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The Neighborly Newscasts

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 1998

  Style Showcase
    reporters From top, Doug McKelway of Channel 4, Kathleen Mattwews of Channel 7 and J.C. Hayward of Channel 9. (From video)
Flip on the local news any evening and the friendly reporters seem to be chatting across your back fence, passing on all kinds of helpful information.

There is no shortage of health advice. "News 4's Liz Crenshaw . . . shows you how to exercise safely." "Can relationships affect our health?" asks Channel 9's Kate Sullivan. "The next time you walk the dog, remember, the life you're improving may be your own," says Channel 7's Kathleen Matthews.

There are consumer tips on dealing with everything from nose jobs to termites, from "Buying a Home" (Channel 4) to "Putting Baby to Bed" (Channel 9). "Wait'll you hear the bargain prices," Channel 4's Susan Kidd says of unclaimed airline luggage. Indeed, says Channel 9 anchor Gordon Peterson, the flimsiest features are essentially "don't-stick-a-fork-in-your-eye news."

There are upbeat reports, served in soothing doses under the rubric of "Good News 9": Maryland's best principal, a reformed drug addict, a man who tends an inner-city garden, a woman who's been a hospital volunteer for 50 years.

Not surprisingly, there is also plenty of crime. Channel 7 teases a twofer: "Kids That Kill" and "Local College Coeds Fight Back Against a Campus Stalker." Channel 4 leads one broadcast with "Fugitive Search," about a Maryland soccer coach accused of sexually assaulting a teenage boy. Channel 9 begins one evening with a Philadelphia carjacker who brought his victim to Alexandria and robbed him before fleeing; the other stations follow moments later.

A two-week examination of the 5 p.m. newscasts on WRC (Channel 4), WJLA (Channel 7) and WUSA (Channel 9) suggests that local television has moved into a softer, user-friendly, market-tested phase. For more than two decades, smiling anchors have engaged in harmless banter. And reporters have long done live stand-ups from street corners where crimes were committed hours earlier. But now the stations are consciously carving out a kinder, gentler niche as the purveyor of consumer advice and the chronicler of suburban lifestyles – an approach very different from the more straightforward, sometimes impersonal tone of newspapers.

In short, says veteran Channel 7 anchor Paul Berry, the local broadcasts have evolved "from the eyewitness-news concept to the care-about-you concept."

In their mix of breaking stories, squishy-soft features and news you can use, in the joshing among their personable anchors, the Washington newscasts are clearly trying to nurture a warm relationship with their viewers. Folksy forecasters chat about the weather while standing outside in the rain. Sportscasters are pumped when the Redskins, Wizards or Capitals win. With slogans like "Seven on Your Side" and "News 4 – Working for You," the stations position themselves as advocates for their community.

On balance, the stations provide a reasonably good roundup of the day's news, traffic, sports and weather. Despite modest staffs, their reporters range across a sprawling 33-county region and bring a certain immediacy to the news. If a truck breaks down on the Beltway, they are there. If snow starts to fall, they move into "team coverage" mode. The programs are light on politics, government and investigative reporting, heavier on crime, community events and health news. The newscasts are well paced, often entertaining, occasionally frivolous.

The three network affiliates are a major media force, reaching a combined 334,000 households at 5 p.m. and 424,000 at 11 p.m. WRC is owned by NBC, WJLA by Allbritton Communications and WUSA by Gannett.

They are hardly the only players in a city that includes NewsChannel 8, a 24-hour cable operation, and Fox's WTTG (Channel 5), which airs a morning show and 10 p.m. newscast. But the Big Three are the biggest broadcast presence in the market, and their stars – Gordon Peterson, Paul Berry, Jim Vance, J.C. Hayward, Bob Ryan, George Michael – have long been household names.

They are the highly paid proprietors of what Berry describes as "the corner grocery where you shop for information."

Crime Still Pays

For local television, the content, the packaging, even the geography of news is no accident.

