What’s news got to do with it?

Welcome to the Vanguard! Today’s top stories: murder, rape, kidnapping and armed robbery. Not surprisingly, these are the top stories every day on local news programs.

Welcome to the Vanguard! Today’s top stories: murder, rape, kidnapping and armed robbery. Not surprisingly, these are the top stories every day on local news programs. What is it that makes these stories news, and what happens when reporting on violent crimes goes too far?

On Thursday, Oct. 8, a news story broke on KGW about a man who had committed sex crimes against minors. Unfortunately, KGW’s reporters did not stop there. The news program laid out the details of the crimes committed: A man allegedly molested a 4-year-old child and made a teenager perform sexual acts with a dog while taking photographs of the abuse.

A friend of mine, who watched the program, commented that hearing this made him sick to his stomach. He could not imagine why they felt the need to specify these horrific crimes, especially when another news channel said they couldn’t name the crimes committed.

Putting aside, for the moment, the question as to whether or not this story is actually news, I think it’s safe to say that no one needs to know a man raped a minor and made her have sex with a dog. This type of reporting just seems irresponsible, a clear attempt to shock viewers into watching. What’s more is that KATU, using better judgment and discretion than KGW, refused to specify the criminal details.

So what is it that makes violent stories newsworthy? A news station based out of Austin, Texas, decided they would start asking themselves that very question. The station in question, KVUE, implemented a series of guidelines that a violent story must meet in order to air. These guidelines include questions such as, “Does action need to be taken? Or is there an immediate threat to safety?” If a story fails to meet one or more of the guidelines, it does not air.

Joe Holley of the Columbia Journalism Review ran a study on the effects of this new policy on KVUE’s viewers. The station got its highest ratings in a decade after the switch. One fax the station received from a viewer read, “We are not interested in gory details about who got smeared on the interstate, who got murdered, etc.”

Even KGW and KVUE’s respective Web sites reflect the difference in sensationalism between the stations. At the time of this writing, KGW’s local news includes headlines such as “Ground broken on new NE Portland church destroyed by fire” and “Driver sought in hit and run crash.” On the other hand, KVUE’s headlines read “Obama urges people to serve their communities” and “Domain development seeing construction boom.”

When it comes to what one might consider real news—little things like foreign affairs and health care—local news also falls short. In preparing for this article, I, somewhat grudgingly, sat down to watch an entire half hour of local news. After the obligatory murders, kidnappings and a commercial break, KGW started in on the important stuff like health care reform, deployment of troops to Afghanistan and Hillary Clinton’s visit to Russia. These three stories, combined, were given about 30 seconds of air time, whereas a story that followed about Michael Jackson’s “new” song received about a minute all by itself. We can see what the local news’ priorities are.

Violence, though sometimes useful to know about, is not news, and the details even less so. I would think it is no surprise to anyone that some people died today, yet those stories get more time and more priority than the decisions that are being made in capitols across the country, and across the world, that will affect everyone.

KVUE and KATU have shown that discretion when it comes to reporting on violent crimes can still draw an audience. It’s time more local news channels came to the same conclusion.