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Political Animal

Newsworthy

By Brian Morton | Posted 5/16/2007

It was a mild Sunday afternoon spent outdoors with friends, cooking dinner on the grill with a few cold ones sitting in a bucket. The sound of fire engines is a regular occurrence when you live in the city, as sound tends to echo across and over buildings, so one siren never attracts much attention.

Then there was another. And another. It seemed like every two minutes there was yet another siren going off, the noise fading as they passed by the house, headed south. Then came the helicopters--at first three, then four, and eventually five choppers hovering around in giant lazy circles. When it was just one police helicopter, a friend joked that some kid probably hot-wired a car and was trying to outrace the police to I-95. Long ago, I nicknamed the police helicopter sound "the first robin of spring," but this was no ordinary bit of police surveillance.

A few minutes later, a plume of dark smoke billowed over the tops of the brick skyline. Neighbors out enjoying the evening on their decks stood up and began pointing at the sky.

After about an hour or more, I repaired to the laptop to find out what was up. Went to The Sun's web site--nothing. WBAL-TV's web site--nothing (except a very nice sidebar on anchor Rod Daniels' hip replacement and something about "Hamilton's Habitat"). On my third try, at WMAR-TV's web site, I finally found a blurb about a tanker truck overturning on the Hanover Street entrance ramp to I-95 South.

This is probably my biggest peeve about television news: The stentorian-voiced promotional announcers constantly bark at you about how you get the news "when YOU want it!" Which, of course, somehow means that everyone in the metropolitan area wants to find out what is happening only at noon, 5, 6, 10, or 11, maybe surrounded by some happy talk in the morning before heading to work.

But what about the rest of us? What about the people who don't want to have to wait until the news departments can gather enough aggregate eyeballs to be able to sell enough advertising for cars and carpets so they can give us four minutes of circling helicopter footage of fire trucks hosing down a burning vehicle?

This is one of the gaping flaws in broadcast journalism as a whole. What TV news has become is an advertising vehicle propelled by efforts to find visuals compelling enough to support reporting around the pictures. This is why the news judgment of the people in charge of TV news programs varies so wildly from the people who edit daily newspapers.

Some stories don't translate well to television, and thus get sparse or no coverage. Other stories, such as local elections, get coverage only in the full heat of the election season, and rarely cover anything resembling policy or issues. We know there are a whole squad of candidates running for mayor of Baltimore against incumbent Sheila Dixon, but what those candidates stand for is not something TV news directors categorize as "news" unless one of them does or says something extraordinarily stupid. Also, much of politics consists of people sitting around talking, which makes for lousy television. When the election season heats up, as it does between Labor Day and Election Day (although in the city, the Democratic primary is where all the action is), TV stations cover the horse race, because they can then trumpet the polls and drive stories based on that.

If you watch local TV news, how much of the growing scandal enveloping the office of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have you seen? It is a story tailor-made to be avoided by television, because it consists of many he said/she said allegations illustrated by the contents of late Friday afternoon document dumps by the Bush administration. A local news director would probably say, "That's a job for the national news organizations--the networks." Yet local news operations cover national stories all the time when it suits them, sending in-house reporters down to Washington or jetting them off to foreign locales to report "the local angle," which tends not to have much more depth than what the networks are already reporting.

So local news becomes primarily driven by "giving them what they want" in terms of coverage. You'll hear lots about crime--even if crime is going down statistically, you'd never know it from watching television. You'll hear lots of "news you can use," and, come November, February, and May, you'll see lots of sensational "investigative reports" and interviews with actors featured on the programs that come on before the late news, because it's time for ratings "sweeps" that dictate how much stations can charge for advertising.

But when you can't find out, after two hours on a Sunday, about a tanker explosion after checking the web sites for stations that tell you that they're all about local "breaking" news, you have to wonder: What else are you missing out on?

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