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Tom – This particular story was reported on by all three local TV stations, with channels 8 and 13 both running multiple versions during the 5:30 and 6:00 broadcasts. Both channels eight and 13 framed the story by focusing on the fact that one of the soldiers interviewed was from the west Michigan area. Channel 8 went so far as to bring the soldiers wife and young child into their studio where they filmed the soldier and his wife talking to each other via video screen. One fact downplayed by the local news stations was that this event was essentially a public relations stunt choreographed by the government. The soldiers were coached on what to say in their video conference with the president, and all their comments were, unsurprisingly, very positive about their mission in Iraq. The fact that this was a staged event was not mentioned at all in the FOX 17 story, which was rather short. WZZM 13 mentioned it in their shorter 5:30 piece but not in their later, much longer segment at 6:00. WOOD 8 reported this fact during their 6:00 segment, saying “the president wanted a briefing from his troops, so the military staged one for TV”. This statement is rather incomplete since it does not tell the viewer that the soldier’s responses to the President’s questions were coached.
Linda – did the TV stations provide any analysis or background information to what the soldiers said in this segment?
Tom – No they did not. In the Channel 8 piece, the officer from West Michigan speaks repeatedly, in which he talks about how the Iraqi army is being trained and will soon be able to take over for US troops. To quote: “The Iraqi army is ready right now, and they are ready.” Given that the TV stations knew that this event was staged, it would make sense as journalists to try to verify these statements. For example, the Associated Press reported two weeks ago that General Abizaid reported to the Senate armed services committee that the number of Iraqi battalions capable of conducting independent operations is at 1, a drop from the previously claimed figure of 3 battalions. The local news stations decided to ignore this readily available information about Iraqi Army readiness levels and instead ran these manufactured claims from something they knew to be a government PR stunt as if it were an objective source.
Linda – For more information about the local TV stations coverage of Iraq, check out the report archives section of the GRIID website which we will link to off of the Catalyst Radio website.
Linda – On Thursday, October 13 WOOD TV 8 ran a story about a candidate forum in Kalamazoo. Jeff, what did viewers learn from this story?
Jeff – The only thing that viewers would have learned was that 60-70 people turned out to ask questions to candidates about the issues they care about. You can see about a dozen candidates in the video footage provided but no information about the candidates is provided, what their platforms are, what issues they addressed, not even their names. Linda – Was there anything else reported by channel 8 in this story? Jeff – The channel 8 story was only 27 seconds long and the last 10 seconds are spent with the news reader saying this, “we encourage you to stay with 24 hour news 8 on the air and online over the next several weeks to find out the issues and the candidates on the ballot in your community.” We checked the website and not only was this story not archived, but there was no information about the upcoming November 8 Election.
Linda – This is not the first time that local TV news has not provided adequate election information?
Jeff – No it isn’t. We have been documenting election coverage for 7 years and what we have found is local races get little or no coverage and when they do it is like this recent WOOD TV 8 story, in that it provides no information that would help viewers make an informed decision on election day. In September we held a public hearing on local news coverage and election coverage was the issue that most people were critical of. The response from both channel 8 and 13 was that they can’t cover all races in the 14 counties they broadcast in and that their websites are an additional resources. One thing listeners could ask themselves, is it reasonable to expect the TV news to report adequately on the elections that are based in the major metropolitan areas of West Michigan?
Linda - On Friday Oct 14 all three TV stations reported on a murder in Grand Rapid’s South East side. How was this story reported on?
Tom – There is a saying in news reporting that if it bleeds it leads. The local news reporting on this particular story certainly was a good example of this. This story was the lead story on the 10:00 FOX 17 broadcast, the 6:00 and 11:00 WZZM 13 broadcasts, and the 5:30, 6:00 and 11:00 WOOD 8 broadcasts. These lead stories were all fairly length by the standards of TV news and involved interviews with police and residents. The WOOD 8 story at 5:30 contained only information given by witnesses, none of which was confirmed by other sources. WXMI 17 interviewed several witnesses on the air including a ten year old girl.
Linda – Is this typical for coverage of crime in Grand Rapids?
Tom – It is in that the local TV stations spend a disproportionate amount of time reporting on crime as compared to other stories. Also, there is a tendency to sensationalize. Another thing worth noting is how the local media frame crime stories. In this particular example, the crime was in the Baxter Neighborhood, in Grand Rapids South East side. All of the stations framed this story as an example of continuing violence in the South East side of town. The WZZM 13 story featured multiple camera shots of the street sign at Eastern and Baxter. This focus on the specific location of this crime is more pronounced than in stories about crimes outside of Urban Grand Rapids area. This coverage can contribute to negative perceptions of these particular neighborhoods by viewers. On the flipside, when positive neighborhood initiatives are launched by neighborhood associations and non profits, they rarely receive the amount of coverage that crimes do. For example, over the last month and a half, while we have regularly seen crime stories leading broadcasts, the only community event that was given the lead in a local news broadcast was back on Sept. 15 on channel 8. Ironically perhaps, this particular event was a vigil in response to gun violence.
Linda – On Thursday, Oct. 13 it was reported on channels 8 & 13 that a 14 year old girl was sexually assaulted on her way to school in Grand Rapids. Jeff how did the TV stations report on this incident?
Jeff – Both channel 8 and 13 did multiple stories that day and their 11pm stories were both over 2 minutes long. Both stations spoke with the same local law enforcement officer, who primarily provided an explanation of what happened to the girl. Channel 8 did provide some safety tips, but all of these were targeted at the behavior of potential victims…such as don’t take short cuts through the ally, don’t walk alone, stay on bright light streets, that kind of thing. All these tips put the focus on the victims, not the perpetrators.
Linda – What is wrong with that?
Jeff – Well, there is certainly nothing wrong with providing tips on how to stay safe, but at the same time what happens is that the attention is taken off the perpetrators. This means that the question why people commit sexual assault doesn’t come up, nor the question of why it is predominantly men committing acts of rape and sexual assault. If journalists explored these questions the public might also be better equipped to protect themselves if they understood the reasons why men commit sexual assault every 10 seconds in this country.
Linda – What else was interviewed in these stories?
Jeff – Channel 13 spoke with 2 residents, not because they were witnesses, but because they just wanted a reaction and WOOD TV 8 spoke with a parent from the school. In both stories, the reaction on the street interviews provided no useful information for viewers and may have contributed to misinforming the public. In the channel 13 piece a resident says “I would never have imagine nothing like that,” referring to the rape. The reporter would have better served the public to speak with a rape crisis counselor or sex assault prevention educator.