Food For Thought
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News Media Rating Games
Is The Media Reporting The Facts?
March, 1997
by columnist
David Lawrence Dewey

"Reading provides knowledge...
knowledge leads to answers."
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Recently, a television station aired live coverage of two gunmen being shot by police authorities. This was the first time a television station had shown the killing of anyone live on television. CNN News, one of the few that refused to air the coverage, along with others that did not, have received criticism for not showing the coverage. Has the reporting of news within our nation become more of an entertainment shock value to get viewer ratings rather than the reporting of news, news that means something to our daily living, not the killing of someone?

There are some in the news reporting arena that do know the concerns of the viewing public. In a recent interview, Tom Brokaw, anchor of NBC Nightly News said, "Coverage of big stories can give the impression of a feeding frenzy. People feel bombarded." And Carol Marin, co-anchor of the evening news, WMAQ, Chicago says, "We have to stop underestimating the intelligence of people." So is it the anchors that are reporting the news the ones making the decisions of what to air? No, the anchors only report what is given to them. A producer, who has been given dictates by the brass sitting in ivory towers to get better ratings for the network or station tell them, "Report anything and everything, no matter how violent or gory, grab the attention of the viewers to make them watch."

Paul, 50 from Los Angeles wrote, "It use to be, in the Cronkite days, who got news. Nowadays, your lucky to get the news, instead it is the networks battling it out to see who can show the most violent newscast of the evening with stories of horrible crimes."

Many of the letters I've received reflect Paul's comments. News reporting has simply become too violent in reporting the news. Does this mean that the news media should not report anything containing violence. By all means, NO. The news media has the responsible to report the news, including murders or violent crimes, however, the news media does not have to report the horror of the gory details. And I back up that opinion with a recent national survey of 1,500 Americans, performed by the Roper Center in Storrs, Coon. Additional detailed survey results are available at The Newsuem site,

Here is what the public thinks is wrong. Eighty-two percent polled think reporters are insensitive to people's pain when covering disasters, accidents, crimes. Sixty-four percent think the news is too sensationalized. Another sixty-four percent believe reporters spend too much time offering their own opinions. Sixty-three percent think the news is too manipulated by special interests. Fixty-two percent believe the news is too biased and forty-eight percent believe the news is too negative in it's reporting of the news.

Now, what does the public think news is based on the survey? Here are the areas. Ninety-five want to know how crimes, but not the gory details of the crime. Ninety-four percent are more interested in local news. A high ninety-two percent want to see more reported on the environment. Eighty-eight percent want to know what the national government is doing, including any scandals with both sides of the story being presented unbiased. Eighty-seven percent are interested in news from around the world. Sixty-seven percent would like to see more about the arts and sixty-three percent are interested in sports.

Network news has lost half it's audience in the last 20 years. In 1975, about 46% tuned into the nightly news, today only about 26%. Why? I believe that has been explained and the public has been trying to send a message to the networks as to why by not tuning in.

Forty-two percent of those polled believe journalists do not ask elected officials the kinds of questions that are important to most Americans. Seventy-six percent expressed that the media spends too much time reporting on the private lives of public officials and not what they are doing in office.

In my opinion, the press spends too much time fixated on sensational crimes. Look at the O.J. Simpson case. Had this not been so covered by the press, would Mr. Simpson been found guilty instead of not guilty? And look at the recent murder of Bill Cosby's son in Los Angeles, and of 6-year old JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder. Recently the press is finally starting to get the message by being hit in their pocket books. In December, NBC was forced to pay $500,000.00 to Richard Jewell, the Atlanta security guard wrongly implicated in the Olympic park bombing last summer-all because Brokaw announced on television to millions of viewers that authorities, "probably have enough to arrest Jewell right now and probably enough to prosecute him."

