Daily Archives: November 16, 2006

News is about community

Doug Fisher has some stats about TV news and the “if it bleeds it leads” philosophy of some stations.

Sig MickelsonI once wrote a profile of Sig Mickelson for the San Diego Business Journal. He was no fan of local TV news. His explanation for how TV news evolved was enlightening. In the beginning of television, local stations were required to carry a certain amount of local community interest programming. The cheapest way to do this was have somebody read that day’s paper. Then somebody discovered that it was pretty cheap, and got better ratings, to monitor the police scanner and send a camera crew out to the latest crime. It was then that a habit was formed and “if it bleeds it leads” was born. My own theory is that in those early days, any crime/accident story was exciting stuff for a variety of reasons — less common, less jaded public, the novelty of getting such news before the morning paper came out — so TV stations got hooked.

Once one was hooked, they were all hooked; it become a competition among pioneer stations to take the same scanner-reporting and grab viewer attention. And how best to grab a person’s attention but to yell? The reporting became more breathless and louder.

The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if it were.

– David Brinkley

The other thing Doug’s post reminds me of is the common reaction among newsroom staffers the first time an online editor sends out the list of the 10-most-read stories of the week. It’s all crime and accidents. “My, God,” the jurnos sing out, “people only care about the sensational stuff.”

I then explain: Not really. What they care about is unusual things going on in their community. The town council arguing over budget numbers and zoning laws are not unusual. A crime or an accident that could dramatically alter the lives of people they might know — that gets their attention. People tend to believe that they are much more likely to be impacted by the crime or accident story than they are the umpteenth government information story. It isn’t the sensation that draws them in. It is the community. In fact, I think one of the great advantages newspaper journalism has now is that we can break that news, whether with words or moving pictures, in a way that is decidedly not sensationalistic and far more informative than traditional TV news.

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I’ve been both a reporter and part of news stories. I’ve been quoted (and misquoted), represented (and misrepresented) by reporters. So in this light, I find it interesting that the Spokesman-Review is a bit displeased with a PBS story that, in part, examines the newspapers coverage of a scandal.

Spokesman-Review editor Steven A. Smith says he doesn’t want to pick a fight with “Frontline” over its report on Jim West, the late Spokane mayor. “I think their mistakes of commission (fact errors) and mistakes of omission were not malicious, in general, but driven by the demands of their narrative and their medium,” he writes. “But the overall effect, I think, was to seriously dilute the depth, breadth and detail of our reporting and to place far more importance than facts warranted on West’s gayness as the cause of his fall.”

How many times have we heard similar complaints from our sources and subjects? Journalism is an imperfect art. We’re better off if we realize that.

And when the spotlight is turned around on our reporting, we need to be a little less thin-skinned. I’ve had time to watch only three of the PBS segments online, but so far, I would say it’s a pretty fair-minded attempt to examine the Spokesman-Reviews coverage, which is certainly worthy of peer review.

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Continuing the debate over reporter-shot video

Lumix cameraI guess I started the debate (with this post), so I guess I should answer the questions posed by Mindy McAdams, even though Bryan Murley has already done a fine job.

  1. Should print reporters shoot video?
    Yes. Of course. Why wouldn’t they? Reporters are supposed to inform the public to the fullest extent possible. You wouldn’t send a newspaper reporter out to cover a story without a pen and paper, so why send him to a story without a camera? There are some elements of a story that words can never capture, so why limit a reporter to telling a story with only words?
  2. Can journalists accept the low video quality produced by ultra-cheap ($129) video cameras?
    Keep in mind, the camera I’m proposing reporters carry costs more than twice the price. From what I’ve seen so far, the $129 camera doesn’t capture sound very well. This is a major issue – sound quality is more important than picture quality. The camera I recommend does very well on sound, when used properly. And when used properly, it takes amazingly high quality video. In some respects, the “quality” argument is a bit of a red herring. Quality has a lot more to do with training and talent than the equipment. Smart reporters are constantly striving to improve the quality of the video they shoot.
  3. Should the video be edited, or posted “raw”?
    Depends. What’s the story? How timely is the video? The Tsunami video was raw and compelling and deserved to be posted raw and immediately. The story demanded it. An interview with the mayor after a city council meeting, not so much. Most video can stand some editing, if by that you mean cutting out some extraneous stuff, such as the reporter’s questions (something I recommend, unless there is compelling news value or an ethical need to include the question). The greater the editing demand, the less video that gets posted.
  4. Does the popularity of YouTube video (most of it very low quality) indicate that the content is more important than the poor image and sound quality?
    Content is king. And no pun intended, but think back to the Rodney King beating video — if a reporter where out with a $320 Lumix set up and saw the same exact moment, should we not publish the video because it isn’t of DatelineNBC quality? Context matters. Or flip the question around: Would you post something of zero news value just because it was high quality (whatever that means)? One thing I’ve been telling people in my newsrooms for three years — some day quality is going to be much more important than it is today, so I want you to get better. I’ve sent reporters and editors to the best training courses available, because quality does matter, but it isn’t the only thing. Also, quality takes time. Speed is often more important than time spent on polish.
  5. Does the popularity of YouTube video indicate anything at all about journalistic online video?
    Yes. It says, we better be doing it. People want video. People like video. Video can help tell a more powerful story, or capture a moment better than words. Also, YouTube points the way to how people often use video — bounce around from subject to subject, skim, scan and graze, hunting out that which is interesting. This is how people use the Web in general. This is why quantity is so important. Also, think of the whole long tail thing when thinking about quantity.
  6. What should be the content of reporter-shot video? E.g., is a talking head okay?
    Why wouldn’t a talking head be OK? As I said before, it’s all about context. That said, just about any story can be improved by video, so if all you can get is a talking head, then take that opportunity to improve your story.
  7. Is doing it, and doing lots of it, more important right now? That is, will we learn more about what works best if we produce a large quantity of video (vs. tinkering away to make it sound and look better)?
    As Rob Curley has observed, it takes about 18 months to train online visitors to accept something different from our Web sites. I’ve observed a similar pattern. People aren’t used to going to a newspaper Web site to get video. We are giving them something new, so we need to help them get used to it. If you’re only posting one video project every three or four days (about the time it takes to produce a full-blown, in-depth video production), you are not putting enough video in front of your visitors to get them used to the idea that they can expect video from your site. Quantity also fits best into how people actually use the Web. It also helps create more rich data points for learning what works and what doesn’t. It also accelerates the learning curve for reporters and editors. Doing is always better than not doing.

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