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The Evolution of TV News

March 7, 2011

Confession: My first crush was a television news anchor.  This was back in the day when those evening broadcasts were hosted by (exclusively) men who went out in the field, dug deep for details, and delivered their stories with heart-felt conviction and exceptional knowledge.  I may have only been two, but I was comforted by the level of confidence I had in the messenger, even if I didn’t understand the message.

The explosion of Citizen Journalists has had huge impact on the news we receive, not just the way we receive it.  You don’t need me to tell you that with video capability on cell phones and distribution a click away, nothing stays private for long.  These sources play a critical role in how we determine what is “true.”  Even traditional outlets are using Skype, Flip-cams and other inexpensive video sources to cover stories that might otherwise be missed.  However, this immediacy often leads to a lack of prudence.  Rumors can spread just as quickly and easily as facts.

Even before the social networking explosion, the increasing informality of our society had influenced our network news teams, turning them into the reporting equivalent of business-casual wear.  I heard Roger Mudd speak during the tour for his book “The Place to Be.”   (For pre-boomer readers, let me say that Mudd was considered by many to be the obvious successor to Walter Cronkite on CBS.)  While he admits that there were shortcomings and behind the scenes politics even in the 1960s, there was a code of conduct that went hand in hand with the credibility and skill of those on the air. Reporting was based on high professional standards and well-earned trust relationships, which take time and persistence to build. I mean no disrespect to those who are still working hard in newsrooms all over the country.  Some of my best friends… etc.  But even many of them will admit that the way news is presented has gone through some big changes with mixed results.

The impact of today’s looser style is nothing compared with the loosening of the content. Certainly some correspondents still risk their own safety to deliver in-depth coverage.  (Thank you, Richard Engel, for the stunning reporting from Egypt.) But clearly there are those who rely heavily on public polls to shape which elements of a story to bring forward.  They even use random callers for “confirmation”, as if a personal opinion deserves the same weight as a verified fact.  (Don’t get me started on those hosts who permit an exchange of viewpoints to devolve into incoherent screaming matches.)  A contact at AP confirms some writers use biased material provided by PR agencies as springboards for what should be balanced pieces.  And, yes, revenue-sensitive executives will persist in eliminating stories altogether that have lost their ratings luster.

Despite all of this, I would argue that television retains the capacity to be the best place to experience the news.  A clever producer can integrate revealing visual elements, strong writing and clear analysis into a significant story unmatched by other mediums.  Specials based on critical headlines can provide an eager audience with an even fuller perspective.  (Anthony Bourdain’s spontaneous coverage of the evacuation of Beirut comes to mind).  But viewers need to maintain a desire to be informed and not just agreed-with.  A network insider puts it this way: “People are now empowered by the interactivity that the Internet has brought, and that has extended to news organizations;  that’s something for the better. Although people should realize they have to temper it by not automatically screaming every time a particular news organization presents something that is unpalatable for one reason or another.  If news organizations can maintain confidence that they can present a wide array of stories without overreacting to criticism, that’ll eventually be beneficial to all.”

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