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LOCAL TELEVISION NEWS COVERAGE - IT'S A CRIME

Local television news remains a crime story. That's essentially the conclusion of a recent survey by the Columbia University's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

According to the survey of 17 markets, stories about crime on local newscasts nationwide increased slightly to 25 percent of newscasts at the same time profit margins have increased and news directors have been asked "to do more with less."

"Local news is in bad shape," concluded Tom Rosenstiel of the Project.

The survey's conclusions weren't exactly a news alert to anyone who watches local news in Buffalo. And while Buffalo wasn't part of the survey, the market certainly reflected its findings.

As if there isn't enough current crime, local stations have reprised some decades-old tragic events for stories airing during the November sweeps.

Channel 2's Scott Levin had an "exclusive" prison interview with Kenmore's John Justice, who killed his mother, father, brother and a neighbor 17 years ago. Usually, 17-year anniversaries of crimes aren't news, so it makes you wonder why this interview was relevant. Also, the story suggested that Justice probably won't get out of jail for a while.

Justice rambled on and vowed not to return to Western New York in an interview that was less than enlightening despite Levin's efforts to ask provocative questions.

Channel 7 reporter Julie Fine, meanwhile, was called on to reprise the 22-year-old Joseph Christopher case. Now, 22-year anniversaries of crimes aren't usually celebrated, either, but the Christopher case has received increased mileage lately after the sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area. The purpose of Part One of the Channel 7 series seemed to be to remind viewers of the terror that Christopher created in the African-American community until he was captured.

Channel 2 had dealt with the Christopher case earlier, even interviewing a former WGRZ-TV reporter, Tony Farina.

Farina, who now works in politics but used to cover crime, has recently been a busy media interview subject. He also received some Channel 2 camera time during the November sweeps on another 22-year-old sensational crime: the unsolved murder of small-time mobster Billy Sciolino.

Taken collectively, you almost get the sense that the local stations long for the good old days when they were covering major crime stories. Now they have to be content over covering crime stories that are far less sensational.

In fact, crimes that often land in the back pages of this newspaper or just get a few paragraphs in the police and courts briefs section, can be the lead story on local newscasts. That's unless the bad weather comes to the rescue, reducing the need for crime stories to fill time.

Last week's local coverage served to confirm the Project for Excellence's conclusion that crime stories are more prevalent now because they are so easy to cover.

At 6 p.m. Friday, Channel 7 led with a story about the possibility that the City of Buffalo would be able to use federal funds to rehire some laid-off cops. (In a sense, the local news is an advertisement for more police.)

That lead story was followed by a piece about one robbery suspect at a convenience store being shot and another on the loose, then a report on the arraignment of four men for allegedly falsifying a robbery.

At 11 p.m. Friday, Channel 2 led with a story about a deadly crash, followed by the two crime stories covered by Channel 7 at 6 p.m.

The Friday newscasts were not unique. At 5 p.m. Wednesday, Channel 7 led with the damage done to a building by a pipe bomb and how much greater it could have been if the propane tank it had been attached to had exploded. That was followed by a report on a home invasion the previous night that was thwarted by the homeowner, who shot and killed one of the three armed men.

"It's a shame that more people don't have guns to defend their own property," said a neighbor.

The home invasion story was followed by a report on the threat at the U.S. Agriculture Department, the latest on Saddam Hussein and on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

At 10 p.m. Wednesday, Channel 4's news on WNLO and Channel 2's news on the local PAX station were dueling over which could cover more crime. It was a standoff. The pipe bomb and home invasion stories were augmented by a fresher story about the arraignment of teens in East Aurora who were arrested on Halloween.

At 11 p.m. Wednesday, Channel 2 led with the pipe bomb story, then headed to that noted foreign affairs expert, Victoria Hong, to advance the Saddam Hussein story. After her report, Hong delivered the results of a 2 On Your Side Poll that asked viewers whether Iraq will fully cooperate with weapons inspectors and whether the United States should take military action if they don't.

According to the poll, 79 percent of Western New Yorkers doubted that Iraq will comply with weapons inspectors and 70 percent said the United States should take military action. Quick, get the results to President Bush.

After Hong's report, we learned that the United States still hadn't confirmed whether two people killed in Yemen were part of the alleged Lackawanna sleeper cell. That was followed by a report on the East Aurora teen arraignments and a story on the home invasion. The first eight minutes of the newscast all were related to crime, which undoubtedly make viewers long for a soft, warmhearted feature.

And what was the feature this night? "Law & Order." Claudine Ewing interviewed her old Buffalo high school classmate, Jesse L. Martin, on the set of the popular NBC series. They poured over yearbooks and reminisced. Very sweet.

At one point, Martin talked about helping the Buffalo schools, which he said greatly influenced his acting career. But with all the crime being reported by the local TV stations, who can blame the fictional detective if he is too scared to come home?

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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