Tuesday, January 03, 2012

EDITORIAL >> If it bleeds, it sure leads

You’ve probably noticed that Little Rock television stations are airing more crime stories at the exclusion of serious reporting, which disappeared from local screens years ago.

Apart from some stories that the stations pick up from area newspapers and blogs, it’s pretty much the police gazette between the weather and sports.

TV viewership is dropping, so stations are desperate to keep what they have with a slew of crime stories, as many as a dozen in one evening. Some are just for titillation, while others perhaps are meant to keep viewers out of high-crime areas.

The recent spate of stories about crime at Park Plaza in Little Rock and McCain Mall in North Little Rock serve as warnings to suburban shoppers about the dangers of going to the big city, suggesting they might be better off shopping at home.

The Cabot mother and daughter who felt threatened at Park Plaza around Christmas will likely never shop there again, and who can blame them? The incident ended with an off-duty police officer shooting at the alleged troublemakers.

Outside consultants tell TV stations this is the formula the public wants, and they could be right.

Crime is down in most areas of Arkansas and around the nation. But Little Rock has seen a jump in its crime rate, so perhaps tabloid journalism on TV is a reflection of those sad statistics.

The evening news around Christmas was no different from other nights: Crime, mayhem and all-around depravity were the top stories on TV and hardly any coverage of local religious services or people preparing for the holidays.

TV news relies on local law-enforcement spokesmen to get the word out on the latest murders, rapes and arrests of child pornographers, so that crime buffs are always in the know. They can channel surf the four TV stations and see crime reports for most of the 30-minute broadcast. But keep the children out of the room.

Lt. Carl Minden of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office and Lt. Jim Kulesa of the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office are seasoned pros who provide timely information to the media and are almost always available for interviews. They’ve helped us over the years, and they’re ubiquitous on television.

Who needs reporters and anchors? Heard of citizen journalists? Law-enforcement journalists are the new wave. They don’t cost the stations a dime.

Lt. Kulesa and Lt. Minden and their counterparts around Arkansas can help fill a broadcast and deserve a modest stipend for their efforts. Razorback and high school sport highlights, along with the weather, should only briefly distract viewers from crime.

None of this stuff is suitable for children: Two nights before Christmas, one TV anchorman was handed a bulletin about a double murder in Ward, although it was closer to Cabot.

There would be more details, as they say on TV, as they became available the next day. The Lonoke County murders dominated the news, while Christmas stories had to wait till Sunday.

Crime stories dropped off on Christmas because even criminals take a day off, maybe because they’ve stolen enough presents and need a break like everyone else.

After Christmas, it was back to business as usual. Police and sheriff’s department spokesmen were back on the air to fill out the details about the latest shootings and holdups. These interviews could fill a newscast with crime news from around Arkansas.

The future of television news could evolve into something we’re seeing on Little Rock TV. No need for reporters — only one station had a reporter working Christmas weekend — and you might as well eliminate the anchors and even the weather people. Just keep airing the crime videos.

One station in Dallas is leading the trend: It broadcasts reports from the field without a studio staff. No need for reporters or meteorologists: A camera operator can run to crime scenes and accidents and tape meetings and seasonal stories about the homeless, toys for tots and missing pets.

They can fill the other 12 or minutes or so with annoyingly loud commercials.

For more serious reporting, we think newspapers can still provide an important service to their readers.