From a Reader: TV News: A Mirror Reflecting the World It Covers or Making It A Better Place in Which to Live One Story at a Time?

September 7th, 2004

This article was submitted to Minding the Planet by a reader, James Clayton Napier, the author. It’s an interesting inside commentary on how TV News works (or doesn’t work, as the case may be) — NS

“Images can either imprison or liberate us.” –Roberto Assagioli

Feature stories are vanishing from TV news broadcasts. The public speaker, television feature reporter, and movie maker are storytellers. While there is an underlying structure to what the person in each venue does, a structure the audience is often unaware of, there seems to be a trend these days away from content (a central focus) and a movement toward the shock value of an experience—what is said, what is heard, what is seen.

The adrenalin response becomes, in this context, more important than the cognitive ability to process (think about) what one is experiencing.

An example of this is the “shock quotient” sought by many local and national television newscasts which is resulting, more and more, in the disappearance of feature stories that uplift the viewing audience. These “feel-good” about-your-community stories are vanishing from TV news broadcasts and being replaced with news stories directed at target audiences that Orlando Sentinel syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker says are “culturally locked in perpetual adolescence.”

Shock value is in. If the story bleeds, it’s likely to lead, be the top story in that evening’s newscast.

Having created over 2,000 feature stories over a nine year period during my tenure at a CBS-TV affiliate in Texas, I know the importance of preserving the broadcast tradition of telling the stories of local unsung heroes, innovators, and visionaries — material routinely overlooked by the “ratings hungry” TV news outlets.

For nine years, my photographer and I traveled Texas looking daily for interesting stories about people who were making a difference in the lives of others.

These were not the lead stories at 6 & 10 — slots reserved for the dramatic “hard hitting” news stories you might call,”Why are you living in this community, it’s so scary?”

Still, to the credit of my news director who felt my stories were important and fought to keep them on-the-air, my positive, upbeat storytelling played an important part in our station’s offerings and ratings success.

My phone rang often with a viewer telling me, “I rush home to see your stories every day.” I received hundreds of letters with messages such as, “I’ve lived here all my life. I had no idea what you showed us today even existed.” These viewers appreciated being told they lived in a community with good people around them who were making tangible contributions.

Sensationalism dominates newscasts nowadays. For example, TV news operations are in the business of looking for ratings grabbers: fires, wrecks, and crime scenes — anything that will jump out at the viewers at the top of a newscast. “People say they want more positive stories, but when we tried that we lost viewers (which translates into lost advertising revenue) to our competitors,” a TV news director friend mentioned to me recently.

Solid reporting, beyond the easy, sensationalist fare, requires independent thinking and motivation.

One station I worked for assigned each news reporter to a beat. A beat means city hall, county commissioners, the police and fire department, the state capitol. It was the reporter’s responsibility to bring story ideas to the morning news meeting. Rarely did a reporter come to the meeting with an original story he or she wanted to do. Most waited to be assigned a story from the news desk (a task usually taken on by the news assignments editor or, in small markets, the news director).

I’ve seen more than one news director frustrated by young reporters’ lack of curiosity about their community.

A news director I used to work for told me, “When I started in this business twenty years ago, we had a solid core of proven journalists working for us. Over the years, the commercial aspect began to dominate. I’ve been forced to hire younger and younger people who do not read, write, or deliver material well at all. The newsroom has become a kindergarten. As the news conglomerates purchase stations, they are focused on the bottom line — profits. I’m forced to hire reporters at wages barely above minimum wage. All they apparently want to do is serve their six months here and move on to a larger TV news market, make more money and move up to an even bigger market.”

Another veteran CBS employee told me, “We have people on the air now who are younger than some pairs of shoes in my closet. And it shows!”

Local broadcast news has become more about ratings and station profits than solid news gathering, compiling lists of trusted sources, compelling writing, and good storytelling. The term “seasoned reporters” is rarely heard. The traditions of Edward R. Murrow, Douglas Edwards, Walter Chronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, and the early journalistic years of Barbara Walters at NBC are all but lost on today’s generation of new hires who have only the vaguest ideas of the standards, values, and news ethics that were so important to these broadcasting legends.

Younger reporters, with their eyes on the next job, rarely stay with a station long enough to understand local issues. It takes time and commitment to get to know people who can help you when you need a sound bite on a certain issue.

