Anatomy Of Local Television - From An Insider
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|A local TV newsman of 10 years writes a scathing editorial on the current state of the local TV news industry and how it works (or why it doesn't work). Ever wonder what goes on at your local news station? Here's a glimpse..
Local Television News has become less important to Americans--in part because we're catching on to their scam. More and more of us are realizing how little journalism local news gives us because they'd rather reap profits than provide public service. Station promotion departments spend more than a few dollars to lead you to quite the opposite impression. Even so, newscasts are rarely news anymore--they're mostly 'info-tainment to build ratings." Below are the strategies they use to keep you watching. After you read them, you'll never see local news the same way again. TV people can easily be caught up in the glamor of it all. In stations all over the country, there are those who work in TV who are well meaning, dedicated professionals. They have little control over the way stations now staff and define news. The 'real journalists' working in stations aren't happy their bosses shamelessly maximize ratings and profits. They do the best they can under the circumstances. A great number eventually leave after a few years--disillusioned over the pressure, superficiality, and nomadic lifestyle. Greg found TV work exciting, even intoxicating and occasionally personally rewarding. But not at all what it once was and not the way it should be.
Anchors are Performers ...not journalists
Local stations spend a great deal of their promotional effort to convince you that their anchors are super news people. They're just like you--friendly, trusted, and attractive, and also great journalists.
In fact, most anchors are journalists-turned-actors who are highly paid for their poised images and their studio delivery. More than a few are not so poised off-camera and few anchors go out on stories or make phone calls to gather news. Those tasks are designated to much more junior people--many of whom, themselves, aspire to sit in the anchor chair someday. Photo: Kate O'Beirne is a panelist on CNN's The Capital Gang. Each week she discusses the important issues of the day with Robert Novak, Mark Shields, Al Hunt and Margaret Carlson. O'Beirne also serves as a political analyst on Inside Politics. She is the Washington editor of National Review, writing primarily about Congress, politics and domestic policy.
Full time performers - part time reporters
Most anchors only treks away from the studio are for pet image projects, celebrity guest appearances at dinners or other special events where stations wish to extend their presence. What few stories anchors do cover are specifically to demonstrate that they can do news and you'll see as much video of them in the stories as you will the interview subjects. In some ways, that's too bad because some anchors are highly qualified journalists--they've paid their dues and reported earlier in their careers. Others have not. They landed studio jobs too early in their careers to have learned the lessons of newsgathering and writing. The more experienced anchors provide input at afternoon editorial meetings where the decisions are made as to what stories should be covered. This depends completely on their capabilities and the News Director's view of them. In some stations, anchors are "included" in decisions to feed their fragile egos. But in other stations, anchors are more experienced than the rest of the staff and so their input is badly needed. It is difficult for the viewer to determine which anchors are 'readers' and which are 'journalists' because they are all promoted as journalists.
Usually, only TV insiders know the truth. Often anchors will re-write some national wire copy for the evening broadcasts but otherwise, they are not pushed because they need to be fresh for their main job--to front for the news organization. An hour before airtime, they put on their makeup and go over the copy others have written for them. Morning and noon-show anchors, being more junior and aspiring for better newscasts, are assigned to contribute much more. They make editorial decisions and write much of the copy for the early newscasts. They hope for openings on the weekend shows and eventually a shot at evenings. They send out tapes of their best newscasts to TV stations in other cities, hoping for a move up. Polished, cordial, and believable
As performers, anchors have generous clothing allowances, guidance in hair care, and applying the makeup required to make them look professional, human, and unruffled under the glaring studio lights. Consultants coach them to polish their news deliveries and the friendly chit-chat with their co-anchors. Anchors develop skills to use their intonation, facial expressions and body language in a variety of ways to communicate many things. They can read an important story one way, a tragic story another, and transition quickly to a lighter delivery--all to portray the mood of the moment. Their turns from one camera to another are well-practiced. They learn to deliberately hold their hands in a natural way. With poise, they can glance to their co-anchor to show concern or humor--in all cases they must be believable, likable and convincing that they are close friends with their fellow pals on the set. Every detail is important. Anchors review the nightly tapes of their performances, studying the smallest details from the opening wideshot to their the good-natured smile following the last feature story of the broadcast. For some anchors, this is not difficult because they are pretty much what you see--they are terrific, respectable, bright people who have reached the pinnacle of their careers and who stand out above all others. Other anchors will just look the part--but they read the news better than they actually understand it. In any case, anchor teams are to be convincing when the studio cameras' red lights are lit. Their tasks are be show hosts for the newscasts--to deliver the news and extend their persona images to the viewers.
Anchors reflect a station's image
When they're not in front of the news studio cameras, they're reading magazines, wandering around the station, or before the promotion department's camera. It is promotion's task to portray the anchors as mature, believable journalists, active newsroom decision-makers, and also friendly hail-fellows-well-met elsewhere. News promos will feature them at community-fundraisers, pretending to wisely guide their newsroom colleagues, bantering with co-anchors around a holiday tree, or being busy practicing journalists at high profile news events like political conventions and city-wide celebrations. The anchors' roles are to assure they are the personification of the station's image, to assure the newscasts go well despite occasional technical nightmares, to deliver the news product with authority, and make the viewers feel they are familiar friends welcome each night in their living rooms. Their last act is to leave viewers with the impression that no matter how many bad things were reported, all will be well with the world overnight so they can sleep well. For this, they earn six figure salaries and pray their ratings will hold until they become icons in their community.
Who are the other people who bring you the news?
Other than anchors, local stations do not generally pay most of their people well. Hence, most reporters and the producers who write the newscasts are young and they don't stay long. Their background knowledge is slight in the many facets of society about which they will report. Their experience is in producing television stories--not understanding history, law, economics, business, education, medicine and the other disciplines which make up your community. The result is that neophytes will write simplistic copy--telling you pretty much all they know about their stories. To people familiar with the industries being covered, copywriters will commit minor but obvious errors and their word-choices will lack the perspective of someone more familiar with the subject matter. People NOT familiar with those industries won't know the difference and will accept what they're told at face value.
