ON a typical day, the vast majority of Americans do not witness a crime. Yet many local TV stations devote the bulk of their evening newscasts to murder and mayhem.
Convinced that the public is hungry for an alternative, a handful of local television stations nationwide are leavening their coverage of violent crime.
John Culliton, general manager of WCCO-TV, a CBS-owned station in Minneapolis, says the station was unaware how upset people were about crime coverage and its effect on children. ``There is a sentiment out there that we are overdoing it,'' he says
Owing to the fact that many children watch the earliest evening newscasts, WCCO has added a disclaimer to the lead-in of its 5 p.m. program describing its content as ``family sensitive.''
The intent, Mr. Culliton says, is to win back viewer trust by ``trying not to cover violence violently.'' In practice, he says, ``it's basically a new layer of discretion that plays out in two or three incremental decisions a day.''
Offering an example, Culliton notes a recent murder-suicide involving a teenager and a parent. ``Everybody rushed to cover it,'' he says. ``Everybody led their newscasts with the story, and so did we. But we were the only station not to show the bodies.''
``We added another layer [to our story] about how often this happens, and we interviewed a child psychologist,'' he says.
Already the No. 1 station in Minneapolis, WCCO's ratings have not slipped subsequently. As a result, major-market stations in six states have announced similar initiatives.
This trend is ``created by the fact that TV news no longer reflects our world,'' says George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. ``Tragedies play well in the global market, but they say nothing about our own communities.''
Dr. Gerbner points to a recent study on local TV by the Des Moines Register that found that crime stories outnumbered stories about the community's schools 59 to 1. ``It's not journalism to just point a camera at blood on the pavement,'' he says.
Competing stations say ``family sensitive news'' is a marketing gimmick bordering on censorship.
``Labeling something `family sensitive' implies that you will make content decisions beforehand,'' says Mike Burgess, general manager of KOB-TV, the NBC affiliate in Albuquerque, N.M. ``That bothers me. I'm not sure we should say we won't show this story, that we'll show a parking lot rather than what went on. TV without pictures is radio,'' he says.
In answer, Culliton says the question of censorship is fair, but exaggerated. ``It would be a better argument if this were the only broadcast of the day,'' he says. ``There is no question that there are moments when a picture is the only way to capture an environment, but we have plenty of broadcasts to do it. We can avoid it once a day.''
Last week, WMAR-TV in Baltimore began running promotional spots announcing its plan to revamp the violent-crime reporting in all its newscasts. General Manager Joe Lewin rejects the family-sensitive label because, he says, his station goes further.
``Violent things happen,'' he says. ``You can't just automatically leave it out, but you can't out of hand lead the newscast with a big crime story, either. We want to put these things in perspective. It's a matter of using your brains and creativity.''
According to Lewin, part of the policy is to mix in more good news with the bad. ``If we go into a neighborhood where there's been a terrible crime,'' he says, ``we will find a positive story in that community to give it a balance.''
Since Albuquerque's CBS affiliate KQRE-TV began using the family-sensitive label in February, Managing Editor Jeff Frye says a new dynamic has entered his newsroom.
``We're having ongoing discussions about what's important and what's not, and we're making fewer snap decisions,'' he says. ``Crime is one of the leading concerns in our community, and we're being extra careful to tell the viewers they will not be shocked.''
While most adherents say these initiatives do not increase production costs, Gerbner warns that in TV today, the lure of profit usually outweighs concerns about quality.
``Violent programming is not popular, but it's dirt cheap,'' he says. ``Profitability is based on reducing costs, not increasing popularity.''
Citing a recent study in Psychology Today magazine, Gerbner says that 77 percent of station managers ``say they hate to program so much violence, but they have no choice. The drive for profit is so strong, they might as well be running parking lots.''
Still, some analysts are wholly encouraged by the trend. ``Local broadcasters are starting to see that these shows are getting good reactions, that it appears to make financial sense,'' says William Abbott, president of the Foundation to Improve Television. ``I think the pendulum is swinging back. The public is starting to hold local broadcasters to a greater sense of standards.''