[This article originally appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of Nieman Reports.]
Violent crime rates have been falling, yet sensational crime coverage on television news has been rising. So have the fears of viewers who have an exaggerated sense they might be victims of such crimes. At KVUE-TV, we decided it was time to fight back against a perceived crime wave we in the media helped create. We vowed to take a more responsible approach, trying to paint a more balanced picture of violent crime in our community. We‘ve been working all year to raise the standard for covering violent crime news on television.
Violent crime can be easy to cover. It‘s shouted out to us on police scanners in our newsrooms. The video is dramatic. The police do the research. Often all the people we need to interview are right there at the scene—the victim, the suspect, the police, the neighbors. Our tendency has been to gather our video as quickly as possible and rush to air. Often the only questions asked were, “How good is the video?” and “Can we get live?” It‘s as if the police scanners were hard-wired into the television set. And the result is one meaningless violent crime story after another, wallpapering the television newscasts with blood, body bags, and police tape.
We decided we must begin asking ourselves the same type of questions about violent crimes as we ask about every other story we consider covering. After months of analyzing how and why we were covering individual violent crime stories, we arrived at these five questions as guidelines:
- Is there an immediate threat to public safety?
- Is there a threat to children?
- Do viewers need to take action?
- Is there a significant community impact?
- Is it a crime prevention effort?
Violent crimes that didn‘t meet at least one of these guidelines would not appear in our newscasts.
There were daily, heated discussions as we made decisions, one violent crime at a time. We received dramatic video from our network of a man shooting another man in the head in Hawaii. Other stations aired it. We did not. The network sent video of a New York subway scene where four people had been killed by a gunman. Other stations aired that. We did not. An 82-year-old Austin man stabbed his wife and the police SWAT team surrounded his house for several hours before he came out. Clearly feeble and nearly blind, the man was arrested without incident; the woman survived. There was no history of abuse. Neighbors and family felt it was an isolated, private matter unlikely to recur. The other stations led their newscasts with it. We did not air it at all.
But these guidelines are a grueling standard to live by. It takes more time to be this deliberative about covering violent crimes. We still rush out to cover violent crimes, but we expect our journalists to gather more information. And there is considerable discussion before we air a story. Sometimes we don‘t. We deliberate while the competition is going to air with sketchy details and breathless reports live from the scene of the crime. We‘re not used to getting beat on a story. We‘re used to being first on the air with it. This sort of thoughtful delay goes against our competitive instincts.
One of the most difficult calls was a weekend murder of three people in the tiny neighboring town of Elgin. They were strangers to Elgin citizens— three men from Mexico, working temporarily in Austin, who came out to an abandoned house in Elgin to party. There was a lot of drinking, and then they started firing guns at each other. Three died. We spent two days asking our questions before deciding not to air it.
- Is there an immediate threat? Police said no. They told us the men had killed each other and they weren‘t looking for any suspects.
- Is there a threat to children? There were no children in the vicinity.
- Do viewers need to take action? The incident was over. The problem wasn‘t expected to continue. There were rumors this house had been used as a place of prostitution. Neither the neighbors nor the authorities could confirm that. We don‘t air rumors.
- Is there significant community impact? For two days we asked neighbors and other citizens of Elgin how they felt. We couldn‘t find anyone expressing great concern. People said no one knew these three men. They said it wasn‘t surprising when three men mix drinking and shooting, someone might get killed. They didn‘t feel the abandoned house would be used again for such purposes, or that anyone would follow their example.
- Is it a crime prevention effort? None was initiated.
Worried we might be accused of minimizing the story because they were Mexican nationals rather than U.S. citizens, we hypothetically changed them to three white guys from Lubbock, Texas. We came to the same conclusion that it wasn‘t important to air the story.
There were other violent crimes that did fit the guidelines, and we aired them:
- A University of Texas student murdered his wife and 4-year-old child with a gun that was illegal on UT property. In addition, there was a history of domestic abuse that, had it been stopped, might have prevented these murders.
- A white man pulled up in front of a black family gathering, pointed a shotgun, shouted some racial threats, and killed one black man.
- A young woman hitch-hiker was killed in a hit-and-run case by two men pulling a cattle trailer, and police were still looking for them. Another woman was abducted from the parking lot of the grocery store as she arrived for work in the early morning hours. Police were still looking for her killer. As part of our more in-depth investigation of both of those crimes, we uncovered a serious situation in a neighboring county where the sheriff‘s office didn‘t have a big enough staff to continue its pursuit of criminals. As a result, county officials allocated more money.…
- When a gunman killed many children in a schoolyard in Scotland, we aired it. We also aired a similar attack on tourists in Australia.
Because we were spending less air time on individual violent crimes, we also had more time for stories on other important subjects: an explanation of how the flat tax proposals would affect viewers; an analysis of why the cost of living had skyrocketed in Austin; the story of a principal of an elementary school full of higher-income, successful students who decided to transfer to a low-income school where kids are failing because she thought she might be able to make a greater difference there. We did numerous stories on violent-crime prevention efforts by neighborhood groups and people working specifically to bring down the juvenile crime rate.
We don‘t hold our criteria out to be perfect. And we‘re not sure we‘ve always made the right call. But we do feel we‘re making a difference by making the effort. We advertised that we were going to cover violent crime more responsibly, that we would give viewers a more balanced picture of violence in our community. We asked for feedback. We got a lot, overwhelmingly very positive. Viewers told us that they felt valued by us, that finally someone was listening to their concerns. Some said they had started watching local news again. Austin Police Chief Elizabeth Watson called it commendable from a community service standpoint because she feels sensationalized reporting fuels unjustified fear.
But a few people worried that they might miss crimes they should know about, that we were somehow sanitizing the crime situation. They were helpful and instructive. Still, even now we carry far more crime, as a percentage of our newscasts, than the rate for Austin.
…One of our competitors labeled it censorship, as if every crime has a constitutional right to be on the television news. Yet that station, like all of us, chooses every day not to air some news for lack of interest or time. We‘ve simply raised our standard for including violent crime in our newscasts and we‘ve let the public know our standard.
The effect on the KVUE 24 journalists has been profound. They are investigating violent crimes more thoroughly. The level of discussion about violent-crime coverage is more thoughtful and constant, and the search for solutions is much more determined. We plan to continue on this course, trying to air information viewers need on violent crimes, while not deluging them with sensational violence. But we consider it a work in progress.
Of course, there‘s the bottom line: ratings. In February, the first ratings period when we were implementing this policy, we came out a strong number one, across the board, with every newscast. They were our highest numbers in a decade. We held our lead in May. There‘s no way to tell how much the new approach to crime is contributing to our success. But it certainly isn‘t hurting.
Carole Kneeland directs a news staff of 50 as Vice President/News Director of KVUE-TV, an ABC affiliate in Austin, Texas. She covered state government for WFAA in Dallas from 1978 to 1989 and was the Austin Bureau Chief from 1981 to 1989.