What makes news?
A vaguely familiar man with close-cropped hair gazed out yesterday afternoon from an array of multiple television screens. "Eight hundred thousand children go missing every year," publicist Larry Garrison told a crowd of journalists, educators and students gathered at the Independence Visitors Center, "but only four or five get media attention."
A vaguely familiar man with close-cropped hair gazed out yesterday afternoon from an array of multiple television screens.
"Eight hundred thousand children go missing every year," publicist Larry Garrison told a crowd of journalists, educators and students gathered at the Independence Visitors Center, "but only four or five get media attention."
How does any event win media attention? And how does that attention impact public perception and policy? These were the core questions of a 90-minute forum on "media literacy" sponsored in part by the Independent Film Channel and the Media Education Lab at Temple University.
Panelists included former CBS-TV news anchor Dan Rather, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, NBC10 news director Chris Blackman, Inquirer editor William K. Marimow, and WRNB-FM commentator E. Steven Collins.
To keep the topic focused, the forum asked a narrow question: "What does the public need to know about how TV covers crime?"
It began with a brief film clip of Garrison, a public relations man hired by the family of Casey Anthony, a Florida woman charged with the murder of her baby daughter, Caylee.
In prerecorded remarks, Garrison explained that he was hired to "keep the [Caylee Anthony] story alive" by offering himself repeatedly to TV stations, and boasted of stirring the media into "feeding frenzy" over the tragedy of this appealing - and white - child.
Later, the program looked at how Philadelphia area TV stations cover crime, and how coverage shapes perceptions of race and the city itself.
Blackman, of NBC10, acknowledged that "crime is the easiest story to cover" for TV news crews. "You go to the scene, you shoot the crime-scene tape, and you've got your story."
But an abundance of crime stories can also provoke undue anxiety in viewers, portray a city as more violent than it really is, and perpetuate ethnic stereotypes, according to Blackman.
Marimow, of The Inquirer, began by observing that the First Amendment's press protections seek "to give citizens the opportunity to decide if public officers are doing their jobs," but TV journalism is often skewed towards crime because "TV needs pictures" to tell a story.
Its dependence on images and the brevity of most reports make it hard for TV to report important stories with requisite complexity, said Marimow. "If you only have a minute, you can't tell a story."
He was followed by Rather, who agreed that the need for images and the "crush of time" helps explain local TV news' emphasis on street crime. But far more important than street crime, he said, are the "crimes in high places" committed by those in corporations, government and on Wall Street.
Such crimes are difficult to expose, especially with the "shrinking resources" available to news organizations of all kinds, including newspapers and magazines.
The diminishment of resources is due in part to dwindling advertising revenues, Rather said, but he also warned that "news as a public trust, as opposed to corporate interests" was in dangerous decline.
Abraham began by saying that she "laments the decline of newspapers," and complained that TV news devotes too little time to the "children" who are being killed weekly in Philadelphia.
"Most young black men are just a blip on the screen," Abraham said, with little attention paid to the chaos of their lives.
Moderator Renee Hobbs, a professor of communications and media education at Temple University, then paused the discussion to ask the audience, many of whom were young media students, to ponder what the media often leave out of stories.
"What doesn't make the news?" she asked. "Do journalists tend to polarize issues where there's a complex spectrum? . . . How is crime news constructed?"
Collins, who is also director of urban marketing and external relations for Radio One, followed by observing that "race affects everything" in crime reporting, and pointed what he called "the-black-man-did-it syndrome" in TV news.
"A lot of black people buy into it," said Collins, who is African American, "and think less of themselves."
Later the panelists explored how crime news affects viewers. Marimow remarked that certain story choices can induce a sense of "urban pathology," and that these need to be balanced by other kinds of stories.
Rather called for greater ethnic and gender diversity in newsrooms. Blackman, who is African American, agreed, and defended his station, saying he strives for complexity even in routine homicide stories.
But he noted that TV stations today demand that their news operations earn a profit, and that often means attracting viewers with vivid crime and weather stories.
"We do it or we die," said Blackman.
Later, the audience viewed and critiqued a local TV news report on a judge's decision to try as adults four of the five teenagers who fatally assaulted Sean P. Conroy, a Starbucks manager at a Center City subway station.
"What techniques were used to attract your attention?" asked Hobbs. "What lifestyle values and points of view were represented?"
Students rose and remarked on the news reporter's "emotionally charged" voice and the judge's description of the assault as "monstrous."
The reporter "seemed to want to instill fear," said a Temple student. But a high school teacher said the story seemed to seek to reassure viewers that justice was being done.
Hobbs praised nearly all the responses with a "wow" and finished by pointing the mostly young audience to the screen at the front of the room.
"All media messages are constructed," it reminded them, and these messages "convey values and a point of view" that "shape people's understanding of reality."