I don’t mean to belittle what is happening today in Connecticut, because it is a tragedy. It is probably the worst shooting incident we’ve seen in recent memory, but it will probably not be the worst we see in the coming years… it might not even be the worst we see in the coming weeks. What I want to do is not necessarily discuss the tragedy, but — instead — discuss how broadcast news covers this and similar tragedies.
The coverage happens in stages, and — as each stage unfolds — the coverage gets worse. The problem is the coverage isn’t good to begin with, so when it gets worse, the train really jumps off the tracks.
Stage 1 — “We interrupt this program…”
Something has occurred. A 911 call has been made, police radio has been monitored. Specifics aren’t known, but in the race to be “first on scene,” details and facts take a backseat.
Stage 2 — “Reporter Trixie McBubbles is outside at the sight of the incident. Trixie, what can you tell us?”
Trixie can’t tell us anything, but now we have a camera on the ground. The concept of so-called Eyewitness News is just that — plop somebody at the scene who does little else beyond witnessing what is happening.
Stage 3 — “We go live to ‘Chopper Dave’ in the AirNews7000 helicopter…”
Now there are two camera angles the director of the broadcast can use to cut back and forth, even though the odds are neither camera will actually show anything.
Stage 4 — “Officials have confirmed…”
As the first set of facts and information is released by police and public officials, the facts and information will be repeated ad infinitum, as will the “best of” footage taken from the camera on the ground and the camera in the air. It never dawns on anybody in the newsroom to break away from coverage if there is no news to report.
Stage 5 — “We are speaking now with Skippy T. Skippy, who was here when the incident took place…”
Two things in life are certain: The sun will rise in the east tomorrow, and the first guy interviewed at the scene of breaking news will be an inarticulate boob. I don’t even blame the guy being interviewed — he just happened to be at a certain place at a certain time. But the broadcast news outlets, desperate for something on the air other than the two repeated facts they had thusfar been able to glean will throw any slack-jawed yokel in front of a camera or via telephone.
Stage 6 — “OK, let’s recap what we know so far…”
This is the longest of all the stages, when it is determined to be a public service to stick with a non-developing story. The metaphorical eye of a news storm serves to highlight the fundamental flaw of broadcast journalism, specifically that so few people know anything. This is when the reporters and anchors begin speculating and hypothesizing, reporting rumors and other unconfirmed statements, many of which will turn out to be untrue.
Stage 7 — “A press conference has been scheduled…”
This is the second longest of the stages, waiting for a scheduled press conference, continuing to repeat the same two facts, and replaying the same footage. I stated two things in life are certain, but if there is a third certainty, it is that a press conference never starts on time.
Stage 8 — “I’m Police Chief Bob Johnson…”
Especially when events occur in small, insular communities, law enforcement spokespeople are not prone to being overly wordy. The resulting statement released will be short, contain next to no new information, and basically summarize the same facts the newscasters have been summarizing, but through somebody else’s lips.
Stage 9 — “For those of you just joining us…”
The coverage has gone on for so long that it is assumed viewers got drunk, passed out, then awoke with no memory of what took place. By this point in the coverage, not only are there reporters on scene, but footage has now been edited into packages, and national figures in politics and the media are weighing in, expressing prayers and support for the victims, which doesn’t really add anything substantive to the coverage, but it sounds nice.
Stage 10 — “We finally have some new information for you…”
It is at this stage after enough time has passed that the information can be filtered and organized. The rumor and speculation is finally brushed aside, as the facts have been confirmed. The frenetic pace of the coverage will gradually slow, and “normal” conditions will take hold. Continuous coverage will eventually break away, and that will be that.
Stage 11 — “Let’s take a look at our social media to see what you have to say…”
This is the newest stage, and the most pointless. They used to do man-on-the-street interviews. Some better news organizations might have had editorials by people with informed opinions. But now anchors read texts, tweets, and Facebook posts. It is almost like news, but not.