A TV news reporter must cultivate friendships at every level (political and social), leave a business card with every one he/she meets, and obtain contact information. I know a seasoned reporter who had a file with hundreds of contacts. When assigned a story, she knew exactly whom to call to get the background information she needed to write her piece.

The professional reporter must also have the ability to write a great story and the skills to edit video to match audio, even if another person in the newsroom is assigned to edit their story.

What’s involved is caring enough to get all the necessary pictures and sound bites at the scene. Once in the editing bay, there’s rarely a chance to go back and shoot the footage that was overlooked! When crucial visual and sound elements are missing (which happens often), it’s usually because the reporter didn’t know what his/her story was about and failed to instruct the photographer regarding camera angles, close-ups, medium-shots, and establishing shots.

When I first started doing daily feature stories, it was an uphill battle to convince station management that they were a legitimate part of a local newscast.
The photographers said, “Features are not news. The’re soft. They have no action.”

The people in sales told me, “Viewers will lose interest, we’ll lose ratings, and we’ll have to lower our sales charges to advertisers if we can’t continue to deliver the audience our clients are paying for.”

In other words, if it bleeds, it leads.”

At first the station higher-ups thought feature stories about the unsung heroes in the community were a waste of time. “Not exciting enough,” was one viewpoint I heard.

I held fast to the belief that a balanced and fair newscast includes stories about the people who are making a difference in their community.

Our “Live at Five” program, showcasing my daily feature story and live segment that I introduced, quickly shot to #1 in the ratings and stayed there.

Soon the sales department began selling my “Live at Five” feature segment, as a package, to local advertisers. The TV ad sales people told me our “Live at Five” show was on in most businesses around town. It was a “hot property.” Area businesses were willing to pay premium prices to have their ads placed before and after the segments called “James’ Corner.”

Our ratings soared because those stories made people feel proud to reside in Central Texas.

I pointed out in a news meeting a few years ago that people do not move to an area because it leads the state in murders. They do not choose an area because it’s a terrible place to raise kids, the schools are unsafe, the water supply bad, and the taxes high.

The unfortunate trend in local news is shorter and shorter stories, with newscasts “stacked” with twenty or thirty tapes—tell the day’s bad news quick, quick, and even more quickly. “Must compete with the viewer’s jumpy attention span. Keep the newscast moving, moving, moving—faster, faster, faster.” Pause and reflect? Waste of time!

I’ve found that the feature story needs at least two minutes of airtime — even more when the subject matter (or person themselves) is compelling. A slower-paced story provides an opportunity to let people know, “Our station cares about news — all the news that’s relevant to your life. That’s why you’ll find a balance of hard news, weather, sports, AS WELL AS the story that says, “Aren’t you glad you live here? There are many good people in this community. This is the story of one of those folks.”

“The brain works on energy and energy illumines reality,” the British novelist Colin Wilson wrote. “Imagine the difference between a picture gallery with the sun shining through and the same gallery at night, illuminated by a half dozen candles. The pictures would lose a whole dimension of meaning by candlelight.”

Throwing the spotlight of meaning on today’s global news by the in-depth way a story is covered, letting us see a particular event’s many kaleidoscopic facets from many angles, and not caving into political or advertiser pressures (which means that certain diamond sparkling aspects of a story will never see the light of day) must be replaced by the next leap forward in television news: giving us the detailed and comprehensive information we need (presenting all sides of an issue)to assist our own very good minds in making relevant choices that matter.

Every person or nation has a story. TV news is brilliant when it comes to showcasing the worst aspects of human nature. It’s time, I believe, to build an information hi-rise that includes the best that’s in us as well.

I’ll never forget an individual who volunteered his time and energy collecting and repairing bicycles which he, and a group of local police officers, distributed to inner city children on Christmas day. The looks on these children’s faces when they saw THEIR special bicycle was, as the credit card ad says, priceless.

He phoned me several days later. “I was feeling pretty down on myself until I heard you say all those nice things about me in your story. Then, I saw the looks on those kids’ faces…”

“To the dull mind all of nature is leaden. To the illuminated mind the whole world sparkles with light.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

James Clayton Napier spent twenty years as a radio and television broadcaster, interviewing people from every walk of life. He also taught television news and communication courses at three universities. James is presently Media Director for an educational corporation in Arizona (