Each day, the reporters hop in their vans and crisscross the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, where the viewers most prized by advertisers live. The stories race across the screen: an archaeological dig in Bowie. A beautification project in Alexandria. A bomb scare in Towson. A new bus running from Gaithersburg to Bethesda. A Laurel student who brought a gun to high school. Scam artists burglarizing the elderly in Arlington. Channel 9 led one newscast with the boating festival in Annapolis. Only 10 to 15 percent of their viewers, executives note, live in the District.

National news usually takes a back seat on these broadcasts, but the level of interest waxes and wanes. During one three-day stretch, Channel 4 led with Senate hearings on IRS abuses and the indictment of President Clinton's friend Webster Hubbell while the others were pursuing local stories.

And Now, A Breaking Promotion
None of the local stations is above concocting pseudo-news to promote its network.

One night Channel 7 fashioned an item out of characters from the sitcom "Ally McBeal" appearing on "The Practice." "You can see it here at 10 on ABC 7," said anchor Del Walters.

On Channel 4, Doug McKelway noted the controversy over a movie about a Long Island train massacre, adding: " 'The Long Island Incident' airs Sunday night, 9 o'clock, here on NBC 4."

Channel 9's J.C. Hayward did a profile of George Gore, a 15-year-old actor at Suitland High School. "You can see George Gore on this Sunday's 'Touched by an Angel' at 8 p.m. right here on Channel 9," Hayward said. She then told her colleagues: "I fell in love with him."

One day, Channels 4 and 9 led with the Clinton scandals, but Channel 7 kicked off with "a story of money and murder in the middle of Fauquier County" – the trial of a socialite "charged with killing her polo player lover." This was followed by an update on the carjacker, a District man killed five doors from a police station ("Bold Murderer") and the funeral for a guard killed in the Vatican.

Crime coverage here is certainly not as tabloid as that of some stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, which use screaming headlines and scary music. But what is striking about the crime stories is their relentless nature, even when there are few new developments. After a series of assaults at the University of Maryland, Channel 9 reported under the graphic "Campus Attacks": "Police say they are still looking for an intruder who has been sneaking into female bathrooms." The only news: A second suspect had been eliminated.

There were days of live stand-ups about a serial rapist in Laurel, despite the lack of progress in the case. "Police are encouraging everyone to be on guard," Channel 7 said.

Some crime news is delivered with a this-could-happen-to-you tone. Channel 7's Berry led into one case by asking: "Do you think it's possible that you could be induced to have sex against your will while hypnotized?" Another Channel 7 report on antique thefts in Alexandria warned viewers to "be on the lookout for a man and a woman who are looking to rob you."

"We've had a lot of discussions about how much is too much on crime," says Dave Lougee, Channel 4's news director. "One of the great myths about local TV is that crime sells. We know a lot of people are sick of crime. But crime is a major fact of life in this metropolitan area."

Sometimes the headlines are simply hype. What a Channel 7 promo urgently described as "a shocking hate crime at a local suburb" turned out to be some racist graffiti at an Aspen Hill post office.

Says Berry: "I think we can still do a better job of backing away from the crime stories. To the extent we do tons of crime stories, it may very well be that we cross the line. Sometimes we look at our newscast and see if anybody lived before the first break."

Saturation crime coverage – the old cliche that "if it bleeds, it leads" – took hold at many stations in the 1980s and probably reached its peak in the early '90s. A growing public backlash has prompted some stations to soften their approach, but for all the hand-wringing, the Washington stations seem unable to wean themselves from a crime-heavy diet. Following the police scanner is quick, easy and comes complete with law enforcement spokesmen, grieving relatives and distressed neighbors.

But even if such coverage can be justified in terms of the community impact, the stations take it a step further by serving up crime briefs from around the country: a sheriff's deputy in Buffalo who killed his wife. An Ohio driver who allegedly shot two volunteer firefighters. A high-speed car chase in California. Satellite technology makes these pictures instantly available, and dramatic footage seems to be their principal appeal.