Reporters go out each day spending most of that time--not digging--but actually producing the video they have been assigned to bring back by the in-house decision-makers. Many reporters would love to do serious news if they were only given the time. Reporters are mostly hired based on videotapes of some of their best stories from their previous job. They are hired primarily for the polish of their on-camera presentations, and to a lessor degree, their writing ability, work ethic, and general common sense. Few reporters today are hired with an academic background or industry experience--other than broadcast journalism. Most of them move from city to city every two or three years as they move up in their careers to larger markets and better pay. So the experience they finally gain in learning a community is often lost because of this movement.
The differences between seasoned long-time local reporters who know their community and the parade of transitory light-weights are obvious if you can visit with them in person. Unfortunately, most viewers only see their carefully-crafted, written stories. Some of those cub reporters are so journalistically weak, the managing editor will give them interview questions to ask and later rewrite their copy when they return to the station. Often, news photographers who tend to stay in the same city for years, will know more than these average reporters do. The lightweight reporters are sometimes paired up with seasoned photographers who can gently guide them without insulting their egos. To keep some experience on the staff, stations will generally try to keep one or two seasoned reporters from being stolen away. Those get the high visibility stories each day so long as they aren't already committed to other ones. The lightweights, the barbie-and-ken look-alikes, will be kept on staff so long as they stay to cover the easier, quick and dirty stories to fill the rest of the newscasts.
Revenue is the heart of a television station. GM's with a news background tend to back their news teams better with more staff and higher standards. Those with sales background insist on only enough journalistic excellence to score high enough ratings to garner a high advertising rate card. Promotion Directors are are the periphery of decision-making. Their task is to sell the station's news department to the viewers by creating effective and inciting little commercials to run throughout the day promoting big stories scheduled for that night. They also create 'image' commercials to build trust and credibility in the news operation as a whole. They schedule ads in the TV guides and rent billboards plastering the faces of the anchors before drivers to make them more familiar. Local versus absentee ownership. It is this author's view that news is most often of the best quality when stations are locally owned or owned by networks which already have a deep news commitment. More frequently, however, stations are now owned by out-of-state investors who have little commitment to the communities where the properties are located. Many don't even care if they are in third place at newstime. They tend to be mostly interested in maximizing profits and minimizing expenses. News staff is "expense". News Excellence is professional pride and commitment not measured in profit. It is a hard sell to get a GM to add news staff for the purpose of gaining journalistic excellence for it's own sake. Stations which actually have it should be congratulated, and watched!
Stations don't cover the news...they're only filling time between commercials
The ratings consultants ram home the point to news people--and it's hard to disagree--that TV is an image medium. Viewers with remote controllers are fickle and many tend to have short attention spans. What they get is "info-tainment." Visuals are everything
If a story easily lends itself to pictures, it will get vastly bigger play over stories which are hard to illustrate. Sadly, that means stations will forgo covering important issues which aren't 'visual'. They will emphasize 'visual' stories even if they aren't important at all. That's why TV news shows are filled with bloody crime, fires and accidents, suspects being paraded down sidewalks by cooperative prosecutors, teary-eyed victims, cute kids and animals, and small street protests photographed so they look bigger than they are. The pictures will carry the story. In fact, TV people will write the stories to the video they have and omit important details for which they don't. TV station staffs are geared to gather pictures and handle the technical aspects of delivering them. There isn't enough money budgeted to hire the reporters needed to actually go out and find news so stations have redefined news to cover what they can--just enough to fill the newscast. Newspapers assign people to cover 'beats'--to become expert in specialty areas of the community, like politics, medicine, human affairs, business, education, environment, etc. If a newspaper reporter needs three days to interview enough people to put together a complete and balanced story, there are enough reporters ready with other stories to fill pages. The print-media beat reporter can thoroughly research his leads. TV reporters must air the story the same day it's assigned because management doesn't plan or staff beyond that day's newscasts. It is also a bit easier for the print reporter who can work the phones more to gather facts. TV reporters have to take the time to get the video--which is time consuming.
TV reporters go after the quick and dirty. Since most stations only have a few reporters, each must turn a story every single night--almost always assigned at mid-morning. So they tend only to go after sure things--events, crimes, and other stories where the interviews and visuals can be set up in an hour, gathered by lunchtime, copywritten by early afternoon, and edited with video by 5 p.m.
It should not be hard to understand with that sort of time constraint, TV reporters cannot thoroughly research a story they can only devote two or three hours to gather. Their day is mostly spent on the gathering of pictures, not the facts. If you were to look at a TV script, you'd see few hard facts because much of the copy is devoted to enticing viewer interest and introducing the visuals. Reporters must introduce the interviews, let the sound-bites run, and finish up with the hastily scripted reporter-with-microphone standup summary. All this in 90 seconds. That impossibly short time makes most TV news pieces about as comprehensive as an article in "My Weekly Reader" for third-graders. In fact, you'd rarely see a word not found in a grade school reader. There's no time for complexity.
