In ancient Greece, and later in Rome, messengers carried news throughout the empire. If recipients didn’t like it, they’d kill the messenger. We, in the media, are descendants of those messengers and now many viewers and readers want to kill us.
What they don’t like is that we provide information they don’t want and, worse, we fail to deliver news they do want. This might be the main reason why newspapers and TV news—network and local—have been for years losing audiences at an alarming pace with no end in sight.
Local television news is by far the favorite whipping boy. According to a 1999 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, affiliated with the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, “Survey after survey reveals it [local TV news] to be the most trusted source of news in America…. Yet many critics deride it as the worst of the American news business.” In a more recent, scathing report, Thomas Patterson of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University argues that local TV news is “deliberately shortsighted, is rooted in novelty rather than precision, and focuses on fast breaking events rather than enduring issues.”
At many stations, according to the Project for Excellence study, news has degenerated into simplistic, sensationalized coverage of “eye candy, stunts, and hype.” A lot of newscasts present important stories by accomplished journalists, but they’re often buried under an avalanche of irrelevant and insignificant minutia—usually crimes, accidents and fires—because consultants and managers are convinced this so-called “breaking news” is the best way to “grab” viewers despite ratings that continue to spiral downward, proving people aren’t buying it.
As if to prove the critics correct, a Miami news director boasts of doing all this in abundance, cynically saying the audience is afflicted with ADD (Attention Deficient Disorder), their attention spans so short they can usually only handle easy to grasp stories.
“A lot of good journalism is going on,” says Terry Jackson, Miami Herald TV critic. “The Firestone tire story was broken by a Houston TV station. However, they get sidetracked in this rush to be immediate, to beat or to match the competition. That’s where local news falls down.”
I’ve been hearing harsh criticism about how local TV does its job from viewers since I returned to Miami from NBC eight years ago. It’s getting more intense. After writing an op-ed piece for The Miami Herald about what local TV is doing wrong, my station asked me to do a similar investigation for our newscast. This assignment was unprecedented in an industry not known for self-criticism. Usually what we do is fall back on well-worn rationalizations to explain why audiences are disappearing, even though several recent prestigious studies have identified the real culprit: It’s us. Plain and simple, viewers don’t like what local TV news is and does.
I talked with people of all ages in most socioeconomic groups. To a person, but from their particular vantage points, people described local TV news as being distorted and poorly reported. A rabbi said there’s not enough Jewish news. An African American charged that only bad events are covered in his neighborhood. A Colombian woman observed that newscasts lump Hispanics together. A man who is gay recounted how “stupid” TV reporters call his orientation a “lifestyle.” And a teacher who believes TV news is irrelevant urged her students not to watch.
What I found were not people disconnecting from local TV news; for many, a connection to their lives and concerns had never been made. Not unrelated was the realization that despite a plethora of TV news outlets, it turned out that I was the first television journalist most of the people in my story had met.
I visited kids at a high-school newspaper. In love with journalism, they were confused by local TV news. Student editor Geraldine Rozenman learned one thing from textbooks about news coverage, then saw another on TV. “So much sensationalism,” she said. “Helicopters swooping in, breathless reporters on the ground, and for what? An accident on I-95? Please. They could devote those resources to something important.”
Pericles Jude, born in Haiti, raised in Miami’s predominantly black Liberty City, was disillusioned. “They’re always covering a drug bust, crime or a robbery, especially where I live. I’ve seen the TV guys. They can’t wait to leave.” Romina Garber was livid. Last year, she covered a huge gay rights rally before a crucial county commission vote on a human rights ordinance. Thrilled, she immediately started looking for local news reporters. “Nothing, nobody, and the organizers were hoping some local TV station would come,” she remembered. “It was so relevant. An attack against one group is an attack against everybody. No TV. I guess they were covering something violent.”
David Burkhard hoped violence wouldn’t visit his neighborhood. But a couple of years ago, a violent murder did happen to a family across the street. TV trucks and reporters descended, badgering the victim’s family. They pounded next on Burkhard’s door. “Have they no decency? The questions weren’t even good. ‘Did you know the victim?’ ‘How does it feel to live nearby?’ When they went ‘live,’ the reporters were superficial, relying on a police spokesman. I like breaking news, I want to know what’s going on, but local news is extreme and tacky,” this college professor said. “This wasn’t something that affected the entire community, anyway.”
Again and again, viewers recounted examples of isolated stories impacting few people that wound up leading the show for no other reason than to titillate the audience for a moment. Before some of the better reported stories appeared, these viewers had already surfed to a different station, concluding “Local news is no good.”
“It’s sensationalism that appeals to the lowest common denominator,” contractor Michael Jordan told me. “How about some substantial issues that don’t involve murder and mayhem, most of which should be put in a 30-second segment at the end of the show?”
“Is posing a reporter outside a hospital or government building hours after the news is over supposed to make us think something’s still going on?” asked retiree David Thornburgh. He’s exactly right. Producers have been taught that “live shots” project immediacy and excitement, providing a sense that a story could “break” again at any moment, even though their news judgment tells them it won’t.
There’s always been a fine line between TV news and entertainment. That line’s been wiped out on some local newscasts. “Don’t dumb down your audience,” said Karelia Carbonell, a private school counselor. “Intellectually, we want more.” When she occasionally watches TV news, “all stations look the same.” After I let her know that some stations do it right, she’s tuning in again, but cautiously. A small victory.
No one I spoke with wants “happy talk” or “family-friendly news.” Few see anything offensive about a car chase or a murder scene, if the story is reported intelligently. Cover everything, they told me, but keep it in perspective and, above all, stop blowing routine news out of proportion just because there is “great picture.”
All of this advice is easier said than acted upon, particularly when many in local stations are convinced that viewers such as these aren’t telling the truth. “People say they don’t like what we do, but secretly they love mayhem and fluff,” is the mantra heard constantly in newsrooms.
In other businesses, a long-term failure to increase customers because executives ignore mounting evidence of what people say they don’t like about the product would result in dismissals or demotions. But this doesn’t happen in local news, where tired excuses for dwindling audiences seem to thrive on repetition. “There are too many demands on viewers’ time,” some conclude. “They get home too late for the early news and can’t stay awake for the late news,” others say. And, more recently, we’ve heard a lot about “the cable option.”
If newscasts offered solid content, perhaps more viewers would tune in instead of turning off or seeking alternatives. But if the audience continues to shrink, concerns like the ones people expressed to me won’t matter because, eventually, nobody will be watching. But I hope it doesn’t have to go that far before local news responds to what viewers tell us they want, and we improve how our reporters treat people in gathering news and how the news we do report gets conveyed to our viewers.
Ike Seamans is senior correspondent for WTVJ (NBC) News in Miami. A journalist for 35 years and a former NBC News correspondent and bureau chief in Tel Aviv and Moscow, his reporting appears on NBC and MSNBC. He also writes op-eds and book reviews for The Miami Herald, is a columnist for several community newspapers in South Florida, and writes a weekly commentary for his station’s Web site.