidelines, including a promise to avoid showing dead bodies and to speak with family members of crime victims only with their permission. Some items on the list are standard practice at lots of stations. Most TV newsrooms refuse to cover suicides unless they’re unusual or public. Many avoid airing live video of SWAT teams. But the last item on the WTSP list could have the biggest impact: “We will look beyond the singular act of a crime. Crime trends and prevention measures are as important as the crime itself.”
In an unusual on-air commentary, Wiser explained why the guidelines were adopted.
Wiser says he originally developed guidelines for covering crime when he was news director at WTVR in Richmond, Va., in 1993, and he’s instituted them in every newsroom he’s led since then, including NorthWest Cable News in Seattle and Bay News 9 in Tampa.
This is not about ratings. Journalists are suppose to be professionals, yet there is no exam, no continuing education. So, we have to develop and follow our own standards. We owe it to our viewers to be more responsible members of the community. I believe these guidelines help do that.
The station isn’t saying it will cover less crime. WTSP is a “Crimestoppers” station, after all, and “crime” is the second item on the news menu on its website. But the guidelines suggest the station will try to cover crime differently, putting stories into context and connecting the dots. That’s a worthy and challenging goal.
It’s also a goal that other stations have attempted to reach, with varying degrees of success. KVUE in Austin, Texas, drew national attention for its crime coverage plan in the 1990s when the late Carole Kneeland was news director. She instituted a five-point checklist for deciding whether a crime merited coverage:
- 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?
Some critics said that following such a checklist was tantamount to censoring the news. KVUE’s current news director, Frank Volpicella, says it was a noble idea that “created a culture of laziness. If the story didn’t meet the guidelines, it likely was automatically dismissed,” he told the Austin Post in 2009. “No one made a call. No one asked the tough questions.” But Volpicella says the station still adheres to some of the guidelines.
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.
KGUN in Tucson, Arizona, also adopted crime guidelines as part of a Viewer’s Bill of Rights adopted in 1999 under former news director Forrest Carr and still posted on the station’s website. “We will avoid meaningless crime coverage,” KGUN promised. “We will explain how crime affects you. We will spotlight crime trends. We will give stories involving threats to your safety highest priority.”
A handful of stations over a period of almost 20 years does not a trend make. What’s keeping other newsrooms from taking a bite out of crime?
NewsLab reached out to Elliott Wiser for additional background. This post has been updated.