Broadcasters are legally required to serve “the public interest.” But as long as the FCC equates “public interest” with “local interest,” the result is likely to be hours upon hours of crime reporting, which only exacerbates implicit racism in viewers. At least that’s what UCLA law professor Jerry Kang thinks. He lays out his argument for Daljit.
DALJIT DHALIWAL: The requirement that broadcasters serve the public interest is almost as old as television itself. The provision was laid out in the Communications Act of 1934, and ever since then, people have been squabbling over exactly what that means. As you've just heard, a popular interpretation has been that local interest equals public interest, thus the emphasis on local election coverage. And in general, the FCC has tended to agree with that interpretation. But earlier this year, the Harvard Law Review published a 100-page article arguing that the FCC has placed too much emphasis on local at the express of public interest. UCLA law professor Jerry Kang wrote the article and he joins me now to explain what he meant. Jerry, welcome to the show.
JERRY KANG: It's a pleasure.
DALJIT DHALIWAL: So it would seem to me that the more time a local station spends reporting on news in its own community, the more that community's interest is being served. Do you disagree?
JERRY KANG: Well, it may or may not be the case. If you look at local news today, it turns out that crime stories, especially violent crime stories, occupy approximately 25 percent of all local news stories, and the constant inundation of violent crime stories, I think, has large negative consequences that we have not considered seriously in thinking about the public interest.
DALJIT DHALIWAL: But why isn't this a reflection of what's actually going on in these cities?
JERRY KANG: I think that's a fair question. One might say journalists have an obligation to report the cold, hard facts on the ground, even if it might be displeasing or politically incorrect. The problem with that is that even if crime rates are decreasing, crime story coverage is not necessarily decreasing. There's no proportionality in the actual depiction of these stories. Also there's, I think, pretty good evidence that we have actually disparate representation of crime stories that disfavor minorities and poor people.
DALJIT DHALIWAL: And what is the effect of so much local news crime coverage?
JERRY KANG: I think there is excellent social science evidence that it leads to a particular sense of fear and loathing and anxiety among the consuming public. So if you watch a lot of local news, you think the world is far more dangerous than it in fact is. Political scientists have measured the fact that if you introduce local crime stories to people in an experiment, they are more likely to vote for punitive crime measures, like three strikes and you're out, on political surveys conducted right afterwards. And social cognition research suggests that exposure to particular sets of images and meanings that associate black and brown faces with violent crime likely increases what scientists are calling implicit bias against these social categories. And we tend to think of stories that are negative about other people, other races, in more essentialist terms, thinking that it is by their very nature that they are violent or criminal, whereas if it's a story about, quote, "ourselves," we tend to think it as an individual aberration.
DALJIT DHALIWAL: Well, let's take the example of the French riots this week. Now, if these riots were taking place, for instance, let's say, in Los Angeles, would you favor devoting only a few minutes to covering them on the evening news?
JERRY KANG: No. I think things that are newsworthy, [CHUCKLES] such as what's going on in Paris or the L.A. riots back in '92, are newsworthy, and under our robust First Amendment I don't think it makes any sense ultimately to try to actually limit that. Nonetheless, we have in the past capped the number of commercials that we air per hour. We cap indecency in many ways. We penalize bad speech, including profanity. We affirmatively require broadcasters to show good speech in the form of children's television. So the question is not whether we regulate. The question is how much and for what reason we regulate.
DALJIT DHALIWAL: If your proposals were taken up, do you think that the quality of programming would improve substantially? I mean, let's be realistic here. Would we start seeing a lot more coverage of local politics, for instance, or would we just see a lot more reporting on vicious weather and water-skiing squirrels?
JERRY KANG: [LAUGHS] I think the FCC could generate practices among stations that would actually lead to better news. What people have to recognize is that the images that we convey, whether they be in fiction or non-fiction, have consequences, just like we do in the context of indecency. And before we unthinkingly lionize and fetishize the absolute number of hours of local news as being most important, we ought to consider other aspects of the public interest. We have to recognize that quality ought to beat quantity.
DALJIT DHALIWAL: All right, Jerry. Thanks very much.
JERRY KANG: Fantastic. Great interview.
DALJIT DHALIWAL: Jerry Kang is a professor at the UCLA School of Law. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jami York and Mike Vuolo and edited this week pretty much by me. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Katie Holt and Kevin Schlottmann. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
DALJIT DHALIWAL: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. Brooke Gladstone will return next week. I'm Daljit Dhaliwal.