It’s a new year and for me – it means the end of a bold experiment. For the past year-and-a-half I haven’t watched the nightly local news. This may not sound “bold” for many of you; after all, viewers have been abandoning local television news in droves – not just in Memphis, but across the country.
There are two reasons it’s a bold move for me: (1) I teach broadcast journalism at the college level and (2) I was once a reporter at a local Memphis television station. If anyone should watch local news, it should be me, right? I stopped watching for a reason, though. I feared local news was making me a little edgy about life in the Bluff City. It’s difficult to sleep soundly at night when the last image flickering across the screen is of another shooting or stabbing. I was beginning to wonder if this really was the place I should raise my child. So could removing one variable from my life – watching the local news before I go to bed – change anything?
No, I didn’t bury my head in the sand. I continued to watch national news broadcasts, listen to morning news on the radio, read a national Sunday paper and check news online. Locally, I stayed informed with the daily newspaper and other Memphis publications. When local news broke, I checked station websites and occasionally watched morning or early evening local news. But I didn’t watch the flashing lights and yellow crime scene tape before my head hit the pillow.
Ironically, watching less news turned out to be a reality check. I worried much less about crime, and became more concerned about our government. I got out of bed less to check the house for a burglar, and more frequently pondered our educational system. In other words, I spent less time worrying about the remote possibility that I would be a crime victim, and more time thinking about the issues that regularly impact my life.
The issues of government and education still don’t paint a pretty picture of Memphis, but at least there is both good and bad news on those fronts. Whether it’s directly or indirectly, you are impacted day-to-day by local government and schools.
Unless you live in the most crime-ridden section of town or are a police officer, it’s certain that crime does not visit you on a daily basis; meaning you are not the victim of, or witness to a crime, each day. Dr. Richard Janikowski, chair of the Criminology and Justice Center at the University of Memphis and architect of the data-driven crime fighting tool “Blue Crush,” estimates that 80% of the homicides, aggravated and simple assaults that occur in Memphis are between people who know each other. And that’s just based on initial police reports. Janikowski claims that as the investigation continues, detectives often find that some seemingly “random” crimes involve acquaintances or relatives.
But that’s not the feeling we get when we watch local news – is it? A 2008 study by a graduate student at the University of Memphis found that local stations spend an average of fifty-percent of their news time reporting crime. Does crime comprise half of any average Memphian’s day? Of all the events that happen in the Mid-South on a daily basis, are half of those criminal? When you watch the local nightly news, are you really seeing an accurate record of the region?
So now we return to the end of my “bold experiment.” This month, I will resume my old habit of watching the nightly local news, because if I am to write about media coverage in Memphis, I must watch it! I am looking forward to seeing the work of my friends and former colleagues. Make no mistake, there are excellent local television journalists doing their best to tell impactful, newsworthy stories. I only hope that by watching the news again, my view of Memphis won’t once again be colored by fear and cynicism.