The news day begins with the 9am Editorial Meeting. The assignment editor goes over the overnight crime with the reporters and show producers. Armed with a stack of papers from the daily file, the AE presents the scraps of paper of planned local events, phoned-in news-tips, and a big stack of PR releases from companies and groups wanting free publicity. Maybe there's an ongoing murder trial worth 30-seconds every night for a couple weeks. Around the table, everyone's read the morning paper and reporters present will pitch story ideas hoping to get an assignment they want, rather than be stuck with one they don't. When the News Director nods his approval, the 5 and 6pm show producers swap stories and pencil in the sure-bets. They'll block time for follow-ups to stories they want to milk another day or two because those can be updated with file-video, a phone call, and the news tritism, "Police continue to investigate...." Stolen stories from the newspaper. The editorial team will assign reporters to stories which the newspaper broke--stories too big to ignore. Reporters will think of ways to get a "second-day lead"--a follow-up of a few tidbits which were not in the morning paper. Stories stolen from the newspaper's beat reporters must be made to look fresh. The TV station must dig up a piece for itself. Other than that which comes in on the police monitors and news-tips, it is from the newspaper where most big stories come. The hardest part of news gathering is finding out what's going on and who to contact. Again, there simply aren't enough reporters on a TV staff to be out digging for news. Only the local paper has the resources to do that and so the paper hands it to them every morning. The wire services send rewrites to them before noon in watered-down broadcast style and so then, TV stations get the right to run the newspaper stories without having to commit the resources to discover them in the first place...
Filling time between commercials
If story ideas are sparse that day, producers will offer up localized stories covered on the networks or in other cities. Some stations subscribe to tip sheets which arrive weekly outlining story ideas used successfully at other stations around the country. And the networks offer closed-circuit daily satellite feeds of other stories broadcast elsewhere across the country. The point of the editorial meeting is to go over what's known, what's easy, what's interesting, and brainstorm about what stories they have staff to cover to fill the newscast. The show producers need a good mix--some hard-sounding news, some human interest and fluff--and some sensational stories they can promote through the day to entice viewers to tune in. After the show is penciled in, the reporters head to their desks.
They quickly make calls to set up their assigned stories, pleading with "spokesmen" to squeeze them in for a half-hour before noon to do a short-notice interview. Easy hand-out news. Photographers are sent out solo to shoot some quick visuals to illustrate the best of the PR releases--called "hand-out news." The young producer needs a certain story-count to make the show look comprehensive --even though the news-hole (the half hour--minus the weather, sports, commercials, and happytalk) is only nine to twelve nine minutes. The weakest of these hand-out stories will be dropped at the last minute if bigger news breaks--much to the disappointment of the PR hacks who mailed in the press releases on behalf of their companies and organizations. Stations in smaller cities rely more on handout news than larger ones--they can afford even less staff to cover real news and besides that, smaller cities just don't have enough crime and violence on a daily basis. So stations will fill their newscasts when they have to, with whatever anybody offers them. Photographers will shoot a usable 30 seconds of an event and bring back a PR department's fact sheet. The producers will use the handout press releases to write narrative "voice over" copy for the filler stories. Mandatory live shot. All that remains to flush out the show rundown is a story which is suitable for a live-shot to bring some excitement and drama to the show. Live shots eat airtime inexpensively and highlight the reporter staff. Liveshots build drama and reinforce that the station has the ability to bring you up-to-the-minute news, whether there is any right now, or not.. She will think of something in the hours ahead while the rest of the staff is out bringing in the stories the group has sent them to get. With luck, there might a 'breaking story' at newstime--that reinforces the viewer impression they're getting the freshest news. With many stations, there'll be a live shot even if there isn't a breaking story.
You'll know you're being duped if you see your favorite station use it's live truck capability at a location where nothing is currently happening. Here are some examples: putting a reporter live in front of a burned out building where the firemen have already left, having a reporter stand in front of a house where a crime occurred many hours before, standing in front of a building where an event will occur tomorrow and preparations are not currently underway. In these cases, you're getting a live shot for it's own sake, and not for any journalistic purpose other than theatrics. Know that whatever it is you're getting, it's not news. If you ask most reporters and photographers about this, they'll tell you they'd rather skip the live shot theatrics and use those precious extra seconds needed for a live shot on a more carefully written, and detailed recorded package. Here's a perfect example how imagery takes precedence over substance in television.
Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Ethical issues in TV journalism
It's not easy making a half researched daily story look like a comprehensive report but TV reporters learn to do it. The limited airtime is on their side. They have so little time allotted during the broadcast so that by the time they write the soft anchor introduction, a paragraph setting the scene, run the short sound bites and the reporter standup, time's up.
"Our reporter David Jones has been on this important health story all day...here's his in-depth report about how it affects you...." (In television, anything longer than a minute-thirty is "in-depth.")
Virtually all stations run an obligatory health story each night. It's a consultant's truism that viewers care about their health and will be interested in virtually any health story. So all stations have a 'health reporter' whose time must be filled each night--whether or not there's something suitable to put there. The easiest way to fill this time is to find one eager doctor who brings along one patient and there you have the Health Beat disease of the day. When they interview their one doctor, they slyly write the copy to read, "doctors (plural) say...." That is not sloppy writing. It's deceptive--a practice you would not expect a news operation to tolerate, but they do. Instead of gathering statistics about outcomes (which can't be researched in a day), they focus on the one patient and ask the doctor to speak for all of his colleagues. The formula copy reads like, "This is little Billy Jones...he has (insert the obscure disease of the day) and doctors are trying a new procedure to help him." Then comes the video of boy being treated in the doctor's office, a quick sound bite of the doctor about his new procedure, followed by Billy''s mother telling how better he's doing. The health reporter finishes her formula story with a hopeful summary of how optimistic "doctors" are for others like little Billy. Pitching back to the studio desk, the anchors read a ten second transitional phrase while they smile and nod the hope and concern for others like Billy, and then pitch to commercial break which starts with tonight's winning lottery numbers.
What might be more useful to viewers would not be these easy little ads for the health industry but some comparative stories on fees and drug costs, HMO practices, defensive medicine, excessive testing, availability of care based on insurance coverage, nursing home conditions, and long emergency room waits. These are major issues in America but the local providers may not be quite so inclined to hand the reporter that kind of fare in PR releases. The fact is, health reporters have few unofficial medical sources in their Rolodexes. Like so many reporters, they only work with PR directors whose jobs it is to get their institutions positive, free press--and steer reporters away from controversy. It's not easy turning a health story every day so reporters assigned to that task need help from the providers. And they take it.
