I have long thought that if I were to become a serial killer, the best time to strike would be around the holidays; television news crews would be too mesmerized by the pretty lights and tinkly sounds to notice a few dead bodies laying around.
I was rudely reminded of this at Halloween, when the refrain of “Candy! Candy! Candy!” came bleating through the TV speakers. “Halloween costumes! Candy! Haunted Houses! Candy!”
Today is Veterans Day, a day we honor those who have served our country. As someone who was raised in the military, this day has special significance for me - but I’m still not gonna watch local news today.
When Not to Watch Local TV News
These days, it seems even sillier than usual
Maybe Elvis Presley had the right idea.
No, not the one about gorging himself on Eskimo Pies all day, but the one about shooting his television set. After all, there is probably something on the tube every day to annoy just about every one of us. But if we really took his example to heart, we’d probably be so outraged that we’d be running next door to shoot our neighbor’s set right in the eye, too, and then be moving on down to the local Best Buy.
Best to stick with the remote control, I suppose.
For me, local television news is the prime offender in my house. Not all the news, to be sure. There are many things at which news programs excel. They are really good at crime reports, for example, or local sex scandals. But when they are bad, they are really, really bad.
Admittedly, there is a lot to poke fun of (and we all do) at local TV news. From inane anchors with their insipid giggling to the “outdoor” shots - mostly often done ten feet from the studio doors - to the increasing use of the dreaded video news releases sent out by corporations to hawk their products, local stations have a lot to answer for.
You’ve probably noticed yourself that there are a lot of times when there doesn’t actually seem to anything “on” the news - hence the weather three times in a half-hour broadcast. Or even less than usual, as a cynical observer might point out.
But don’t take my word for it. The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are right around the corner, and you can put my theory to the test yourself.
Thanksgiving and Christmas, with all the opportunities they provide families to kick back and enjoy themselves, seem to provide TV stations with the same excuses for not actually working. News coverage on these days is the journalistic equivalent of sitting back in your recliner after dinner, loosening your pants, and taking a snooze.
You like warm and fuzzy shots of charity soup kitchens? Images of returning troops spending the holidays with their families? Holiday sales in stores? Well, you’re in luck, because TV stations seem love them, too. These wouldn’t be so bad, except that they take up so much of the broadcast.
Stations should probably all pool their resources at the holidays, and give more employees time off, since they will all be running the same stories, anyway. Better yet, why not run just run the footage from last year?
Who would notice? And how do we know they aren’t?
Ah - New Year’s Day. The obligatory story on the first baby born at the local hospital. This is called “human interest” - or laziness, take your pick.
This sort of heart-warming fuzziness aside, I often have the sneaking suspicion that news doesn’t actually stop for holidays, though local TV journalism often seems to.
The wintery glow of journalistic sloth aside, there are other times when it is best to either avoid local news broadcasts, or take it in the spirit in which it is - or it is not - offered.
Many times we are aware that a holiday is fast approaching simply because of how much air time it takes up. A recent July 4 saw almost an entire local half hour of one “news” program taken up with firecracker safety tips - plus stories on where the family could go to have a good time that weekend.
Of course, here in Northwest Arkansas we have the Rodeo of the Ozarks; that’s excuse enough for barely covering news while that’s in town.
Memorial Day? I hope you love shots of cemeteries and the Veteran’s Hospital. This shouldn’t be taken as disrespect for veteran’s and what they fought and died for, but for those who have no idea what a news broadcast is actually meant to do.
Labor Day is pretty much safe. There might be a lot of stories about how people are spending their days off, but how many stations are really going to do an in-depth analysis of the status of working class people in the United States today - especially in the middle of Wal-Mart country?
On the other hand, press releases from Wal-Mart are often treated like manna from Heaven. It doesn’t matter what it is about, or how inconsequential, it can almost be sure to get loving attention from anchors. Then again, some stations have an almost sycophantic attitude when it comes to anything from local businesses; is it news or a promotional puff piece?
And do they care?
Is the station a sponsor of a special event, like a telethon? News items about the telethon and those it serves are likely to pop up on the news throughout the week preceding the event.
Or perhaps they sponsor a musical event? “News” about the event will take prominent place in the news program.
Yes, they are good at crime reporting, which doesn’t require much in the way of explanation, or understanding on the part of the reporter. But viewers are fascinated by politics, and election issues - issues which seem far above the comprehension of those reporting for TV.
I am writing this in September (2006) less than two months before the November elections, and as usual, the local stations are doing a poor job of reporting political news, either statewide or local. Tomorrow we have a school board election in Fayetteville, and there are several hot button issues which are driving voters, but you won’t find them discussed on television.
For the most part, unless political issues can be broken down into what amounts to a sort of political baby talk, news stations will veer away into crime reports as quickly as they can.
If a city has public access television viewers have a pretty good chance of being informed. If not, they are most likely out of luck - unless a politician is involved in a crime, that is, then TV cameras will be rolling away.
And then, of course, there are those odd times when national or international news is given prominent coverage on local broadcasts, which means that even less local “news” is offered that day.
Sports news, of course, must never, ever be trifled with. In fact, many times a sports item will find itself as the main item on the news.
Our cynical observer might suspect that, all too often all throughout the year, we can discover that news stations seem to find all kinds of excuses not to actually discover any real news in the community, unless it involves sex, sports or some other sort of scandal.
Sometimes one must wonder if the correspondents themselves are happy with the stories they are reporting on. A lot of people make jokes about television news reporters - most of them too cruel to repeat here - but not all of them fit the stereotype of shallow people who wouldn’t know a real story if it ran over them.
Many are sincere professionals. So who is responsible for all the crap we see on our screens? A lot of the blame can be laid at the feet of consultants - the same people who think that making someone go three feet outside the studio door fools people into thinking they are on “location.”
But I wonder what might happen if enough viewers complained, and said they wanted real news, and less fluff? What if we had less banter (and less inane giggling and more complex news reporting?
Why not pick up that phone today and call that viewer hotline and complain? Or email? Surely those station websites must be good for more than merely selling the goods of those who advertise on the news?
As I write this, Elvis Presley has just come on the radio. Maybe he did have the right idea, after all . . .
Richard S. Drake is the author of a science fiction novel, “Freedom Run,” and “Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.”
Arkansas Free Press - 2006