Ed. Note: As I was writing this, three additional murders were reported in Memphis.
Friday, local media outlets went into full hyperventilation mode as the city recorded its 214th homicide…the highest number of homicides since 1993.
I didn’t watch local coverage live. Honestly, I just can’t make myself watch local news that much, in large part because of the way use local crime coverage as fill to hide the fact that they have fewer reporters with less overall experience diving more shallowly into the events of the day than they did just 3 years ago.
What I did do, is use those initial tweets to see how each station covered the story. All the stations focused on the record breaking number and the loss of a young talent to the community. You can see each station’s coverage at the following links: Channel 3, Channel 5, Channel 13, Channel 24, Commercial Appeal
For the most part, all the stations did what we’ve come to expect them to do. They all followed a similar theme, that while somewhat flawed, wasn’t egregiously flawed.
There’s always an exception. Here’s a transcript of Local 24’s anchor lead-in to the story.
Rudi Williams: He was known for his musical talent and his passion for sharing his love of music with children.
Kelly Cook: Tonight the music teacher found murdered in his home will also be known as the person who broke the Memphis homicide record.
Read that last sentence that Kelly Cook said again. The victim broke a record? What kind of logical gymnastics do you have to do to write that sentence?
The victim didn’t “break a record”. He didn’t outrun Usain Bolt, or out-swim Michael Phelps. That’ would possibly be breaking a record. The assailants broke the record…and in the process, took a man’s life.
Come on people. I know writing the lead into a broadcast can send your brain in all kinds of messed up directions (remember, I did that for 2 years), but damn.
The reports were nothing that will win an Emmy, and provided no real context outside of the event itself. And that’s where I have a problem with local news coverage of crime in general. They all take the same elements of a familiar formula that is as easy and nutritionally valuable as eating a donut. Easy to choke down, doesn’t do much but expand your waist-line.
Breaking, Broken, Broke
The four major network affiliates in Memphis have all adopted some kind of “Breaking News” format. What this means from an operational standpoint, is that even if a story is long past “breaking” in the sense that “breaking” means its happening right then, it is still considered “Breaking News”.
The story could have happened hours or even days ago. There could be no new information to report. Despite that, stations regularly present this information to the viewer as “breaking” or my favorite, they un-ironically call it a “Breaking News Update” when there’s nothing breaking now, and there hasn’t been for a really long time, but their business model demands it.
Stations do this to impart a sense of urgency, whether its something truly urgent or not. They pay ridiculous sums of money to consultants to impart “wisdom” that creating a sense of urgency will bring more eyeballs. This information gets transmitted to anchors, reporters, producers and news management in the form of regular “trainings”. Its all delivered with a twinkle in their eye, and just enough fluffy language to have an out if/when it doesn’t work.
This is how we get to ridiculous anchor reads like the one I quoted from Local Memphis above. It fits a formula to emotionally manipulate the viewer while holding you captive even if its completely, contextually wrong.
Local TV News is more of a business than a public trust (and maybe it always has been) and keeping those eyeballs glued on the screen has never been more important to an industry that’s having every ounce of “value” squeezed out of it by humongous corporate overlords.
Manipulation by Michelle
The key to emotionally manipulating people is to not bother them with too many data points. Saying “214 murders” is something that’s easy to repeat on an endless loop without challenging the viewer to think too much. Talking about the victim’s life…tragically cut short…is news and context into the life of a person whose contributions will be missed. But its also an easy way to tell the viewer, “and you could be next!” without actually saying it.
Am I saying local TV news crime coverage is purposefully manipulating people? Yes, but I put that more on the pressures placed on the news team, and with the continual drumbeat of “content training” from media consultants.
Consultants are essentially advising stations to play on people’s safety fears, and ramp them up to get and keep eyeballs. Those same consultants will deny this if challenged, and try to gaslight you into believing their bullshit, but its true. I’ve been in the meetings, and there’s plenty of evidence out there to confirm it.
You may have heard reports in 2015 of the station in Spartanburg, SC that “hired” a cardboard cutout to represent the kind of viewer they’re looking for. That “viewer” was described as a white woman with kids who cares about safety, money and stuff that impacts her family. In a memo sent out to the staff, the news director instructed them: Even if you think a story doesn’t directly impact Michelle find a way to write it to her.
