When I first became a television news director I used to get calls from colleagues and media reporters asking me what I am doing to increase ratings. Two years ago, the question became “What are you doing to hang on to viewers?” The reason: Viewers have begun to abandon local TV news.

“KGUN9 Viewers’ Bill of Rights”
It’s no mystery why. Viewers I’ve encountered during two decades have not been coy about their feelings. To them, we are arrogant, shallow, career-climbing cretins with no respect for anyone’s rights, feelings or human dignity. They’re tired of our stupid little ratings ploys. They’re fed up with the endless parade of body bags on the evening news, weary of shallow, out-of-touch news anchors and reporters, and sick of misleading, over-hyped teases. Certainly new media and demands of modern life play roles in the audience erosion, but the fact is many viewers have just had it with us.

So two years ago, at KGUN9-TV in Tucson, Arizona, we did something we believe no one else has done. We solicited the public’s input for a statement of principles. We weighed that input with our own notions of journalistic duty, then published the Viewers’ Bill of Rights. It provides a product guarantee, a warranty, and a return desk. We appointed a viewer ombudsman, one of only two we know of in the United States, and we invited our viewers to keep us honest through regular viewer feedback segments.

Some news professionals find the idea that viewers should be involved in the journalistic process to be profoundly disturbing. We’re the pros, not viewers. We know what information is good for the public because we’re trained to figure it out. Viewers should trust us to lead them through this complicated and bewildering endeavor called news.

Why do so many of us seem to feel that journalism is the only commercial enterprise with no need to learn from consumers and respond to their demands? In fact, responding isn’t nearly enough. As journalists, we should join forces with viewers to ensure the responsiveness of government and business, to bring the public’s voice into the process of setting public policy and to hold the powerful accountable, and that includes us. In my view, the best TV journalists are viewer advocates who fight with passion and vigor for people’s right to be heard. Now I’ve done it, I’ve used that “p” word, “passion,” a word which journalism’s thought-police too often silence. KGUN9 is passionate about its viewers and community, and I have a hard time believing that acting this way is wrong.

These changes have led to improvements in KGUN9’s journalism. The station is doing a better job of breaking the kind of stories that often lead to changes in public policy. In 2000, the Project for Excellence in Journalism noticed and gave KGUN9 the highest quality score it has awarded to a half-hour newscast. Coincidentally, the station’s share of the news audience has been increasing, and the station now poses a serious threat to the city’s long-time market leader.

The reason this works is simple. When an important personal relationship goes south, what do you do? Open a dialogue and talk it out. You might even get a counselor. With its Viewers’ Bill of Rights and Viewer Feedback segment, KGUN9 created a dialogue with its community. Now they’re talking it out. There’s even a counselor in the form of Viewer Representative Heylie Eigen.

In the movie “Network,” a crazy news anchor incited frustrated audiences to scream, “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore!” His peers promptly judged him insane. But if KGUN9’s experience is any guide, inviting audience feedback—even angry feedback—is not a sign of journalistic lunacy. How crazy is it to imagine a world in which every city has at least one TV news outfit willing to state publicly what it stands for and then provide an ongoing mechanism for accountability? The viewer in me hopes news consumers in other markets will rise up as one to demand this. Such accountability might hold the key to our future.

If this concept troubles some journalists, an increasing number find it appealing. Many reporters express support, and some inquire about jobs at KGUN9 specifically because of the station’s unique news philosophy. Recently one candidate told me that when he first read the document he was shocked. “I couldn’t believe they’d let anyone get away with that,” he said. The truth is, I’m a little surprised myself. Now that it’s come this far, who knows where it might go? Maybe it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship—or, at very least, the start of a more productive and satisfactory relationship— between journalists and the viewers they serve.

Forrest Carr is the former news director of KGUN9-TV. He recently joined WFLA-TV in Tampa, Florida, in the same capacity.

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