I will admit to having had a snobbish view towards local TV news for most of my adult life. I think it is at least somewhat justified; local TV news frequently has a disreputable whiff. Whether it’s the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos, sweeps week stunts (this item is in almost all American households AND IT COULD KILL YOUR CHILDREN), large doses of pabulum delivered as News You Can Use, and so on - there is a lot to look down on.
(I won’t even go into the disturbing tendency of weather forecasters to insist to viewers that the overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists are charlatans.)
That perception seems to be fairly common. Maybe it’s a demographics issue; this study (PDF) from Pew shows (p. 37) daily newspaper readers with higher aggregate educational levels than local TV news viewers. It also shows (p. 38) newspaper readers having higher incomes. So to put it crudely, newspaper readers are smarter and richer than TV news viewers.
Without even seeing such statistics I definitely internalized a sense of newspapers’ superiority over the years. That bias is silly though; TV, like newspaper, is a medium. It’s what you do with it that matters. The New York Times is printed on newsprint, and so is The Onion.
The degree to which my assumptions about print and TV are faulty has been brought home over the last year or so as I’ve become more involved fracking-related activism. For instance, Youngstown NBC affiliate WFMJ has done a very thorough job covering the issue. When a company illegally dumped toxic fracking waste in a waterway, reporter Michelle Nicks filled her report with detail: Not just the event itself, but the response (such as it was) from regulators, from state political leaders and national ones as well.
Even more impressively, CBS affiliate WKBN filed public records requests and discovered the company in question has received dozens of citations, violations and injection well suspensions stretching back to the eighties. WKBN is doing exactly the kind of investigative journalism we normally associate with newspapers - not just reporting the news but really digging into it in order to give viewers a better understanding.
In Cleveland, NBC affiliate WKYC has set up an entire section of its web site for fracking and done a great deal of reporting on it. Multiple reporters there, including Monica Robins, Dick Russ and Lynna Lai, have reported on the issue from a variety of angles. While you could say that flaming water from a tap is the kind of arresting visual that conforms to the worst stereotypes of local TV news, there’s nothing especially dramatic about a cracked foundation or a politician’s legislative proposal. If it was all about sensation they wouldn’t have run most of those reports.
Newspapers have a spotty record on this issue. Some reporters cover it well. In northeast Ohio, Bob Downing of the Akron Beacon Journal has been on it for a while now (recent reports here, here and here). In other fracking-intensive regions I’ve found reporters like Bruce Finley at the Denver Post doing similarly admirable work (here, here and here for example).
But the largest newspaper in our area - the Cleveland Plain Dealer - has been considerably less thorough. There is less coverage overall, and the stories tend to center around fracking initiatives or headlining industry propaganda. While they occasionally look at the political fight over the issue, they rarely look at the effect it is having on local communities. (Perhaps the publishers don’t feel the concerns of blue collar-skewing populations in rural or semi-rural areas are of interest to their more (sub)urban and upscale readership.)
This is especially striking because the paper has repeatedly touched on an issue that seems ready made for a little Truth To Power type initiative. Jimmy Haslam, the new owner of the Cleveland Browns (and brother of the Tennessee governor, incidentally), owns a trucking company that stands to handsomely profit from fracking. Shortly after buying the Browns he stepped down as CEO of the company. Or didn’t. (“I’m still going to be CEO of Pilot Flying J.”) That detail was never ironed out exactly.
He’s definitely back in the saddle now though - which raises the same question his heading the company originally raised: Should the owner of such a high profile and beloved franchise be profiting by visiting environmental hazard on a significant portion of his fan base? There are lots of Browns fans in Youngstown. Maybe they wouldn’t be too crazy about knowing the team’s owner is a key part of the industrial chain that just befouled their community.
The PD is not going there, though. For whatever reason the community impact of fracking has been of zero interest. Again, this lack of coverage is not characteristic of all newspapers; some are doing a really good job. My point is that on this urgent, substantive issue, newspapers have been a mixed bag - as have local TV stations. (In Cleveland, WKYC is head and shoulders above its on-air competition at the moment.) In general the reporting matrix doesn’t break along expected lines. Sometimes papers provide better coverage. But in some cases the supposedly low-rent local TV stations have left their ostensibly more respectable print counterparts in the dust.