This now brings the public comments into another arena of news reporting. Undercover reporting as it is termed, sometimes using hidden cameras. Recently, a North Carolina jury awarded FOOD LION Supermarkets 5.5 million in punitive damages against ABC NEWS for doing an undercover PRIMETIME LIVE report that accused the FOOD LION Supermarket chain of selling spoiled meat. If any of you caught the television special on ABC where ABC interviewed the jury on this case, (and Diane Sawyer presented a very unbiased presentation in this airing, giving FOOD LION the opportunity for rebuttals), you would have seen a jury who actually based their decision on mixed feelings. The jury seemed troubled by ABC NEWS practice of sending reporters undercover with hidden cameras when they "lied" who they were to get a job to be able to sneak the camera in to take the pictures of what was being cone. Yet, this same jury, most of them, (except one), made the same comments that they want news reporters to keep doing undercover work. The one juror, a woman made a puzzling comment, "I know how to spot bad meat, I don't need some big television network to tell me that." All I can say about this comment is, sorry folks, there is no way you can tell if meat that has turned brown because it is spoiling has been added red dye to make it look read, or been mixed with spoiled meat. I wonder how many times this woman gets sick eating bad meat?

I received many letters concerning this particular case. Roberta, 55 from Miami, Stephen, 38 from Salt Lake and Kenneth, 42 from Seattle, just to mention a few expressed to me in letters the same thoughts I have on this case. The employee who worked for ABC News had no choice but to "lie" so to speak by omitting on her application that she worked for ABC. The woman had listed work experience has a meat cutter which she did, this was not a lie. I feel that in this case and this case only, to get to the truth of what FOOD LION was doing in their meat markets, this was the only way ABC was able to get the truth. And why did ABC do this, for us the American consumer to protect us, our health. I applaud ABC and especially Diane Sawyer of PRIMETIME LIVE for their efforts and hope they continue their undercover work. If you would like to express your support of ABC and Diane Sawyer's work in undercover reporting, please email your thoughts to them at

Investigational news reporters have to use good conscious choices of what they need to do to get the job done. In my opinion, and I am stating this as a consumer, not as a news reporter, that the ABC employee who "omitted" on her application to FOOD LION that she worked for ABC was not actually lieing. She simply did not list that she was presently working and for whom. How many do people, when wanting to find another job, omit their current employer on their applications? I feel ABC NEWS did not do anything wrong, if anything they did a great service to the American consumer for bringing this information forward. That is why I have always purchased meat from supermarkets where the meat department has glass windows and you can see what the meat department employees are doing. I feel that states should pass laws requiring that meat departments must be open and fully see by the public.

Americans polled feel that there is not enough undercover work being done to expose the truth of something that should be exposed. Ninety percent also feel that the reason for this is that the making of profits improperly influences the news. They feel television networks will not expose the truth about something some huge corporation has been doing in fear of losing millions of dollars of advertising. Now why is it that the American public has developed this thinking?

Dan Rather, anchor of the CBS NEWS recently said, "The public does take our work seriously." Yes, the American public does take television reporters work seriously, however I believe here is another example of what the American public is trying to tell the networks-listen to us, we're trying to tell you what you should be reporting instead.

Margaret, 42 from Des Moines wrote me, "I used to enjoy watching the news, however, the last four or five years it seems that when I turn on the news it is the murder of the day, robbery of the day with all the gory details. If I wanted to watch something like this instead of hearing about news, I would watch the movie, The Killing Fields. And that includes my local news station as well."

Margaret couldn't have said it better. News has become an entertainment medium for the networks. Some though have not gone as far as the others in their need to make profits, some have tried their best to simply report news, not entertainment shock details for ratings. It appears that the only way that the news people that are doing this type of reporting is when enough viewers simply stop watching. You would think the executives sitting in the huge ivory towers they would have already gotten that message, simply look at the decline of 46% watching the news to only 26% five years later. Hello, this is a wake up call for you up there in those ivory towers. Don't you realize that if anything you could make more profits if you had more viewers, but reporting the news the way it should be reported, as news, not entertainment?

In closing, thank all of you for the hundreds of letters I received from you regarding this subject. You definitely expressed your thoughts, comments and opinions regarding what the news media should be reporting.

My next column is going to be about the The Buying of America-Have We Been Bought? Do you know how much the Japanese have invested in U.S. Treasury bonds and how this influences our stock market and interest rates? Do you know how many American farming areas are owned by foreign companies? The facts will surprise you! On my website is a new input form that you can use to write me your thoughts. On the form, you are asked to list at list your first name, city and age and if I can use this information along with your comments in my column. I try to incorporate as many of my reader comments on column subjects as possible. I also am calling a few of my readers when they write me their comments for additional input. I hope you find the new input form easy to use, so WRITE me your thoughts on this upcoming column.

~ David Lawrence Dewey ~

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