Study Says TV Newscasts Mislead Public

But journalists say research misses the mark

THURSDAY, Dec. 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Seen many reports on local television news about people falling in the shower or getting electrocuted in the bathtub? No? Researchers in California haven't either, and in a new report they claim that TV newscasts present an inaccurate picture of how people die by unnatural causes.

But journalism experts scoff at the findings, saying they reveal a basic misunderstanding of what news is. "TV news is doing nothing different than what the news media has done since the beginning of time, when balladeers sang about the latest crime or murder," says Joe Saltzman, associate dean of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Across town, at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), lead study author David McArthur, an epidemiologist, says the researchers first became interested in how television portrays trauma after considering a famous line about TV news: "If it bleeds, it leads."

"For a long time, there's been a sense out there … that television operates off a limited number of formulas, that they're out to show a particular version of the world. They don't make the stuff up, they don't invent material, but what they do present is not necessarily the same as what's out there."

The researchers studied 1,134 local news broadcasts, in both Spanish and English, aired on randomly selected days on nine Los Angeles TV stations from late 1996 and early 1997.

The researchers then compared 828 stories about local traumatic deaths and injuries to the actual statistics on such incidents from authorities like the county coroner's office. The findings appear in the December issue of the Western Journal of Medicine.

The study says TV news reported nearly 48 percent of all traumatic deaths in Los Angeles County, with an emphasis on murder and car accidents. Only 3.4 percent of traumatic injuries were reported.

Nearly all homicides -- 97.7 percent -- and about 64 percent of car accident fatalities were reported on at least one station. However, injuries and deaths from falls, drownings and accidental poisonings rarely made the news, even though falls are three times more common than car accidents, McArthur says.

"The news makes it appear like we're surrounded by assaults and fires and things like that," while the likelihood of other kinds of trauma is much higher, he says. "The proportions are extremely skewed."

However, he says violence doesn't always lead the news. Stories about murders and other deaths typically were second or third in line.

The study shows that TV news isn't doing a good job of representing reality, he says. "You end up with a portrayal of threats to public health that really does significantly overemphasize particular types of threats and underemphasize other types. You end up with a voting public that doesn't have all the information in front of it."

Jo Ann Caplin, a journalism professor at Ithaca College, gives more credit to the public. "Anybody who is reasonable knows that in terms of benefits and risks, there's always a risk of getting killed crossing the street or driving down the block. That's a common-sense kind of thing."

Saltzman agrees. "You have to assume that people who are mature individuals know the difference between what they read and hear and what goes on in their own lives. People know murder is rare, and they know the reason it's news is because it's rare."

Television news can indeed cover public health issues, but officials need to present topics to the news media "in a way that the news can use it," says Caplin, who won several Emmy awards when she was a producer at CBS and ABC.

Events like murders always get reported because "that's what news is made of," and reporters can't cover everything, Caplin says.

"Television doesn't have the responsibility to do all the news and every angle," she says.

What To Do

While adults may understand violence on television news, children may not. To figure out how to talk to your kids about what they see on the news, check this primer from Talk with Kids About Tough Issues, a project of Children Now and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

A recent study from UCLA contends that television news distorts the reality of how many children commit crimes. Read a press release about the study here.

Sources: Interviews with Joe Saltzman, associate dean and professor of journalism, Annenberg School of Journalism, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; David McArthur, Ph.D., M.P.H., adjunct associate professor, School of Public Health, UCLA; Jo Ann Caplin, journalism professor and Park Distinguished Chair, Ithaca College, Ithaca, N.Y; December 2001 Western Journal of Medicine
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