They take to the U.S. airwaves at six in the evening, and again at 10 or 11. The grinning suburbanites of local television news have been a love/hate relationship for me, an integral part of my career but also a frustration if one hopes to break them from bad habits to serve a greater journalistic purpose.
Our Knoxville TV newscasts are a remarkably standard product. They are obsessed with weather (no one needs four minutes to say partly cloudy and warm) and giggly about blaming the forecaster for precipitation or temperatures. Local college and pro sports are another fascination, faithfully cheering the local squads.
The news blocks, increasingly infiltrated by weather and sports stories, also are unchallenging. The grinning suburbanites like puppies and other cuddly animals, veterans, plucky people, charity and cute kids. They boldly are for good things and against bad things. The nuance and hard choices of public policy furrow their otherwise impeccable brows. They likely then transition to a concerned face for a run though the police blotter and some voice-over stories of disasters and accidents.
Several reputable tallies have shown that in the October preceding a November election, one is much more likely to see during a local TV newscast an ad from a candidate compared to a news story involving candidates. When it comes to partisan clashes, the grinning suburbanites often duck into an uncritical passing along of conflicting claims — or, worse, the “both sides do it” dodge.
Nevertheless, one can find encouraging exceptions. I’ve attended many award ceremonies honoring superb local TV news journalism that somehow got made and aired. These rare works dig deep, exploring the contradictions, deceptions and ugly behavior lurking beneath the pleasant veneer of community life.
These reports stand out from the basic formula of local TV news, one influenced by consultants who seek all sorts of ways to improve profitability, often by establishing anchors as friendly, caring visitors into your home. All this attention to public wants often leaves little room for public needs.
One also should feel a bit of empathy for newscast producers. They are asked to do more things (extra hours, online versions of stories) with no extra staffing. Sometimes the temptation can be great to fill time with some well-produced handout video, a video news release crafted and distributed by some public relations or marketing firm.
I come to these matters with dirty hands. My dissertation included a content analysis of newscasts done using the video files of a TV news consultant. I supplemented my teaching at Texas Tech as the Saturdays/vacations/emergencies producer at KAMC-TV in Lubbock. After I moved to the University of Tennessee, I updated my skills by working briefly as a producer for a local station and then participating in a Radio Television News Directors Foundation faculty internship at KCRA in Sacramento, California. My co-authors and I have published research on news consultants, TV instant polls, news gatekeeping and use of video news releases.
Professor Craig Allen at Arizona State University in 2001 published the book “News is People.” It lambastes network TV news people who look down their noses at local TV news. Indeed, local TV is where many fine journalists have honed craft and taken up topics and approaches used on serious network programs. The title of Allen’s book, however, gives me pause. After all, Soylent Green was people, too. He’s right to look at matters of class, but I see the division as different from elites v. populous — more like middle class versus working class poor. Several reporters and producers have told me about their desired demographic, a suburban mom with kids. That demographic hustling can lead to covering travel woes from the airport not the bus terminal.
Thus, from the perspective of a broadcast news teacher, one who has been sending young people into newsrooms for more than 35 years, let me offer a wish list for better local TV news:
• Identify the source of all non-original video and still images.
• Refrain from using non-scientific online and phone-in pseudo-polling.
• Create within your newsroom a three-person or larger group devoted not to daily reporting but to serious enterprise reporting of public affairs.
• View your local colleges and universities as partners for everything from civic reporting projects to historical archiving of newscasts.
• Spend at least two minutes or more per newscast on local news, and two minutes less on weather, teases and anchor chatter.