Once the crime is catalogued, the newscasts make time for oddball snippets from around the world: Pennsylvania twins having babies on the same day. A 54-day roller coaster marathon in Georgia. Queen Elizabeth hosting a glitzy party. Channel 7 interviewed a pro wrestler known as "The Undertaker" and touted California's new "water bra," which Kathleen Matthews said "promises to give you a more shapely appearance."

All this tends to squeeze more serious national and foreign news into a couple of minutes. Peterson says Channel 9 management knows "that I'd like to see more Washington news on the air – more White House stuff, more Capitol Hill stuff. Local news is different in Washington than it is elsewhere." Channel 9 has not had a congressional correspondent since Kent Jarrell left the station in 1996. In fact, with a few exceptions, most of the local reporters don't cover specific beats, where they could develop sources and expertise.

Even in local coverage, the stations shy away from government stories, convinced that viewers in Charles County or Prince George's are not terribly interested in Arlington or Fairfax issues. "We don't pretend to tell viewers we can be their sole source of information," Lougee says.

What doesn't get covered? On May 5, for example, the 5 p.m. newscasts did not mention that the D.C. Council had approved a $5.2 billion budget that boosted school funding and gave city employees their first raise in five years. Or that Hillary Rodham Clinton had urged Congress to give the city an extra $100 million for economic development. Or that the Senate had joined the House in passing an overhaul of the job-training program. Or that a federal judge had berated Prince George's for not prosecuting a police officer accused of brutality. Or that Fairfax City, Manassas, Falls Church and other Virginia towns were holding municipal elections. Some would argue that these are dull, bureaucratic stories, but they also involve issues that affect viewers' lives.

The more truncated 11 p.m. newscasts, with less time for fluffy features, have a more concentrated focus on crime. One night, for instance, Channel 4 served up this menu at 11: A Virginia teacher arrested for using student money to buy drugs. The death of two babies at a Maryland day-care center. A Germantown man charged with killing his infant son 10 years ago. A manslaughter verdict in the trial of the Fauquier socialite. A murder suspect who threatened to stab himself at D.C. police headquarters. An Alexandria police officer back on the beat after being shot by an assailant. Only then did the station turn to India's nuclear tests and violence in Indonesia.

All the stations have mastered what journalists call "react" stories, often in response to the morning newspapers. The New York Times uncovers a potential chocolate shortage? Round up some chocoholics. The Washington Post reports on a cabdriver who took a woman for a $92 ride? Talk to some cabbies and passengers. The Times describes a possible breakthrough in cancer treatment? Rush out to interview cancer patients, who have no way of evaluating the research. "It sounds promising," a 42-year-old mother tells Channel 4. Still, such efforts help put a human face on scientific issues.

Investigative units were once fashionable in local news, but only Channel 7 trumpets such reporting these days. One report used hidden-camera footage to expose local pharmacists who provide drugs that could cause dangerous reactions if taken together. But the impact was blunted by the station's decision to withhold the pharmacists' identities, electronically blur their faces and disguise their voices.

In an "I-Team" segment, Channel 7 focused on a mentally retarded man who choked to death on a ham sandwich after being transferred from a Maryland institution to a group home. But it was not clear whether this fit the broader billing of "Neglect of the Helpless." While 14 people died after being transferred to the group home, a Maryland health official said that most died of natural causes.

Doing Homework

The segments have such names as "Eyewitness Health" and "News 4 Your Health." From eye drops to asthma, from PMS to a Channel 4 feature called "Nose Job in an Hour," these reports play to the growing personal-health mania.

But some segments seem less than fully researched. After an upbeat report on chiropractors who treat children, Channel 9's Kate Sullivan added, almost as an afterthought: "There is no scientific evidence that chiropractic medicine works. But many people . . . swear by it."

Health and consumer news "has always been part of our culture here," says Channel 4's Lougee. "We know our viewers want to become educated consumers of health. It's part of a broad menu we offer that helps them live their lives."

