Apartment fires aren’t an uncommon occurrence. It also isn’t an uncommon occurrence for local news stations across the country to treat apartment fires as though they are atomic bombs. The instant the first smoke detector goes off in an apartment complex in Downtown Anywhere, USA, the helicopters and news vans swarm the scene and an event that impacts a handful of people becomes “breaking” news.
Meanwhile, that same day, the city council of Anywhere, USA may have made an important decision about property taxes or water bills that impacts every single resident. That story will be given 6 seconds toward the end of the newscast, while the apartment fire will occupy the top story, and several updates during the newscast.
Why the disparity? A city council decision doesn’t make for good video and won’t increase ratings. An apartment fire makes excellent video, draws ratings and attracts new viewers. Sure, the apartment fire across town doesn’t affect the majority of news viewers, but dang Martha, take a look at those flames.
A wildfire that is spreading in California is news. A fire at a local landmark is news. A fire at a government building is news. An apartment fire is not.
It isn’t news unless it is your apartment complex, which means it isn’t news to most viewers. Unfortunately, most news consumers have become so accustomed to ratings-based coverage that they think apartment fires count as hard news and represent great local coverage of their communities. Most news stations and news directors have become so accustomed to covering fires that they believe they are covering real news rather than merely chasing ratings.
As a result, the public is subjected to 30 minutes to an hour of what equates to theater. Viewers watch the flames, ratings rise, ad revenue goes up– and the local government gets away with raising the taxes because their story got bumped for that sweet video.
And then news directors and journalists sit and wonder why the public is uninformed and disengaged.