Poll: Chicago viewers split over media coverage of crime

Cook County State’s Attorney blasts Nexstar’s WGN-TV over poll

A poll released by Nexstar-owned independent WGN-TV on Tuesday showed how Chicago-area residents felt about their local political leadership and pressing issues like crime. And let me tell you – it wasn’t pretty as people seem to have it in for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, as their approval ratings were quickly plummeting. They were hoping Cubs owner Tom Ricketts would be part of the same poll, because he would certainly have a far lower approval rating than both of them given the way the team has been playing lately (yes, really.)

But what caught this site’s eye was another item – buried way down in the WGN article, just above Covid-19 concerns. It was on how Chicagoans felt about media coverage of crime. And much like everything else in the Chicago metropolitan area, there was a stark divide. 

According to the poll taken by WGN and Emerson College, 36.6 percent of residents said there were too much crime coverage; 31.5 percent said crime coverage was underreported; and 31.9 percent said emphasis on crime was just about right. 

This comes as crime coverage has dominated local news – even more so than Covid and weather. The last few weeks certainly drove the point home with the high-profile murder of a police officer, a seven-year-old child, and two senior citizens – all in the last ten days as at the current rate, Chicago could challenge the 1974 homicide record when 970 people were killed.   

But the 36.6 percent does give some credibility to local news’ recent ratings slide. During the May sweeps, Chicago local newscasts suffered their biggest ratings declines since 2014 – a signal viewers may be fed up with “the bleeds, it leads” mentality of local news. Ironically, the biggest offender of this method seems to be WGN-TV themselves, who generally dedicates the first ten minutes or so of their 9 and 10 p.m. newscasts every night to crime and crime-related issues. 

Keep in mind other factors have contributed to ratings declines, including viewers shifting away from linear TV to streaming; the forced departure of ABC 7 sportscaster Mark Giangreco; and viewers feeling local news panders too much to one side of the political aisle or the other. 

No demo breakdowns were available, but you can guess what camp the respondents were in. Those who say crime is underreported are generally those who say this about any mainstream news network or station; i.e. CNN and MSNBC, who covers less crime in America’s cities than Fox News and other conservative outlets. Not surprisingly, the majority of those in the poll have often criticized local news media coverage of minority communities, as there is little diversity in Chicago journalism – a point Mayor Lightfoot tried to make awkwardly.  

36 percent of respondents say there is too much crime in local news. (WGN-TV)

Crime wasn’t really the cornerstone but this changed in 1989 with the high-profile murder of Dana Feiter ushering in the tabloid era of local news. But it really took off in the early 1990s when stations around the country – notably CBS-owned WBBM-TV and WSVN Miami, started emphasizing on crime stories and sensational reporting. Channels magazine profiled several local stations in 1990 on how they cover crime and the toll it took on newsrooms – the same issues (emotional toll on reporters, accusations of racism, etc.) they’re dealing with now. 

Over the last three decades, local stations have added more hours of news to their schedules as producing it became more cost-effective than acquiring and airing low-rated syndicated programming as news usually attracts more affluent advertising, despite violent acts and gruesome photos becoming more common in local and national newscasts (such as recent footage someone shooting a gun in Afghanistan.) In fact, there’s more violent material in newscasts than you usually see in an episode of Law & Order: SVU. It renders the parental TV rating system completely useless as news shows are exempt. 

Meanwhile, Foxx – who has borne the brunt of criticism for her handling of violent criminals and was re-elected to a second term last year (with around 60 percent of the vote), slammed the Nexstar-owned station’s poll in what you can describe as a tone-deaf response. 

“Right now, we need an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to tackle the rise in crime with smart, community-focused solutions,” Foxx said. “And we need to stop oversimplifying the criminal justice system and critically examine all the factors influencing violence in our communities. This means not relying on data from a cherry-picked poll that only examines two actors in a broad system and who happen to be Black women.” 

You’d think the response was geared toward Fox News or a Sinclair-owned news station. But you can assume every race – black, white, Latino, etc. agrees the city has a huge violent crime problem. From a woman who completely mishandled the Jussie Smollett case, her comments dismissing the poll as “fake news” (yes, it goes both ways) was absolutely inane.  Yes, Nexstar isn’t exactly a bastion of terrific management themselves, but the criticism from her is almost Trumpian. 

Whether you agree with the poll or not, one thing is certain – violent crime is going to dominate the news. But the way it’s presented needs to change. And we can’t even agree on how to do that.  

 

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