united states project

Where’d that story happen? On local-TV Twitter, it can be hard to tell

March 6, 2015

A smartphone video of cops shooting a homeless man to death on a Southern California Skid Row goes viral and sparks a new wave of media attention to the intersection of law enforcement, race, and violence. You might have first come across that news on Facebook, a nightly news report, or somewhere else.

So if you’re living in Columbia, SC—or used to live there, like I did—and the next day you see a Columbia TV station tweet out, “Police kill homeless man during confrontation,” you might immediately think, This happened again? In South Carolina this time? But click through to the story on the station’s site, and you’ll see the Los Angeles dateline. The location of the shooting could have fit in the tweet, but you fell for it, sucker. It might as well have been a YouTube video of an old Rick Astley song.

I don’t know if local news outlets tweeting links to faraway stories without saying where the news event happened is a new thing. I do feel like I’ve been noticing it more, especially from local TV stations.

Here’s one on Wednesday from WKRC, the CBS station in Cincinnati:

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If I lived in Ohio or northern Kentucky, I’d want to know which city and church that is right now. Click the link and you’ll find it’s an Associated Press story from Lisbon, ND.

Here’s a recent Tweet from KDVR, the Fox affiliate in Denver–an intriguing photo and hapless-criminal headline that makes you want to read about someone who might live in your own community:

The rather unhappy-looking man in the mugshot? He’s from Lemon Township, OH, and was arrested by the county sheriff there. That information could have been in the tweet.

Another recent example from a Los Angeles TV station:

OK, so the snow on the ground is a clue this did not happen at the Wally World on Crenshaw Boulevard, but still. The incident took place in Wisconsin.

Here’s another one, this time from Albany, NY, the area where I grew up:

I still know plenty of people in Albany, and more than a few might be online daters. But the story, an Associated Press wire report, is from New Haven, CT. That could have fit in the tweet.

The other night I asked my own Twitter followers if they thought these kinds of tweets might be calculated gimmicks for clicks. “I would assume so. Drives me crazy,” replied one local news reporter. The short answer is “Yes. The longer answer: Yes, it is,” replied another.

Calls to a couple of the stations didn’t yield much additional insight. At WKRC in Cincinnati, an employee told me staffers work in shifts running the Twitter account and practices vary; she wasn’t sure if there is a standard policy for the station. The digital director there didn’t return my calls by press time. An employee at WRGB in Albany declined to discuss the topic.

There are some caveats and considerations to acknowledge here. For one thing, being a bit vague on social seems to work—or at least the practice is hardly unique to local news outlets. (Being vague in headlines may work, too–in several of the instances above, the Twitter message is the same as the headline.) For another, though it irritates me and at least some other journalists when local outlets—where, you’d think, there’s a presumption of local news—take this approach, plenty of ordinary readers and viewers might not much care. The LA station’s tweet about that Wisconsin handicapped-parking-spot dispute drew 27 retweets and no complaints on Twitter (and the station’s story was shared more than 2,000 times on Facebook). To take a more cynical, only slightly hypothetical example: A mugshot of someone with wigged-out hair, busted teeth, and creepy tattoos on her face is going to titillate plenty of people, whether it comes from their local police station or the NYPD.

And of course the bigger backdrop is that many smaller local outlets, especially TV stations, don’t produce enough original local reporting to keep a steady stream of content on their websites and social feeds. So to keep things fresh, and maybe capture a little of whatever’s viral at the moment, they rely on AP copy, straight-up aggregation, or content-sharing with out-of-market sister stations (and given the trend toward TV consolidation, there are a lot more sister stations these days).

That’s the state of media today—I get it. But if we’re going to go that route, can we at least dispense with the misleading clickbait?

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.