WMAR follows trend in low-gore TV news


It was the kind of arresting image television news usually can't resist.

A gunman who kidnapped his girlfriend, then shot her and a policeman, lay face-down, dead on the greasy pavement of Interstate 95 after a high-speed chase. It was a tableau of crime and punishment tailor-made for local television news.

But one Baltimore station -- WMAR (Channel 2) -- did resist using the pictures of John Porter's body on June 14. The station's decision marked the arrival here of family sensitive news, a new brand of gore-free TV journalism being practiced in more than a dozen cities and stirring heated debate coast to coast.

It's a debate that could have a profound effect on the kind of crime images local TV newscasters show and, in turn, how viewers see their communities.

Proponents of family sensitive news say it is a responsible reaction from broadcasters to widespread public complaints that local television news is too bloody and too full of graphic images. But many broadcasters say it's only a cynical marketing gimmick aimed at higher ratings. Some media critics fear its potential for sanitizing the news.

"Family sensitive TV news is a kind of modern articulation of the old family newspaper, except now it's put in ideological terms," says Everette E. Dennis, author of "The Media Society" and executive director of Gannett's Freedom Forum Media Studies Center in New York.

"It used to be that when you wrote for a family newspaper, you never used any language that would be offensive to any member of the family," says Dr. Dennis. "That was virtually the case with every newspaper in the country until 15 or 20 years ago. That notion has broken down. But it's come back to television news as a response to violent programming . . . and it's almost a kind of censorship that's now going on. Self-censorship is a better word."

Not so, says John Lansing, the news director at Minneapolis' WCCO-TV, the top-rated station in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market and one of the most widely praised local news operations in the country. Mr. Lansing coined the term "family sensitive" and first put it into practice in January. It was done, he says, in response to a formula of television news that insiders describe as, "If it bleeds, it leads." Such a philosophy propels the story with the bloodiest video to the top of the newscast.

"We do restrict our use of graphic video images," says Mr. Lansing. "But what family sensitive news is really concerned with is an attempt to answer the question: How can we cover crime more effectively without relying on the easy-to-get and -use pictures? We're eliminating graphic video, not eliminating stories."

In addition to Minneapolis and Baltimore, variations of the family sensitive formula are used at TV stations in Miami; Seattle; Pittsburgh; Denver; Oklahoma City; Tucson, Ariz.; Sacramento, Calif.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Charlotte, N.C.; Asheville, N.C.; and Harlingen, Texas.

'You made the difference'

Joe Lewin, general manager of WMAR, the local NBC affiliate -- and the No. 2-rated station in the local news sweepstakes -- does not like the family sensitive label being applied to his station's newscasts. However, two weeks ago he described the concept this way in a series of promotional messages:

"Recently, you may have noticed a change in Channel 2 news, and you made the difference. You let us know you thought there was too much violence in the news, and we agreed with you.

"Of course, we'll always bring you complete news coverage, and that can mean pretty tough coverage. But there's a difference now: Crime stories are covered only when justified, and we always look for a positive angle. And shots of graphic violence have no home on this station.

"We're not calling this anything special and have no fancy slogans. But this is an important change, and we want you to know about it."

His competitors see it differently.

"That's family sensitive news," says Gail Bending, news director for WJZ (Channel 13), the city's No. 1-rated news operation. WBAL (Channel 11) news director David Roberts and WBFF (Channel 45) news director Joe DeFeo agree. WBAL and WBFF are the Nos. 3- and 4-rated local news stations.

"And I'll tell you I hate it," says Mr. Roberts. "It gets me mad, because it's a bogus marketing ploy used by consultants for stations that are losing in the ratings. What they're doing is promising to sugarcoat the news."

What viewers want

News consultants, who advise stations on everything from anchor hair-dos to a newscast's opening music, rely heavily on focus group research. They are urging clients to get sensitive about crime coverage, they say, because that's what viewers are telling them they want.

For example, Audience Research & Development, a Dallas-based firm, says its research shows that 50 percent of all viewers have a negative reaction to graphic images of crime.

"People are pretty clear about describing a dissatisfaction they have with television in general and television news in particular," the firm's chairman, Ed Bewley, said in a TV Guide interview last month.

The firm is one of the leading proponents of family sensitive news for its clients, which include WMAR.

Jack Cahalan, WMAR's news director, says that the station relies on its own audience research in Baltimore and that it confirms findings of Audience Research & Development.

"No matter what group or neighborhood we go to, . . . the common response we get from people of all races and all ages is, 'Why do I have to always see all the murders? Why do I always have to see all the blood in the street, all the hands dangling in the gutter, all the feet sticking out from underneath the tarp?' -- provided there's even a tarp," Mr. Cahalan says.

"You know, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to say these are the folks on the other side of the screen, these are the customers. They do need to know information to a certain point, but they are now telling us where to draw the line," Mr. Cahalan adds.

"People want reality," WBAL's Mr. Roberts counters. "All of the stations in Baltimore practice restraint in covering crime -- it's called good news judgment. If you don't have it, you shouldn't be in the business. But you can't sugarcoat reality because a consultant says that's what you should do to improve ratings."

Counters Mr. Cahalan: "I've seen more body bags shooting out on one 90-second story on Channel 11 than you see clowns coming out of aVolkswagen at the circus. . . . I'm willing to stand up to the test of time."

Will it work in Baltimore?

It's too early to tell whether the family sensitive approach actually improves ratings. The movement only started this year, and it takes a year -- due to seasonal viewing patterns and other factors -- to accurately judge if ratings are going up or down at a station.

Outside of Minneapolis' WCCO, none of the other family sensitive stations is a leader in its market.

"It is too early to tell in terms of ratings," Mr. Lansing says. "But I can tell you that comparing this May, when we have family sensitive, vs. last May when we didn't, we have about the same audience in terms of households and have improved our demographics slightly, getting younger viewers."

WTAE-TV, the Pittsburgh station now broadcasting family sensitive news, declined to comment. Both it and Baltimore's WBAL are owned by the Hearst Corp.

The split -- a Hearst station in Baltimore against family sensitive, and the Hearst station in Pittsburgh for it -- reflects the uncertainty over the issue in the broadcast community.

While family sensitive news is spreading, its growth should not be overstated.

Of the cities involved so far, only Miami is a top 10 market in terms of size, and Miami has a history of some of the bloodiest local newscasts in the country.

A recent study done by the University of Miami, for example, found that 49 percent of the 6 p.m. newscast on WSVN, the Fox affiliate in Miami, was devoted to crime stories.

Beyond Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Baltimore, the family sensitive trend mainly has taken root in smaller, more conservative Sunbelt markets.

Will it work in Baltimore?

Mr. DeFeo, Ms. Bending and Mr. Roberts say no. There's no need for it here, they say, because restraint is already exercised when reporting crime.

But WMAR's Mr. Cahalan says there is a need, and he tells anyone wanting to see the difference to stay tuned.

"The Porter case is only the first difference," he says. "You're going to be seeing a lot more, and we're going to document them to show that we are meeting this credo that we've got. By God, we're going to live up to it and make a difference."

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