It seems like we’ve waited an eternity to hear a local television newsman say: “Reporting crime all the time is not a responsible or accurate reflection of life in our city and I am proud to work with a news team that wants to inform you, not scare you.”
The fact that it was said by the widely respected and the preternaturally professional Richard Ransom was cause for celebration as he moved from the champion “if it bleeds, it leads” coverage at WREG-TV to become anchor and managing editor at WATN TV’s Local 24.
For years, people at civic meetings, focus group sessions, and in conversations about Memphis’ self-image regularly bring up the consistent and persistent coverage of crime night after night, week after week, year after year.
In its way, crime coverage is the broadcast equivalent of clickbait that is recommended by consultants who think more blood equals more viewers. With Mr. Ransom’s move to Channel 24, viewers, for the first time, can cast a vote for less crime coverage by changing channels. Rest assured, it is a move that can reverberate throughout the local television news hierarchy.
Voting For Better Coverage
With this in mind, it will be illuminating if balanced and objective journalism will be rewarded with higher ratings. Mr. Ransom declined to discuss ratings, but we are told by a media buyer that Channel 3 is down and Channel 24 has seen a significant uptick along with Action News 5 (whose strong ads reminding viewers about anchor Joe Birch’s ties and contributions to the community appear to hit their mark).
Because of those commercials, coupled with the exit of Mr. Ransom, who had presided over the climb of his former employer to its lengthy #1 rating, we would be surprised if Channel 3’s ratings haven’t suffered. We will know more with the official November ratings.
Mr. Ransom will preside over the station’s 5, 6, and 10 p.m. as anchor, and in his role as managing editor, he will set the agenda for a station that doesn’t treat crime as the main Memphis story every night.
He will also produce and host a weekly new commentary program, “Local 24 This Week,” which we’ve already added to our DVR list. Mr. Ransom, an Emmy-winning writer, primed his civic and political analysis on the “Informed Sources” program on Channel 3, which has not been the same since he left the station. His new program once again brings to the air his informative interviews and depth of knowledge about what makes Memphis tick.
If It Bleeds, We Leave
We remember a leading Memphis CEO who once said that he quit watching local TV news because “there’s nothing that I learn that can help my company succeed or help me succeed as a citizen.” We arrived at a similar place in an entirely different way. Our experiment was this: we decided we would immediately turn off a news broadcast if it began with a violent crime story. After a month or so, we realized we had essentially stopped watching local news, and when we didn’t click off the channel, it was often newscasts by Mearl Purvis and Darrell Greene on Fox 13.
That said, we wrote off Channel 3 as it led with coverage that hyped a crime that took place shortly before the broadcast. It was curious how often the night’s big story would never be mentioned again or covered by any other news outlet. Apparently, some people Mr. Ransom at Channel 3 miss his influence, judging from the bio still buried on the station’s website.
The persistent drumbeat of crime coverage already aims at conservative stereotypes, but it will get even worse when the purchase of the station by arch-conservative Sinclair Broadcasting is approved by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission.
Rather than emphasizing local news at its 233 stations covering 72% of the country, Sinclair Broadcasting is known for its bare-bones operations and for injecting its right wing agenda into local coverage and requiring stations to broadcast its canned “expert” commentary from people like former Trump White House official Boris Epshteyn.
The Federal Communications Commission has requested additional information from Sinclair, and approval of the acquisition has appeared likely because the FCC recently relaxed rules for broadcast station ownership and the political climate currently favors deregulation.
Questions And Answers
We asked Mr. Ransom a few questions and his answers follow:
Q – Was the opportunity to be managing editor and set the tone of the news your motivation for joining Channel 24?
A – Absolutely, it was a major reason. No matter what the career, I think when you’ve invested a significant amount of your life doing something — and have had some success — you want to have a seat at the table. That truly is the case here.
Q – Have you felt that there is an unfulfilled appetite for news that doesn’t put crime first in every newscast (understanding there will be crimes that will still lead the news)?
A – I’m very passionate about this. For years, it’s all I would hear from viewers I’d meet. They’d say, “I used to watch the news, but it’s not relevant to me anymore. All you do is crime, crime, crime.” At some point, the bar was lowered on crime coverage. So, everybody races to crime scenes, without waiting for details. They label it “breaking news” and don’t worry about whether it’s a legitimate story until later.
My colleagues — most of whom I consider friends and respect a great deal — will admit privately it’s a bunch of bull. But, in their defense, they’re just doing what they’re being told to do. They go live to a shooting with little or no information, only to learn an hour later some guy was shot in the big toe and that no one else was in any danger. Then the story just disappears into the news vacuum.
Look, the bottom line is “crime all the time” coverage, as I like to call it, is lazy. It’s low-hanging fruit. It also doesn’t reflect the city I know. It glorifies violence and can fuel racial stereotypes.
I’m not saying you start doing a bunch of good news stories. I am saying there’s so much real news to report on other than crime scene tape and flashing blue lights. We all know crime is a real problem here and has to be covered. But Local 24 News will show-up at a crime scene and have the courage to wait for the details to flush out before putting it on the air.
That forces us to cover other news. Education. Three Memphis-based Fortune 500 companies. A huge health care industry. It’s a tremendous commitment and I’m proud to be a part of it.
A – How are you defining success in your new role?
Slow and steady wins the race, but we’re under no illusions. You don’t change decades of viewing habits overnight, but we think there’s a real appetite for a refreshing approach. If we see viewers are responding, that will be success. So far, the feedback we’re getting is very positive. Ultimately, it’s up to the folks at home.
Q – What is your operating philosophy as managing editor, understanding that these are difficult times for the news business
A – We just have to keep doing better tomorrow than we did today. These are challenging times, for sure. News stations are competing against more than just each other. There are hundreds of channels, social media sites, news apps, even X-box. So, to grow at all in a declining business environment is a huge victory.
Q – What’s the single most exciting thing about assuming your new dual role?
A – That’s an easy one, Tom. I look forward to going to work now!
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