Most reporters are not experts
Field reporters who cover health, city hall, and crime are the only ones who have more than a cursory understanding of their beats. Education, industry, utilities, environment, and business are not well covered--especially in the suburbs--because general assignment reporters don't set foot in those places except when escorted by PR people for a feature story or by emergency services during a crisis. Reporters have little background and few unofficial sources to cover these important segments of our society. There'll be very few stories on school lunches, test scores, dropouts, industry price fixing, wage rates, credit card come-ons, or hundreds of other stories requiring some real research. Reporters will cover the city hall political doings of the core city in their market but will not bore viewers with suburban issues unless controversies are first discovered by the newspaper which has the staff to keep tabs on them.
There's just no time to get all the facts
Moreover, since most TV stories are prepared in half a day, reporters just write around missing elements they can't confirm; they do this by further generalizing their copy so they won't be wrong. An incomplete story, it would seem, is not as faulty as a story with factual errors. So, they just get rid of the facts they can't verify. TV does not hold stories until they're ready. They must run in any case--like undercooked fast food.
Get fuzzy on the time if it's not on your side
"When" has traditionally been one of the Five W's (who, what, where, when and why.) TV people predictably big deal the "when" if it just happened. But if didn't happen within the hour, they go fuzzy on that important element, or else they'll just mislead you so you won't think you're getting 'old news.' Tonight, tonight, tonight. The rule for 10pm is to make stories sound refreshed for ten. If an accident happened at 4pm, many stations will simply fabricate "Police investigators tonight are trying to find out why a young girl was run down." They don't check to see if the traffic investigators went home at 5pm like most people do. They just stick 'tonight' in there--in almost every story. The word "yesterday" doesn't exist in TV journalism. Producers simply remove the time reference altogether so stories won't sound old. You might actually hear a producer write, "A 40 year old man is dead tonight after an early morning murder...." The entire reason why some stations go to such lengths is to give you the impression you're getting something different than you saw at six--so you'll watch both newscasts. Note that newspapers don't play those kinds of games with the facts.
Conflict draws interest... make some, if there isn't any
But, but, but. In an interview setting, TV people will always search for two people with differing views whom they can juxtapose--point and counter-point. Facts just aren't enough anymore. So look for disagreement because everybody loves to watch an argument. Now if you get two differing views, just run them both. It's far too much trouble to go research who's telling the truth so they'll just run both sound bites and leave it at that. Their response to this laziness is, "let the viewer decide" (based on their 90 second treatment of the issue.). For some reason, TV people like the word 'but.' They should donate a dollar to charity every time they use it to create controversy when there isn't any in a story. If there are no conflicting interviews, producers will make up conflict using the "but" word with some syntax like, "Most people think (their streets are safe)...but (we found some crime to show you) that's not true...."
Every once in a while, TV reporters get a tip that turns out to be news that the paper hasn't discovered yet. TV people will lead with anything they actually enterprise because they are very proud of themselves on these occasions. They get all excited and remind you " As we first told you in our EXCLUSIVE story at six..." It may seem pathetic, or cute like a child finding a dollar, but if the originated story really is important (and not just exclusive), it will make the paper. If it's not important, it won't. In either case, the other TV stations will do everything they can to ignore the competitor's "exclusive." TV stations have no problem stealing from the newspaper, but they have too much pride to "react" to a broadcast competitor. The best way to tell if a story you see is more hype than important, see what the newspaper and the other stations do. A truly important story will not be ignored by other media outlets. The world is their stage--and pushy is their rule
TV reporters think the media industry is like a utility--they have some appointed right by society to go where they want and people should talk to them about their troubles for the nightly news. Applicable or not, it's the 'public has a right to know." Again, when reporters get sent out on a story, they have to come back with one. That's why they don't take "no" for an answer.
There was a recent case in Kansas City where an elderly man was accused of being a Nazi prison camp guard. When the wire story broke that he'd been accused and might be deported, TV reporters showed up in front of his house. Understandably, he refused to talk to them. It was to federal officials he would have to plead his innocence, if he was. The reporters, cameramen, and circus wagon news cars camped out on public property outside his house, creating quite a spectacle in his quiet neighborhood, . Since he wouldn't talk, they set about interviewing his neighbors to find out what kind of person he was. (Reporters don't see anything wrong with a public trial, free of confusing elements of due process and defense.) Very mistaken in judgment, this agitated elderly man brandished a gun and fired it into the air--trying to get them to go away. Indignant, they called police on the angry old guy--a man they agitated in the first place by deciding he had no privacy before his hearing. He tried to get police to go away too. Of course, police never run from a fight so, predictably, he got shot right there with the cameras rolling. That night, all the stations ran the video of the crazed Nazi getting shot by police. For good measure, they ran file video of concentration camps and interviews with local Holocaust victims who recapped history but admitted they'd never seen the guy before. He was critically and irreversibly wounded. On a local PBS discussion roundtable of reporters a week later, the reporters present were quick to exonerate themselves and glossed over the real issue of their own involvement in how the events unfolded.
File video, an ethical case of bait and switch
TV reporters know well that companies simply don't cooperate when they know they're the subject of an adverse story. That's one reason why stations keep an archive library of file video shot for other stories. The scenario is this: go to a company or hospital, or other place to do a positive story. Knowing that story is a positive one, the company openly gives access. The news crew shoots lots of video for the positive story and saves it. Then later, if an adverse story comes up, they already have some video on file of that company's operations to illustrate it. There's not much the targeted organization can do about that. They let the camera in the first time and they have no control over how that video is used later. This reporter admits freely using this technique. It's a common practice. Where the ethical problem comes in, is when the file video shows identifiable shots of individuals.