That’s a big roadmap that doesn’t actually lead anywhere. After all of the above, all viewers really know is that something happened. That isn’t reporting, it is repeating. It scratches the surface of journalism, but it avoids the hard work of being a journalist. But I’m not the sort to merely whine about the pathetic state of media. OK — well — I am, but I’m also the sort to propose solutions. Allow me to present my revised playbook for covering breaking news:
Stage 1 — “We interrupt our regularly scheduled programing…”
If you look at the archives of coverage of the Kennedy assassination, you’ll see that CBS broke into regular programing (a soap opera) with a quick news flash, provided what little initial information there was and, since there was nothing else to report, cut back to regular programing. Hence the term, breaking news. That works for me. By all means, use the scroll text feature that news organizations love so much at the bottom of the screen during regular broadcast to repeat the basic information. Meanwhile, off camera, gather more information.
Stage 2 — “We have new information on a developing story…”
What were stages 2 through 6 are now a single stage, the majority of which occurs off camera. Because once you’ve been first, it is important to be accurate and to report only what matters. So during the second stage, cameras and reporters are dispatched, interviews take place, research is conducted, and facts are checked. None of that needs to happen live on the air. You go live when you know something, not what you think you know something, and not when you don’t know anything new.
Stage 3 — “We turn now to our team of experts for their input…”
Yes, I said experts. Men and women who have robust knowledge of a given topic. Back in the day, news organizations had experts in science, medicine, education, astronomy, economics, government, the military, and even sports. Reporters were assigned beats and had to stay up-to-date on what was happening so they could render an informed opinion. During stage 3, in a situation like today, experts in psychology needed to be called in so reporters could ask relevant questions such as, “What do we tell our own children about the events of today, and what are the right words to use?” Also using today as an example, bring in experts on guns and gun laws and talk about how such things affect the events of the day. After all, if there is a fire, experts are brought in to talk about the causes and materials involved in the fire, yet for some reason the news refuses to discuss guns when guns are used in a mass killing. Lastly in stage 3, the most recent census data I’ve seen indicates the overwhelming majority of Americans continue to believe in God, and for that reason I firmly believe there is a place for a panel of religious leaders on a modern newscast. I don’t mean divisive religious figures from either side of the political arena, but if the Dalai Lama or Bishop Desmond Tutu wanted to weigh in on the events of today and tell us how those with faith should be reacting in times of grief or crisis, I feel that is important and relevant. You’ll notice I’ve devoted considerable time to this stage, and that is because it is almost entirely absent from the way things are currently done in broadcast news. Due to budget limitations, there is little money for experts, and reporters must now float to wherever they are needed, even if they know nothing about the subject material. This trend must stop. We need to see smart people on television.
Stage 4 — “We will break back into regular programing when we have a better sense of what is going on…”
Yep, I’m suggesting breaking news doesn’t have to be non-stop, round-the-clock, blah blah blah. I’m suggesting when there is news to report, then report it, and when you report it, be thorough and professional and to the point. And once you have done that, there is no need to be repetitive. Because it is too short a leap from repetition to exploitation. The word “gathering” is in “newsgathering organization” for a reason. Gathering and verifying information is paramount and all-too-often ignored. How many hours today did the media report the wrong name of the shooter? How many times was the name repeated? Didn’t need to happen. Take however long it takes to get it right; if it is instantaneous, terrific, but if you do broadcast a mistake because you were too quick on the draw, expect to be called out as unprofessional and unethical when you do.
Stage 5 — “OK, here’s what we know…”
Take deep breaths, count to ten, then go back on the air and summarize things to the best of your ability. Here is when you include the press conference footage and the footage of national leaders. In theory, by stage 5 you know the Who, the What, the When, the Where, and the How. If the situation calls for it, here is when you attempt to explain the Why, but it must be a truly informed opinion. Stage 5 is when you attempt to provide context and subtext. Frankly, stage 5 is when journalists become journalists and actually add something to the conversation as opposed to merely regurgitating facts and figures and press releases. Stage 5 is when people are held accountable and made to answer for their respective roles in whatever tragedy has unfolded. Stage 5 might not even be completed on the same day as stages 1 through 4, because it involves a lot of labor intensive research and interviewing.
Broadcast news directors won’t like my “less is more” approach, to be sure. Because it gives them less air-time, and it makes them work harder, and it might even cost them more money. Too bad. If they took a serious look at the ratings, they’d see that viewers aren’t getting their news from broadcast the way they once did. If they want to treat the news as a race, the internet will defeat them every time. Instead, broadcast has to change the game, adopt a new strategy, and give viewers a reason to tune in.