same period, the total amount of network news programming remained stagnant at less than twelve hours per week. In terms of the volume and availability of news programming, local news dominates the broadcast day.
When the local news turns to serious subjects, the focus is invariably on crime or other threats to public safety. This comparative advantage in programming actually means that local news fares well when it competes head- to-head with national news. One study examined twenty-two media markets; for eighteen of them, the local programs attracted more viewers by an average margin of four gross ratings points (see Hess, 1991). Of course, when the comparison is made between the total number of viewers who watch local news on any given day and the number who tune in to network news, the results are even more one-sided. The daily audience for local news in Los Angeles and New York exceeds the audience for network news by a margin of 3:1. Even when we ignore the huge differences between national and local news in the length and availability of programming and focus on the average audience for a thirty minute local newscast, local news enjoys the statistical edge. That is, on any given day, the average number of people watching a thirty minute local newscast is greater than the average audience for the three national newscasts. In short, no matter how one measures broadcast audiences, local news is the undisputed leader (for a more detailed analysis of these data, see Gilliam and Iyengar, forthcoming).
The dominance of local news has important consequences for the viewing audience and American society at large. Local news is defined by a distinctive perspective on public issues and events, that is, by its emphasis on (and frequent exaggeration of) drama, conflict, and violence. Every effort is made to appeal to the public's appetite for "blood and guts." All local broadcasters are well aware that if local news is to be economically successful, it must emphasize violent crime. Simultaneously, the demand for personalized news means, more often than not, that a suspected perpetrator occupies center stage in news stories about crime. This script means that viewers' attention is directed at salient and visible attributes of criminal suspects, such as their race and ethnicity. In the course of watching the news, the audience inevitably notices that criminal suspects are non-white males.
The prominence of violent crime in local news and the tendency of crime reports to feature non-white perpetrators cry out for research into two broad classes of media effects. The first -- media agenda-setting
refers to shifts in the public’s political priorities induced by the amount of news coverage accorded
particular issues. In the case of local news, the obvious prediction is that the unrelenting attention to violent crime has boosted the centrality of crime in viewers’ political consciousness. In addition to changes in the salience of crime, the agenda-setting paradigm predicts further that viewers across the nation have become more dependent upon their crime-related beliefs and opinions when formulating more general political attitudes.
Local news coverage of crime may also be examined as a particular case of framing -- "subtle alterations in the definition or presentation of judgment or choice problems and the changes in decision outcomes resulting from these alterations" (Iyengar, 1991, p. 11). It is well known that broadcast news outlets rely on an "episodic" frame for public affairs in which political issues are depicted in terms of concrete instances. Thus, in the case of crime, the focus of the typical local news report is directed at a particular act of violence by a specific (usually non-white) perpetrator. Prior research suggests that episodic framing of issues of public order (crime and terrorism in particular) encourages viewers to advocate a more punitive approach to criminal justice (see Iyengar, 1991). The evidence also indicates that episodic framing of crime, when accompanied by racial imagery, evokes racial stereotypes and race-based reasoning about policy issues (Iyengar, 1991; Mendelberg, 1997). Based on this evidence, it can be anticipated that exposure to local news will strengthen public support for punitive approaches to crime