Put yourself in the position. You're a factory worker. The news crew comes in and shoots a positive story about the manufacturing process. You may not have much choice with the corporate PR director standing there, but you let the news crew film you building whatever it is you build. You're even happy and you tell your friends that you'll be on TV that night, doing what you do. But suppose six months later, the news station does a story on shoddy manufacturing, or employer discrimination, or even trends in workplace violence. And they replay your image, some six months later. You don't do shoddy manufacturing but your friends identify you in that story. What recourse do you have and can you afford to pursue it? Suppose a reporter is doing a story on smoking or obesity. Is it ethically permissible to go downtown and shoot wide shots on a public street of the general public smoking? Or showing heavy set people walking down the street? The station will illustrate the story. Will they capture your image to illustrate a story without your permission--even if they don't show your face? Ethically, should they do that?
This reporter discovered the problem the hard way. Having reported on education over the years, this reporter had access to high school students and shot video on a wide variety of school stories. Much later, another reporter had been assigned to do a story on teenage sex education. He got his interviews, and rather than shooting fresh B-roll (illustrative video for the rest of the copy), he rummaged thru the station's file video and found some general classroom shots used earlier for an unrelated story. Some of the video he used for his sex education story were closeups of girls in class--an unrelated class. One of the girls' parents was not pleased her daughter's image was used for a later story on sex education. That is completely understandable. From then on, this reporter was very possessive of his file video. But the damage was done and could not be undone. The station profusely apologized to the parent and officials held their breaths that no lawyers would be calling. These are ethical issues in TV journalism. The best way to solve this issue is to avoid using file video; shoot today's story today. Some stations do this and some do not. At the very least, stations which do use file video should always put up a super reading "file video" when they use it.
Tasteless competition and questions of ethics. Years ago, this reporter was ordered to stake out the home of a Marine wife back when the Marine barracks in Beirut had been bombed. The story, which would certainly have turned out suitable for feeding the networks, was to get the video of the officer arriving to tell her the bad news. Luckily, the Marine officer didn't come and that young wife's husband eventually came home instead. Not long later, this reporter was admonished for not being hard enough on a local utility for building a needed nuclear power plant, which at that time was controversial. After a few more incidents like these, this idealistic reporter began to question the ethics of what he did for a living.
Are we observers or participants in events?
It is this former reporter's view that the media in general, and television in particular, needs to take into serious account their own role in how events unfold because of their presence. As any political watcher knows, the media is not a bystander in local and national issues. The media, by its power of influence over public opinion, is a player in events and issues. TV crews are not invisible observers. Policy makers and citizens alike take positions and actions because of the media. This fact is an uncomfortable one for reporters and their managers. Unfortunately, the media tends not to acknowledge, much less report, its own involvement and that is a serious journalistic omission in their daily coverage. The public interest versus doing no harm
The media only occasionally shows restraint with obvious scenarios like terrorism and hostage taking. They tend not to do that with other incidents, such as those described above. There's a tendency to be single-minded about the notion that the public has a right to know everything. Suffering from that notion sometimes is good taste, rights of individuals to due process, and the respect for privacy --especially the privacy of ordinary people. Too often, the media seems willing to sacrifice individuals for this greater good of the 'public's right to know'. Sometimes the media disguises it's motivation to just get a good story with the excuse it's acting in the public's right. That might be defendable, but it's not always honest.
Seasoned politicians know when they're being tricked and trapped and they are usually able to escape unfair questions. However, most ordinary citizens, especially youngsters in a situation like Columbine, have no idea what the ramifications to them personally will be when they openly answer reporter questions to be edited and widely broadcast. Reporters have been known to take advantage of that naivete. Perhaps ordinary citizens drawn into the public limelight should be treated as 'non combatants'--and handled more delicately. Perhaps TV reporters should read them a form of the "Miranda Warning", telling the uninitiated that they talk at their own personal risk--that they may be shunned by friends or even fired by their bosses if they misspeak before a video camera. When those things happen, the media is not an objective observer, but a participant affecting outcomes.
Reporters and video editors have total control when they sit down at their keyboards. Most often supervisors do not preview stories before broadcast. In fact, more often than not, the stories are finished just moments before broadcast time. This former reporter urges them to consider the ethical aspects of 'doing no harm to the innocent' as they hastily write or photo-edit their stories. Presumably many do this...but some don't and the effect is about the same as dropping bombs on a city from thirty thousand feet. They just don't think of the hurt a good story might cause.
There has to be a time when the reporter will say "This is a great soundbite...sensational as hell. But this kid who innocently gave it to me is going to suffer big time if I put it in my story...so I won't."
Hiding behind the "public right to know", or "we didn't have time to edit" are not excuses for failing to consider the ethical issue of doing no harm.
Stations don't bite the hand that feeds them
Conflicts of interest in television
TV stations get lots of tips from people who have an axe to grind. Stations seek tips since they don't have enough reporters like newspapers do to patrol the community for news. Some news tips are valid, and some aren't. If you're in government, or a private citizen, or a small business, you're fair game for TV criticism from tips or any other source. The only people TV stations don't go after are their own advertisers and sources. Virtually never will a station even run an adverse story on an advertiser. However, if it's too big for them to ignore, the story will short and sweet and they'll not assign a reporter to seek out an ambush interview.
Consumer News - we're looking out for you (and us too!)
