‘FAMILY-SENSITIVE’ NEWSCASTS: AN UPDATE ON A NATIONAL EXPERIMENT
Concerned about the impact on viewers of a daily dose of bloodstains and body bags on the nightly news, a handful of television stations across the country have been offering an alternative: “family-sensitive” newscasts.
In the year since the first newscast of its type was launched in Minneapolis, stations in Sacramento, Miami and other cities across the country have seized on the innovative concept for their daily news shows.
The idea is to limit the number of video clips showing body bags, sheet-covered stretchers, blood-smeared pavement, glaring ambulance lights and other flashing images of crime in the big city. Those kind of images, when they are used, are put into context.
“Viewers were wondering why newscasts can’t be newscasts without the violent video. ‘Why can’t you tell us the news without the bloody bodies?’ ” recounts Mark Hooper, assistant news director at WCCO, the CBS-owned station in Minneapolis that was the first in the country to try to clean up its news.
The stations are replacing the violent images with more feature stories, serious stories about community issues and more entertainment news.
The experiment began at the Minnesota station last January with the launch of a 5 p.m. newscast labeled as “family-sensitive.”
That time slot was chosen because market research indicated it was “a tough time for parents,” says Hooper. The television is usually on, kids have control of the remote, and parents are too busy preparing dinner to monitor programming.
“Family-sensitive news is fundamentally important,” says James Steyer, president of Children Now, an Oakland-based child-advocacy group.
“It means that the news director and all of the people involved in news at that station are thinking about the impact of what they do on children,” he says.
According to a 1994 study commissioned by Children Now, 50% of children feel angry, afraid or sad after watching the news--and they overwhelmingly believe what they see.
In contrast, children understand entertainment programs are dramatizations.
“News coverage is dominated by portrayals of children as perpetrators or victims of crime,” says Steyer. “Kids see a very negative image of themselves on TV.”
Many critics of TV news, Steyer among them, say the use of graphic crime images in newscast promos has left some viewers with a palpable sense of fear about their own communities.
News managers say in some cases the move away from “body count journalism” came because reporters and producers didn’t want their own children watching what they were putting on the air.
“We, the broadcast journalists, let it all get out of hand,” says Sue Kawalerski, news director at WCIX in Miami, which began family-sensitive newscasts in May.
Kawalerski said her news team has reduced the graphic video on its early evening newscasts, and is giving more careful consideration to the types of crime stories it runs.
“We’re more conservative in what we cover. We will try to put the story in some kind of context,” she says. “Is it a trend in our community? Is there a potential for viewers to become involved in curbing this activity?”
WCIX decided to offer itself as a clear-cut alternative to its South Florida competitors, which include WSVN, the Fox affiliate that built a national reputation and solid ratings on glaring graphics, staccato anchor delivery and the flashing lights, yellow police tape and bloodstained sheets of a thousand crime scenes.
“We’ve done lots of research over the years,” Kawalerski says. “People have constantly complained about the amount of crime and the kinds of pictures they see on TV.”
The news directors in both Minneapolis and Miami consider family-sensitive news a winner, with one garnering strong ratings and the other positive viewer feedback.
But many news managers, and those who watch the industry, said the ultimate success of family-sensitive news will be measured in the number of viewers.
“Television is a ratings-driven business,” says Steyer.