May 6, 2010
Perhaps the problem isn’t that audiences do not believe their news providers, as one recent poll would have us believe, maybe we just don’t want a diet of facts we disagree with or truths that disturb us? Maybe it is that we are becoming largely a nation of self-righteous, opinionated zealots who disagree with any voice other than our own?
There has been a lot of coverage about the recent survey that Americans do not trust their news sources. It’s prompted many news managers to assert their coverage is absolutely grounded in fact, rooted in the inherent bedrock of journalism and the larger audience’s problem stems from reading, watching and listening to other organizations who clearly, evidently don’t respect or even value news, truth, and fairness in the same high degree or standard.
But I haven’t read any one yet who has laid some of the blame on the audience. What, blame the audience? Are they the victims of poor reporting or to blame for failing to demand better? What? Wait! Could not a compelling argument be offered that over the past 20 years the audiences have demanded less and worse, they have appeared to be satiated on a measly diet of incomplete news mush.
Audiences today seem to be divided in Foxes or Hedgehogs, those who find a web source and burrow down (foxes) or those who behave like hedgehogs nestling among many stories or sites picking up tidbits of information that they associativity relate into a pastiche.
Whether that audience finds the right blend of news and facts and information seems irrelevant for they feel informed, and based on a wide array of bits of information they are as assertive as they believe themselves to be well self-informed. But audience surveys show how poorly informed they truly are. USC’s Annenberg School did a survey – both print and TV side by side – of the Los Angeles market and found “A composite half-hour of LA local TV news contains 8:25 of ads; 2:10 of teasers (“stay with us – there’s a story you won’t want to miss”); 3:36 of sports and weather; and 15:44 for everything else. So besides sports and weather, only about half of a half-hour of news is news. How much of that 15:44 is about events that happened in the Los Angeles media market? Local news takes up 8:17; non-local news gets 7:27″ The full document can be found as a link from there.
So what has gone wrong? How do we dissect the road we took that has led to our own dismay and destruction as a trusted source of information and news?
TV News is an industry which became a playground for consultants invited by general managers and news directors in pursuit of dollars. The professionals were often co-conspirators in the rush to expand audiences and achieve higher ad revenue as news became a business instead of a responsibility.
This slippery slope dates back generations. In the 1970s consultant-inspired thinking gave life to happy talk and eyewitness news which were innovative at the time but became feeding grounds for wasted time, irrelevant comments, and ersatz displays of emotion. In the 1980′s live trucks enabled reporters to use technology – some of which were over by the time the newscast began but by-God they had presence. They were there LIVE and again precious air time was sacrificed for glitz.
Stories that were complex were deemed to be too difficult for TV or were said to be “too depressing” for the audience that might be watching at meal time, and the consequence is an entire generation was fed a buffet of crime and chaos. The ‘if it bleeds it leads” style of news still predominates in even the largest markets.
News is partially to blame for creating an audience which has been stuffed on the candy of irrelevance at the expense of substance. A friend says television news doesn’t handle complex carbohydrates well and that’s true. It doesn’t because anything serious or chewy is skipped over with the conviction that the audience either doesn’t care to be bothered with the facts or wouldn’t understand those complexities or the nuance.
Consultants told news managers the only things the audiences care about was weather and traffic, witness the boom in high dollar technology and promotions for super duper Doppler and accurate at all costs weather and traffic graphics that proliferate in all media markets today.
It is easier to watch weather… it is certainly easier for anchors to engage with banalities about the weather in lieu of risking showing ones true ignorance of substantial news matters.
I recently watched the NBC affiliate in San Jose take more than 30 seconds to announce and illustrate a set of 4 new stamps about cowboys on their evening news. The fact that none of them stemmed from the bay area, the artist was a not local resident, nor was there any editorial linkage to the story that made it relevant was, in itself, irrelevant. On any night when there is substantive news to report, the producers chose this story as more important, and it became the subsequent subject of an engaged dialogue between the anchors, as if 30 seconds wasted on the story itself wasn’t indulgent enough.
If the education system has done a poor job teaching civics it is a lesson that has not been lost on reporters who are assigned to important stories without the proper grounding. Just before opening arguments in the 2005 Michael Jackson molestation trial in Santa Maria, California a reporter from the Los Angeles market asked me, “Which side goes first?” They truly had no idea; clearly they had not even watched enough episodes of “Law and Order”. It is a simple thing, and they should have known – but they didn’t – and the amount of other, missing information was daunting. This was a person who would go on to report the trial, assumed to be some one with knowledge, and yet they were vastly out of their league reporting anything but a fender bender. Or new stamps.
Should we be surprised that we have created a generation of idiots? Hardly. In entertainment this is an audience who watches programs such as “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?” Why we set the bar so low, not even at the junior high school level, is probably because we have little conviction the adults in the audience would be competitive if the curriculum was more challenging.
News today is in an economic crisis. Networks are closing their overseas bureaus preferring to simplify and voice over material from bases in London. Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton warned of the consequences of this in his book Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All. What was bad then (2005) as overseas bureaus were closed and reporters on the ground in distant lands were fired is being replicated today by ABC News in the United States. One cannot cover news as if it is an exercise in distance learning. Nothing can be substituted for feet on the ground, eyes on the scene local knowledge of the people and institutions making important decisions and creating news.
The point is this — when confronted by a survey that the audience doesn’t trust its sources of news is really not that unexpected. Distressing to professional news people – yes, it should be. Distressing to any one who cares about an educated public, yes! it should be too. But is it the fault of news, per se? Partially of course. The blame or responsibility for this is at the feet of a society which doesn’t really seem to value its news, or any one that gives lip service to news instead of really understanding and wanting to be taxed with serious substance, instead of the pabulum that has passed as news for so long?
There is blame for many – for education systems that don’t teach the value of news and information; for individuals who shun anything but infotainment, and then participate in surveys to say they don’t trust news.
It prompts me to wonder, just who do they trust? Who do you trust? Comment or email… let me know what you think?