Consumer News only goes after small business or government. Many stations have popular "Action News" teams--well publicized "we're on your side" features regularly scheduled and promoted on newscasts. Making this a staple of the newscast is another consultant 'truth'. These Consumer News operations are designed to to build community good will--to make viewers think stations are looking out for them. The stations takes phone complaints from people wanting to sick the press on companies which have done them wrong. The stations staff, or volunteer groups which man the Consumer Lines, then write ombudsman letters on the caller's behalf to the businesses. Even if a company is falsely accused of bad business practice, they'll often settle with the consumer because the TV station's letterhead is very intimidating. The "Consumer Reporter" assigned to this team will take one of the more interesting cases each week and make a news story out of it for broadcast. Frequently he'll interview the very-willing "victim" at length and then visit the place of business to ambush the business owner to confront him with the accusation. What they never tell you is that the reporter won't broadcast a story against one of the station's advertisers. They're quick to go after small repair shops and government--because those don't groups advertise. Yet the largest number of consumer complaints are leveled against new car dealers. While the ombudsman letters will still go out to them, those complaints don't hit the air because car dealers advertise a great deal on TV. Other industries rarely getting news scrutiny include grocery and clothing chains, shopping malls and their large retail outlets, banks, insurance and health care providers, soft drink and fast food companies, and even utilities.
Pressure from advertisers to kill adverse stories
It should be understandable that business spends a great deal of money advertising for sales and positive images on TV stations--and they wouldn't be happy if that same station were to use news minutes to discredit all that expensive effort with a high-visibility negative story. When an over-zealous reporter uncovers a story affecting an advertiser, the advertiser finds out during the course of the story production, and places a pressuring phone call on the station's Advertising Sales Manager. That displeasure works its way to the News Director and before long, the story is minimized or dropped altogether. It's simply declared "non-news" or unsubstantiated, and killed.
Two incidents in the midwest years ago illustrate what happens when stations violate the unspoken rule. In one case, an aggressive reporter put together a story revealing kickbacks car dealers got from local banks for sending new car loans their direction. The fully completed investigative story was killed after the station's lobby was filled with car dealers threatening to pull their advertising. The other case did hit the air. A station news crew went along with health officials to inspect restaurant kitchens. They got plenty of close ups of bugs, dirty floors, and unsanitary conditions. That series prompted a city wide restaurant rating system and won a great deal of favor with viewers. The news reporter landed a better job shortly thereafter with a Dallas station's investigative team. But the story cost the TV station. The local restaurant association boycotted the station's advertising department for more than ten years. Most stations are not willing to pay such a cost.
TV News goes easy on police, firemen, and sports teams
Because fire and crime fill so many minutes of nightly airtime, news teams will rarely go after public service agencies. They have too much to lose by airing accusations against police because when stations get on their bad side, detective sources dry up. Desk sergeants know this and while they may find TV news people's hourly check calls irritating and bothersome, they divvy out tips only to familiar, sympathetic-sounding assignment editors. Savvy assignment editors can sound very pro-law enforcement when they're on the phone to a desk sergeant-- almost like a colleague. They do it to get good tips and it works. The relationship between police and TV reporters is largely one way--the reporters simply need law enforcement's favor and cooperation every single day. Police reveal titillating details of crimes on a daily basis and they parade hapless suspects down sidewalks for court appearances--always giving the TV crews an hour's notice to get their cameras in position. In return, TV people rarely question the official story--even after a suspect goes to the hospital before he goes to jail (another place reporters rarely inspect.) When stations do air rare stories on radar traps or brutality, they quickly discover they're paying the price when phone calls to police are not returned, crime details are no longer volunteered, and crime scene access is denied. Competing stations get all the sensational tidbits and insider information needed to go with their nightly crime stories. The offending station gets nothing it doesn't hear on the police monitors. Similarly, a TV station will never air a report about how firemen let a building fire rekindle, causing a big loss. The last thing reporters want is a war with the cops or the fire department--because the station will lose stories. Sports people learn the same thing. If they're too harsh on a local professional team or some player beating up his girlfriend, all the athletes are suddenly unavailable for daily interviews. So aside from speculation on who will start on the next game, sports "journalists" resort to home-team boosterism--which helps promote their game broadcasts as well as pave the way for winning the local contract to carry games next season.
The point of this is to illustrate that the temptation is very great for local stations to get a bit too chummy with some of the institutions they need to fill their newscasts--ones they should also be watch dogging on our behalf.
Popular stories but too costly. These expos?s of business rip-off and official corruption would be popular with many viewers, if not their sources and advertisers. Stations work very hard to convince viewers they are dedicated to ferreting out wrong-doing in the public interest but stations tend to support the establishment by what they cover and don't cover. The stations face a dilemma to keep their news departments journalistically independent but sometimes the cost is too great. So these unholy alliances are best not discussed out loud. They're just understood as a cost of doing business in a competitive marketplace. One must always keep in mind that TV stations are businesses, the financial stakes are high, and stations need help to fill their daily newscasts as inexpensively as possible. How to tell when a station has sold out to its own interest
You'll be able to notice when a station practices this unofficial alliance when their on-air efforts seem to be less than objective and more as a medium to 'help' and positively portray officialdom. Should you see stories which you sense are not news but basically free ads for government or industry, then you can rightfully suspect the news department has sold out its detached objectivity for it's own self interest. If your particular police department is known for being a biter, heavy handed, and your favorite station doesn't cover that issue from time to time, perhaps, it's time to consider switching the channel. If all the stations avoid these kinds of stories, then, sadly, you're in what's called a 'weak news market.' This is too bad, for most elements in society need a bit of television light shined on them once in awhile--as a sort of disinfectant. The media needs a bit of light shined in their direction as well when they fail this responsibility, but you won't often see them turn the critical camera on each other--and never on themselves.
Will the Internet spell the death of local television news as we know it?
The technology is coming...very soon!
Computer technology will replace local stations as we know them...and certainly TV newscasts. This will happen as soon as computers make the next big jump in speed, and modems are replaced by the higher band width of wired cable. We have seen the evidence already, first with audio which requires less bandwidth. Next, comes video. This is a very bad time for a new, young anchor to be starting out, because they'll be the first to go. The point and click selection process of INTERACTIVE communication will eliminate the need for a news jockey--and certainly for the tiring 'teams' of too friendly, overly made up glamour clones we get on 3 affiliate stations in every market in America.