By the way, Magid, the consulting firm that came up with the cardboard cutout demographic model, has its claws in more than one Memphis TV station. However, I’m not aware of any cardboard cutouts appearing…yet.
Some Context for Your Consideration
The Commercial Appeal publishes a Homicide Tracker. While there’s a lot of data I’d like to see there, it does have some interesting stuff, and a synopsis of what’s known about each homicide in the City.
From that synopsis I was able to put together the following chart.
As you can see, more than 55% of homicides in Memphis are the result of an argument, a robbery, or a domestic violence situation. Those are just cases in which a motive is known. Chances are, the 38% of cases that are not known, or fit into some other category, are the result of these kinds of interpersonal conflicts as well.
And while, law enforcement can say they’ll pursue assailants in this case, and the Mayor can be “mad as hell” about the murder rate, there’s NOTHING either of them can do to stop someone from making a really bad snap decision to use lethal force against another person.
Across the top of the Homicide Tracker are some key stats about the victims.
The long and short of it is this: If you’re a black male between the ages of 18-29, you’re more likely than any other demographic to be the victim of murder in Memphis.
Its important to note that the mythical cardboard cutout I mentioned above isn’t part of that demographic. In fact, there have only been 17 white people murdered in the city all year long.
But the key to these media strategies working is that they play on people’s fear to keep them watching. Ultimately, that kind of coverage leads viewers to a siege mentality:
An especially pervasive theme of TV programming is the glorification of law-enforcement personnel. While some of the cop shows are excellent, most of them (and much of local news) distort public perceptions of crime and violence and contribute to a siege mentality among viewers. As many studies have shown, heavier viewers are more prone to exaggerate the actual incidence of violent crime, an effect that George Gerber and other television scholars call the “Mean World” syndrome. TV imparts a perception that the world is more dangerous than it actually is – what James Fallows calls “a fatalistic, protect-what-I’ve-got mentality” in which “every TV market can get the impression that life has turned into a Blade Runnerish hell” – a view that encourages simple, forceful measures to protect society from those dangers.
– The Sound Bite Society: How Television Helps the Right and Hurts the Left by Jeffrey Schemer
I should note that this very siege mentality helps law enforcement by boosting their numbers and by extension, their budgets, underpins justifications to use constitutionally dubious policing strategies and gives prosecutors a pass to employ ethically suspect “anything goes” strategies all in the name of “protecting the public”.
There’s no question that violent crime in Memphis, whether its homicide, aggravated assault (which is a way more pervasive problem than murder but isn’t as easily used for manipulation) or any other classification, is higher than other places. But what we’ve done and what TV news narratives have pushed over the past 20+ years is fool us into believing that more cops, more flight, and looser gun regulations will somehow equal more protection. The solutions aren’t that simple.
Former Police Directory Toney Armstrong and current Director Rallings have admitted they can’t stop violent crime, only react to it, investigate it, and try to put the perpetrators in jail.
What we, as a community, haven’t done is put more emphasis on helping people get out of these bad situations in the first place by expanding the number of facilities for domestic violence victims, or teaching our kids how to de-escalate situations to both protect them from falling victim, or committing a violent crime. Both of these things have shown promise in reducing violent crime. Lock ’em up and throw away the key hasn’t.
We’ve been trained by politicians, policy leaders and news outlets to react emotionally. Over time we’ve lost faith in all those institutions because the stuff they say will work, hasn’t worked. But we’ve never taken the time or the responsibility to assess our actions as a community and determine if they’re working or not. We just react reflexively, and our local news outlets play in to that.
Local TV news has a duty to report crime. There’s no question about that. But rather than sensationalize it, news organizations could focus on actionable things people can do rather than the low hanging fruit of chasing the police scanner then finding the most garnish image to report the who, what when and where. Of course, that doesn’t manipulate people enough to keep eyeballs on the screen.
Local TV news could focus on providing context in their crime reporting by maintaining a running tally of what they’ve reported, what’s been reported, and using their web presence to push people to these assets. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have the resources or the will to do that.
So we’re left with bad ideas, bad reporting, and no solution but to run and hide under a rock with a shitton of guns and ammo.
We’ve built this by lending our eyeballs to this kind of coverage. The only way to build something new is to demand better coverage, and if its not done, vote with our feet.