But some of the health segments, staffers say, are either syndicated, prepackaged reports or video news releases from hospitals or drug companies. "The really scary part is how easily we are manipulated by people who have a financial interest in health issues," says a ranking journalist at one station. "What's alarming is how easily some of these fly-by-night studies make it on the air, unquestioned."

Station executives insist they check the accuracy of the outside material they use. "We have to make sure we're not stool pigeons for PR machines," Lougee says.

The torrent of health and consumer advice stems in part from the findings of television consulting firms that are hired by all the stations.

"There is research out there, very clearly, that shows us that is what people want to see," says Doug McKelway, a Channel 4 anchor. "We are a profit-making organization that has to respond to what they want to see." But he worries that "treating people like dummies" is an "abdication" of the media's responsibility: "When you go groveling to focus groups saying, 'What can we do for you,' you've lost that role entirely."

Bob Sullivan, Channel 9's general manager, sees the research in a more positive light: "We're delivering on what our customers say they're interested in."

And deliver they do. Whether you're a homeowner, traveler or commuter, there is something for you nearly every day.

"This is raw sewage, and when it streams into your house or apartment, it causes devastating damage," Liz Crenshaw tells Channel 4 viewers. Another evening, she warns: "Termites can destroy your house."

"Why not try a boutique hotel? We'll tell you where they are and how to find them," says Channel 9's Hayward.

At Channel 7, John Harter even tells you what kind of car to buy. In a "Road Test" segment on the Toyota 4Runner sport utility vehicle, Harter was behind the wheel, in the back seat, checking out the cargo space. "You will never go wrong by buying today's test truck. . . . You'll not find a more user-friendly, youthful SUV," he said.


Viewers have complained for years that television news – indeed, all news – is too negative. J.C. Hayward, who does a nightly "Good News 9" segment, sees herself as providing some balance.

"I never set out to be a great journalist, but I did want to be a great crusader," she says. "These people are special to me. There's always a thread of hope in my reports, always, always, always. Everyone doesn't get it, and that's okay."

The segments seem to have struck a nerve. Bob Sullivan says they have drawn more reaction than anything else in his three-year tenure and that Channel 9 has trouble keeping up with the deluge of calls and good-news suggestions.

Berry offers a similar rationale for "Seven on Your Side for Education." "It gives us a chance to provide a positive view of what's happening and show we're not just driven by the fact that someone stabbed someone," he says.

Finding the proper balance extends to more than just news coverage. Each station generally follows the formula of pairing a white anchor with a black one, usually one of each gender. Weather forecasters are a crucial part of the team; the mere hint of approaching thunderstorms puts each station on red alert. Channel 4 constantly promotes its four-man weather unit and their Doppler 4000 radar as "working for you." (Channel 9's version is the Real-Time Doppler 9000.) And the meteorologists love to tout local bake sales and charity events.

All the top newscasters immerse themselves in community work, often in partnership with the local companies they cover. Channel 9 sponsors a food drive with Giant Food, a "School Supplies 9" program with Crestar Bank, and a "Buddy Check 9" cancer awareness effort with George Washington University Hospital. Berry is sending 30 youngsters to private school through the Paul Berry Academic Scholarship Foundation.

Channel 4 drew 67,000 people last year at its annual health and fitness exhibit, sends disadvantaged kids to camp through a "Working 4 Children" campaign and raises money for charity through sales of "Bob Ryan's Almanac." "We care about the community we cover," Lougee says. "It's part of an identity for the station."

Indeed, the journalistic stars who lead such efforts, who dispense the useful information, who exude a sense of caring, become part of each station's brand name.

When viewers are asked why they watch Channel 9, Sullivan says, "nine out of 10 say, 'I like Gordon Peterson,' 'I like Andrea Roane,' 'I like Doug Hill.' It's also because of our coverage, but if they can't get past our reporters and anchors, it doesn't matter how accurate or fair we are. They won't watch."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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