Newspapers first, and now TV stations, are experimenting with Internet delivery. Major newspapers started first...porting over their published news stories onto their new websites. Written word with photos was the first natural cross-over (given the Internet's relatively slow speed). Now many people do turn to web-based publications, often in other cities. Certainly searchable want ads have already changed how we read THAT important section of the Sunday paper...but more people are clicking on and searching for written news. Now networks and affiliate stations have begun experimenting. Networks are mostly using it for providing additional information, "for more on this issue, visit "www.ournetwork.com". When the internet speeds up, we'll see their entire video story. Most local stations are just using the web to promote their news anchors and their stations but providing very little journalistic content. You don't yet see many stories on local station websites because broadcasters don't know yet how to web publish--besides that, their copy looks terrible to the eye. The Internet isn't quite fast enough to just port over their video stories. But that will change.
One day soon, the web, not the newscast, will be the major delivery system for video news!
What You Can Do to Make TV News Better
Incredibly, TV stations don't get a lot of feedback. If you are unhappy with what you see, write thoughtful letters to the station's General Manager. Send carbon copies to competing stations as well as the local newspaper. And further, always insist that the copy be made part of the station's FCC Public File--a file stations are required to keep which can be inspected by the public and which become more prominent during the station's license renewal process every few years. Essentially, use the other media to pressure an offending station towards more responsible behavior. Don't call...write!
Most people who do complain about TV content simply call the station to voice their protest but those calls rarely go far. Busy news people will politely thank you for your remarks but rarely pass your comments on to someone who can do something about it. Station management is much more inclined to do something about a written document--especially if they know competitors have seen it. Many newspapers have local TV critics and there's no love lost between broadcast and print people who compete for both news and advertising revenue. Write your letters to the newspaper's Letters to the Editor section--the most effective protest of all. Aside from the paper's TV critic (who hopefully writes more than celebrity news) , most stations and printed press tend to ignore the powerful press as an industry to write about. One can only speculate why this is--critical articles might be seen as the pot calling the kettle black, or sour grapes, or just attempts to jab a competitor. Letters from you, though, are more likely to get printed in a feedback section of a general publication, even if reporters tend to keep hands off fellow journalists of whatever stripe. Reward good journalism by watching it
Be particular what you watch. Compare stations. Try very hard to realize you're looking for information--you're not watching to be titillated and entertained. Select stations based on their presentation of balance and content--not anchor personalities or appeal to people's more basic emotions. If you are asked to participate in a Nielsen or Arbitron survey, make your views count by watching and logging stations which serve you best. If a station's news is junk, don't watch it--especially at rating time.
Tell people what you think. Tell your friends what you think...and tell TV people who you happen to meet. Tell them what you like and don't like. Word spreads. If you happen to be a position to offer news to stations or are approached by them-- be discriminating with whom you cooperate. They cannot force you to give them interviews or news tips. It's the only way citizens have to demand excellence of a medium which exerts a great deal of power and influence on your community--and which controls access to public opinion.
Some advice to News Managers...
What follows are ten suggestions to TV people who need some advice very badly.
1. Raise your journalistic standard. Realize network news and CNN have survived without talking down to the most ignorant viewers. Just how many "wear your seat belts" and "bring the dog in when it's cold" features out of Redbook do we need? Don't be afraid to commit to longer stories challenging viewers intellectually. People sit through 60 Minutes, and so if your stories are good enough, they'll sit through yours too. Assign your reporters to more think pieces on issues. Help the community develop community standards on good parenting. Teach them about pocketbook issues, activism, reforming campaigns, caring for the elderly, getting kids off drugs and into careers, dealing with grief, divorce and job retraining. Use your terrific graphics software to illustrate trends and concepts, and devote the airtime to develop stories both before and on the air. Moreover, you can use your influence to raise our awareness, not talk down to it. It is time your lightweight staff give us stories that we haven't read already so many times elsewhere. You're so predictable. Bring your dog in when it's cold? Call a cab after drinking too much on New Years Eve? Why not just save yourselves some trouble and run last year's story? Evidently, you think your viewers are all 20 years old and live in a vacuum. Anybody who's been around even a few years would react to much of your routine fare with "duh!--I knew that already". People end up with an empty feeling so many nights and eventually they lose interest and just quit choosing to watch you! The real test is, if your 27 year old producer can write the essence of the story without any source copy, then it's not news and most of your viewers know it too. You can think better of us, can't you?
2. Hire more educated people and pay them so they'll stay. Your standard will rise when you hire reporters who are as educated as they are polished in their deliveries--reporters who are actually qualified to teach your audience about society. Realize that to raise people's awareness, substance is more important than image. It would really be refreshing to watch reporters who actually know more than viewers do. Hire more than enough reporters to fill your daily newscast--rather than barely enough. Then you can enterprise more stories and 'schedule' longer, thoughtful stories for slower news days, like high visibility Sunday, rather than just fill those shows with fluffy weekend filler. And your anchors... can't you hire both attractive and intelligent front people? Like on election night. Can't your make your anchors do their homework instead of just reading the last names off the Chyron as the results flash by? Tell them to prepare for election night, not just wing it as they're so prone to do. Make them study, and earn their generous salaries. Truly no night reveals what they're made of like election night when they can't depend on the TeleprompTer to tell them what to say.
3. Be brave enough to broadcast real news--don't pander so shamelessly to our emotions. You really can't compete with entertainment programs on cable channels so give viewers something that will stick with them. People are beginning to realize that every time there's a rating period, you drag out stories on prostitution, pornography, etc. You run the sex and violence, cute animals and cute kids while the legislatures and councils are passing some very unpopular laws which you don't tell viewers about. You love to tell us about crooked politicians we voted into office but why didn't you profile these people before the election? That is your job as the fourth estate. You're quick to observe low voter turnout, but do you analyze the number of issue stories you cover before an election or do you just run the horse race? And feature stories. Are you serious? Do you really think people would choose to sit through all that warm and fuzzy fluff if they had any choice? Do you think that's why people tune into the news? We just watched 3 hours of prime time already. We want news now. If you don't have much local news for your late show, run more national and world news. It takes a bit more effort to write and illustrate a real national and world block but it'll be some substance in a show that on a slow day wouldn't have any.
