A Story for All Seasons  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2003

A Story for All Seasons   

Summertime crime stories are no longer confined to hot-weather months.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     


For almost a decade now, television news has succumbed to summertime syndrome, letting one less-than-important story dominate the airwaves for months. This year it happened again, but the symptoms showed up early and stayed late. The result is that many viewers have been fed a restricted diet that's left them underinformed.

If you watched the 24-hour cable channels or the networks' morning programs from January through June, you might have thought there was little more important in America than the murder of Laci Peterson. According to the Tyndall Report, which monitors network newscasts, only the war in Iraq and its aftermath got more airtime in the first six months of this year on the three morning shows. On cable, producers apparently had trouble finding any other subject to talk about. According to the Washington Post, Greta Van Susteren's show on Fox News Channel covered the Peterson case 79 times, on more than half the shows broadcast over that same six-month period. MSNBC and CNN were on the bandwagon, too.

Then, just as the tale of Laci and Scott and their unborn child was lagging a bit between court hearings, along came the sexual-assault charge against NBA star Kobe Bryant. The TV hounds were off on another chase, descending on another small town, staking out another courthouse. The story had unmistakable echoes of a previous summertime obsession with a celebrity athlete in the spotlight, minus the signature white Bronco.

What's the attraction of stories like O.J. Simpson, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson and Kobe Bryant? They're true crime stories in which the victims are attractive, young, female and white. Many of the accused or implicated are prominent and well-to-do. And there's something else: They're all stories of no great significance to anyone except those involved, yet journalists won't admit it.

O.J. wasn't just a celebrity murder, remember, it was a compelling story about race and power in America. And covering Chandra Levy's disappearance was "just as legitimate as covering the patients' bill of rights or campaign finance, maybe more so," Maureen Dowd wrote in the New York Times, "because here the press has a crucial role in forcing out the truth." Say what?

Sure, these stories have a veneer of drama and mystery that make them interesting, in a prurient sort of way. Of course, we can't expect news organizations to ignore them entirely. But are they more deserving of coverage than health care or the deficit? No way.

To their credit, most TV news managers won't stretch that far to justify their decision-making. Summers usually are slow, after all. There's not much real news and we have so much airtime, they argue, it's almost unavoidable that some scandal or calamity will fill the void.

But this year, nobody waited for the weather to warm up before going hog wild with the Peterson story. And even after summer did arrive, no one could seriously argue that nothing else was as newsworthy. The economy, prescription drug relief, the Middle East, North Korea--you name it--plenty of stories were more deserving of coverage than Laci or Kobe.

What difference does it make if one story seizes control of the news agenda? Everything else is pushed aside. It's Sir Thomas Gresham's law at work: The bad drives out the good. The interesting displaces the important.

Why is this allowed to happen? At least some news executives were willing to be honest about their Laci fixation. "It's a compelling story with many angles that people...seem to be interested in," Fox News Executive Producer Bill Shine told the Washington Post. "I'm responding to the ratings."

And that's what it's all about. People watch these stories, so producers put them on the air morning, afternoon and night. The only programs that haven't yet surrendered their rundowns to these random tragedies are the network evening newscasts.

Newspapers had no trouble finding other stories. Laci Peterson wasn't front-page news in print day in and day out, except in one particular kind of publication: the supermarket tabloids.

Think about it, television news producers. Look at the company you're keeping. No one's suggesting there shouldn't be room for "watercooler stories" on television, those topics people are talking about, no matter how insignificant. But when a "want to know" story leaves no room for "need to know" stories, what are we left with? A newscast that informs, or a program that titillates and entertains?

Summer, Nat King Cole sang, is a time of lazy, hazy, crazy days. On television, we seem to be left with sleazy, cheesy, tease-y days. And it's going to take more than a change in the weather to sweep these stories away.

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