Local Television: Soft News Is the Hard News Story of the Day

By In the National Interest Archives
Cover image for  article: Local Television: Soft News Is the Hard News Story of the Day

Whether Americans live on the left or right coast or somewhere in-between, and no matter their network of choice, they can count on their favorite local news programs to deliver a daily dose of good news every morning and night. It's a stock-in-trade format whichever channel you choose. Like clockwork, around the 40-minute mark in their hour-long broadcasts, after the weather and sports, unfailingly upbeat anchor teams will queue up their two minutes of video and goodwill.

In a country of 330 million, of course, acts of kindness, charity, and humanity abound. Firemen extract kittens from trees; socially conscious 10-year-old's sell their toys to fund relief for the needy; neighbors join together to mow an old guy's overgrown lawn. Given how often Americans help each other, the reservoir of stories is bottomless. Nonetheless, however uplifting the soft news segments, it's time for a change. A president who is putting people in danger, not curbing a pandemic is the reason why.

As the coronavirus upends American lives from coast to coast, the three-minutes of "aww…"-inspiring vignettes are too important to wait for the news hour's 40-minute mark. They need to air regularly at the top of the show. The reason: they're an invaluable teaching tool about the public health crisis. Lives depend on them, as does the country's fight to curb a pandemic that isn't going to be over by Easter or extinguished by the mix of baking powder and Baby Ruth bars that President Trump had a "good feeling" about the other day.

Local news is crucial in combatting the coronavirus. Nearly half of the country still relies on broadcast and cable television for their news on global and national, as well as local, events. Local news outlets also aren't just an information source; surveys make clear they're considered the most credible by viewers who trust local news purveyors more than the national sort. The implication is obvious: Hometown news can have a disproportionate influence on an audience that pays attention when its neighbors are on the screen.

When it comes to COVID-19, let's stipulate how well local news teams are doing their "hard news" job. Atlanta, where I happen to live, is a case in point. Along with exceptional coverage by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Georgia Public Radio, broadcast journalists are using technology, as well as courage, to tell stories about the coronavirus across the metropolitan area and elsewhere in the state. Their work is not only commendable, but it also testifies to journalism's inestimable contribution despite the political and financial challenges facing the trade.

There's another reason why local news is crucial: the fact that the president, who should be accurate as well as authoritative in the coronavirus crisis, is incapable of presenting a straight story about the pandemic. The result is hurting the effort by others to educate and protect the public. That's where the local news comes in. Whatever their political views, Americans generally pay attention to what's happening next door, including the plight of neighbors. Their fates put familiar names and faces on stories that can seem abstract, or even less credible if told from Washington or another city thousands of miles away.

It's what makes soft news stories into a teaching moment, for instance, about the importance of social distancing. Their three minutes can have an impact even the finest public servants behind a White House podium can't convey.

The raw material to help correct the misrepresentations is readily available. The Ad Council, the advertising world's platform to produce public service announcements, is working with the administration and the major networks to inform Americans about COVID-19 on broadcast, cable, and digital platforms. The pro bono announcements on how to stay healthy and safe can easily be cut and pasted into local stories, adding important educational content to human interest at the top of the hour.

Businesses provides a similar motherlode to help debunk disinformation. From mom-and-pop shops to multinationals, thousands of American companies are stepping up to ease the burden on families and frontlines forces such as hospitals confronting the pandemic and its effects. Fast food free to doctors and nurses, deferred loan payments for furloughed workers, and retooled production lines to make surgical masks rather than jeans only scratch the surface of their stories; they are all local news somewhere about leaders who take the crisis seriously.

To be sure, Trump has done damage to more than public understanding of the pandemic. He has made the jobs of mayors, county executives, and governors — as well as, public health leaders, doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers — more difficult. In addition to calling criticism of his COVID-19 performance a "Democratic hoax," Trump is leading his minions to politicize the pandemic as the "Wuhan virus" to obscure his administration's inept response. Expect worse as the November election nears.

It's all the more reason for local news to double down in doing its part. A lie, as a wag once wrote, can travel half-way around the world before the truth puts on its boots. Soft news can help the truth catch up when the White House turns it away at the door.

Don't stop now! Stay in the know with Kent Harrington's expert commentary on today's political landscape and on needed accountability.

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