Why I Left the Local TV News Business
By David Stillerman
After three and a half years of employment, I recently resigned as the Floor Director of one of our local television news programs.
For some time, I had been dissatisfied with a variety of issues concerning local TV journalism. So, I began to look around and listen. In newspaper columns and magazine articles, in volumes of media criticism, and in conversations at parties and grocery store checkout lines, people are expressing dissatisfaction with the quality of local broadcast television news.
As evidenced by the national public outcry in 2003, protesting the FCC's support of further media consolidation, people are getting fed up with the abuse of a public trust and the misuse of a public utility by those who control and exploit the airwaves.
This is exemplified locally by the curious relationship between KOB-TV and KASA-TV. Does no one think it odd that much of the story content for the KASA nightly news program—which is a presentation of a theoretically independent station—emanates solely from the KOB news staff? In addition, advertising that promotes the KOB news is a nightly feature within the KASA news broadcast.
While all of the local TV stations understand that they have an obligation to present news to the public, there is also an equal understanding that these shows are an excellent source of advertising revenue.
It is no accident that a TV station's broadcasting territory is referred to as a "market," and that the broadcast itself is referred to as a "product" and a "show."
TV stations long ago discovered that a quick pace, lively images, evocative language, sensational stories and "teasers" are the best way to keep viewers tuned to their channel, and hold their audience through a program's worth of commercial advertisements.
Besides being the main irritant to most viewers—and, especially, to those who have stopped watching local TV news altogether—the relentless reporting of crime and violence is blatant manipulation, lazy journalism, and an insult and disservice to the public.
There is no regular, comprehensive reporting on the extensive range of daily events among the diverse cultures of the city, the counties and the state.
On a daily basis, people make strides in their own lives, help and inspire others, and perform heroic acts on many different levels. People are dealing with social problems in their communities and striving to make Albuquerque and New Mexico a better place to live. There is a wealth of civic and cultural activities that enrich and define the life of our city and state.
Keeping us abreast of the progress of issues as they grind through the wheels of public debate, continual interviews with politicians and organizational representatives to elicit their views, motivations and prejudices, or contextual reminders of matters for discussion enable people to be involved and to take action.
Local TV news should be about local news. National and international news can better be gleaned from other numerous sources. Besides, local TV news relies on packaged stories that fixate on a small number of national and international stories, and ignore other stories that are continually important, but are not glamorous or exciting.
What does it really mean to someone in Albuquerque that there was a ferryboat disaster in a Taiwan harbor, or that a bank robber's escape on a motorcycle was foiled somewhere in Europe, or that there was a 10 car pileup on Interstate 64 in Ohio, much less a sensational murder in Connecticut?
These stories are on our TV screens simply because they are titillating or the visual images are exciting.
In most cases, local investigative reporting is relegated to a "feature" spot in a news show—always with appropriate fanfare—as if this were a special favor to us, not an ongoing custom and responsibility.
It is the business of reporters and newscasters to ferret out information. It is tacky to solicit praise for a task that newscasters are being paid and trusted to do in the first place.
Have you ever seen an unattractive news anchor? Why do news anchors command such high salaries, compared to other reporting staff and technical crew? Do you think that the anchor's practiced tone, inflection and cadence is an accident? Do you wonder what music and special effects have to do with news? Do you consider why the visual graphics are, well ... so graphic?
It's entertainment, folks.
There was a time when TV anchors took a stand on issues, or explored the nuance of the stories they told.
Hiding behind the mantel of "objectivity" and references to "bias," our local newscasters skirt a potentially sticky area that might alienate viewers and advertisers.
According to current local TV industry ratings and share statistics, only a small percentage of the Albuquerque population actually watches local TV news.
Albuquerque station managers and news directors respond to this statistic by complaining about competition from other media sources, such as cable programming and the Internet.
But the issue that station managers never address is the simple fact that the majority of Albuquerque citizens are "turned off" by the shallow discourse and garish presentation of local TV news shows.
Those who do watch are not simpletons, but this is the practical attitude in TV newsrooms and TV station management offices.
The vocabulary contained in news stories is deliberately "dumbed down" to a presumed low level of maturity and education in the viewing audience.
At the same time, language and style of delivery is generally emotional, often melodramatic and even inflammatory.
For instance, the trumpeting term, "Breaking News," is habitually overused and frequently misleading. The term should only refer to a developing story of actual, immediate importance to the public.
The statement has lost all meaning because of competition between news directors who feel they must be the first with any information, however irrelevant it may be to most of the audience.
Again, many of these stories are reported only because they offer lurid details or dramatic pictures.
The style of visual presentation—graphic look, pacing, placement of stories within the show—while calculated to attract and hold viewers, works against whatever content lies in the stories. There is no inherent "weight" given to significant stories.
Even when local news shows practice sound reporting and highlight important issues, those stories are completely lost in the jumble of trivia and commercial advertisements that precedes and follows them. As one Albuquerque resident once told me, "There's too damn much, too damn quick."
If the people who produce the local news actually cared about, and became a part of, the real life of the city—other than merely being a celebrity presence—they could be a powerful force for development and enrichment.
For Albuquerque and New Mexico, there are unique and urgent issues that should be addressed on a regular basis and in a comprehensive fashion. These are stories that are important, indeed critical, to the well being of the citizens of the city, counties and state.
This is the real "news" of the day.
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