Hed — If it bleeds, it leads
Too often in recent years, L.A.’s image has been clouded by crime and a perception, largely fueled by the national and local media, that Los Angeles is out of control.
It’s been measured with Rodney King, the ensuing riots and the O.J. Simpson case, of course. But perhaps more importantly, it’s reinforced on a daily basis with the relentless tally of crime news, whether it’s the mysterious slaying of Bill Cosby’s son or the random shootings that are all-too-routine in many L.A. communities.
Even last week’s dramatic shootout in North Hollywood, in which Los Angeles police clearly performed valiantly in preventing any innocent deaths, is now being questioned. Attention has been focused on whether there were delays in getting medical attention to one of the gunmen, who died at the scene.
The cops, it seems, can never get off the hot seat.
Clearly, newspapers and television stations are not in the business of making the police or Los Angeles at large look good. Their charge is to report the news. But that’s a subjective process one that too often is done with little thought to context and reality.
The most obvious example is the incessant coverage of crime news by the local television stations. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the long-accepted credo. Never mind that crime in L.A. has been down significantly in the past year. Also never mind that more-substantive public policy issues get lost in the blitz of blood and gore. All that matters are visual images that supposedly attract maximum viewership.
Attitudes by the national media also play a role in L.A.’s unsavory image. For years, Washington Post editors had been notorious for insisting that their California reporters concentrate on “fruits and nuts”-type stories. The Simpson case no doubt added to the mythology that the state and Los Angeles in particular is a shallow, mindless place.
Ten or 20 years ago, such snapshots might not have mattered. Southern California was thriving with little need for image enhancement. But given the serious recession a few years ago and a local economy now going through a massive restructuring, every image counts.
To retain businesses as well as attract new ones L.A.’s quality of life takes on special importance. Certainly, that’s the case with crime. “It all comes back to safety,” Mayor Richard Riordan said last week. “Safety instills confidence, clears the path for opportunity and gives us the freedom to pursue our ideas.”
But it’s the perception of safety that’s really key. The mayor can offer up encouraging statistics all he wants, but as long as the local TV news directors insist on distorted coverage of crime, L.A.’s Dodge City reputation will linger. That’s not only a journalistic issue, it’s a social and economic one.
It’s encouraging to see business leaders and elected officials finally recognize the importance of the L.A. image. The next step and it’s a leap is for the local broadcast media to re-examine how it does business. The objective here is not boosterism, but realism.