4. Put as much effort into news gathering as you do promotion. Instead of incessantly hyping us how you're in first place, how dedicated to breaking news you are, how great your anchors are, and how good is your journalism is, do some. It will be evident to intelligent viewers because you'll have better content. Twenty years ago, news wasn't as pretty, but it was better before consultants took over. Instead of taking valuable airtime to tell us what you'll show us after the next commercial break, use those seconds to tell us some news. If your stories have merit, we'll stay with you. You can tell us your News Comes First but that's not very convincing when ABC stations air Nightline after midnight because they tape delay it so they can cash in with Rosanne and MASH reruns.
5. Don't waste so much time with pretentious chit-chat between your anchors. If the weather's been the same for a week, cut the weather guy's time a little bit--don't have your weather guy turn comedian. Give us more news instead of giving us the illusion your anchor-celebrities are having a good time on the set. Do most people really really care about their warm personalities and their personal lives? They either do a good job reading the news or they don't. They either tell us things we didn't know or they don't. The network anchors are successful without all that happy talk. Are you really sure the consultants are right on this one?
5. Report facts - keep your biases to yourselves (along with the staged transitional theatrics). Quit wasting seconds telling us what we should think of your stories. You have taken story transitions and toss backs to the point of ridiculous. Anchors just shouldn't be trusted to adlib--they cross the line too often! Look how this actually reads:
[ANCHOR SALLY: (grimly)] "Isn't that terrible, Bob?"
[ANCHOR BOB: ] "Sure is, Sally. And Shelly...(pretending to ask the live reporter a question that just occurred to him) Good job on that report, and by the way, how do people feel tonight there?"
[REPORTER SHELLY: (thoughtfully answering the staged question)] "Thanks, Bob...uh, yes, everyone in the neighborhood's very relieved the suspect was arrested--they can sleep better now...and I'll stay on top of this story for you."
9. Seek feedback. Go back to those institutions you report on periodically and ask them how your industry can cover their industries better! Ask the workers who watch you, not just the CEO's. Younger broadcast managers may never have heard of "Ascertainment Surveys" the FCC used to require stations gather for Licence Renewal every three years. In the 1970s, station personnel had to go out with pen and paper--no microphones--to interview more than a hundred community leaders in all walks of life to ascertain their thoughts on "community issues." Broadcasters hated them and screamed to be relieved of the government papework burden. But you know? There's no way a journalist could walk away from one of those face-to-face, one-on-one interviews without a new awareness as well as half dozen solid, meaty story ideas! They were incredible news tips. In retrospect, didn't they help you broadcast in the public interest? You said then you didn't need the FCC telling you how determine community issues but now you rely on out-of-town consultants to tell you. Does that make sense?
Newsroom air is pretty stale. After nearly ten years away from the biz--and looking at news from the outside for awhile, this author now realizes how difficult it was for the decision makers to get fresh ideas. It would give you a new perspective to get out of the newsroom for awhile and see what your shows look like on the other side of the glass. You managers and producers spend too many hours in the newsroom and you have isolated yourselves from the viewers you presume to serve. We, who know our own industries well, can easily tell when your people report on our industries superficially. Don't you realize that when we see you do a bad job on things we know well, your overall credibility diminishes in our eyes. Pay less attention to your competition and more attention to us. How can you know this if you don't ask us? Ratings only tell you who watches...but demographics don't tell you anything else. Ratings is not why you got into journalism, is it? Nothing should have changed.
10. If you're a journalist looking for work, look before you leap. It's a lot harder to jump ship after you've just moved halfway across the country and discovered you've gone to work for a slime bag. So before you take a new job, find out about a station's reputation and news philosophy. Moving to a bigger market is good--just make sure it's also a better one. After all, you also want to be able to sleep at night in your new market. If you can't find a better market, you have to decide if you want to butt your head trying to change things or look out for yourself and your family. If you decide to get out, start cross training yourself. TV News is a nitch-industry. Your skills are not widely transferable because you probably don't have a print side background. Besides, it's not so easy switching careers out of the industry you're in that has the reputation it does. That will be especially true if you're to the point you're making fairly good money and getting older. The longer you wait to find a different career, the harder it will be economically for you to do so.
Web Site Feedback
You people who decide local news are quick to hold community leaders to high standards. When they fall short, you're quick to humiliate them before their neighbors. It's time you hold yourselves up to similar standards of excellence. As most journalists know, the printed press--and even your networks-- do a much better job of this than local TV stations do. So now as a group--deserved or not--you're all getting an unflattering reputation among Americans and you're having to fight hard to retain viewers. Must you do it with tricks? Can't you do it with quality? Based on the EMAIL REACTION from the author's web site, it's clear many TV insiders know the problems. You might wish to read some of what your own people are saying and take their advice. As the consultants say, it'll be a lot easier to keep viewers rather than to try to win them back.
About the author. This web site is an essay written by Greg Byron, a former radio and television newsman who has moved on after nearly twenty years to a second, unrelated career in computer technology. The observations contained herein come from his experience in four local television news departments in different states--as beat/series reporter, assignment editor, producer, and operations manager. He has a journalism degree from Wichita State University, has won four state-level broadcast association awards, and a NY Film Festival medal for local news series. He is quick to point out that not all stations approach news identically. Some stations actually do attempt consistent journalism and their staffs are more stable. However, way too many others (apparently most stations) present a parade of new faces and sensation under the guise of journalism. Those are the ones who have handed over their news decisionmaking to out of town consultants--and they're not getting what they paid for. Those are the ones about which this essay offers critique.