Dick Nourse’s retirement from the KSL 5 news-anchor desk got me thinking about the quality of broadcast journalism and how it has suffered since the mid-1960s when he started in the business. Have you noticed?
Reporting on substantive issues has long been out of favor. Instead, newscasts are a hodgepodge of piffle, pandering and promotion, all masquerading as news. Sure, there is “breaking news”—the breathless leadoff—of the latest fire, shooting or car accident. But too many of the stories are inconsequential, and the integrity of too many is compromised by reporter opinion.
Although Nourse has had no qualms about expressing his opinion in on-air chitchat with co-anchor Nadine Wimmer (“Now, there’s a truly inspirational story, Deanie.”), he certainly isn’t to blame for the sorry state of local news coverage. That newscasts like KSL’s have degenerated into entertainment, so-called, has been widely discussed. Nourse has swum with the current. With his basso profundo voice and expressive features, Nourse has read from the TelePrompTer well enough to garner market share for 40 years. In fact, the triumvirate of Nourse (news), Welti (weather) and James (sports) was an integral factor in the station’s dominance in the Salt Lake City media market.
Instead, blame ratings, a measurement of viewership, and the consultants whose advice has jiggered newscasts in an effort to attract more viewers, thereby boosting profitability. The higher the ratings, the more money a station can charge advertisers. During past decades, consultants have advocated shortened stories, flashy graphics, theme music and live shots from crime scenes and fires. The received wisdom—if it bleeds, it leads—seemed a successful strategy in the nation’s 210 media markets. Eyewitness News clones sprang up from Baltimore to San Francisco.
Now it seems the consultants were wrong. A recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University suggests that audience preference has been misunderstood for years. While a car chase or a fire may be arresting, the study found “issues-based, policy-relevant stories” fared as well, or better, when it came to viewer interest. Folks like you and me evidently appreciate substantive reporting, and when it is offered, we are just as likely to watch it as to flip the channel. The fact that 60 Minutes has always had impressive ratings seems to validate the finding.
This comes at a time when ratings methodology is becoming more sophisticated. The new, Nielsen “C3” ratings are able to measure the number of people watching at specific times (e.g., during commercials) instead of the number watching the entire show.
I hear opportunity knocking.
Wouldn’t it be swell if Doug Fabrizio, host of KUED 7’s Utah Now, gathered the city’s news directors at his studio and jawboned them into a commitment to improve the quality of the city’s broadcast journalism? It’s not too much to ask. With just 21-percent of adults in their 20s reading a daily newspaper (down from 49-percent in 1970), we need high-quality, television news. The easiest place to start is at the reporter level with initiatives like these:
First, reporters must be scrupulously objective. They may not be permitted to color a story with their own opinion. The egregious lapses usually come at the end of a live shot when the reporter struggles to reach a conclusion before the obligatory cliché, “back to you.” The rule should be simply: Show us, don’t tell us. After watching the footage and listening to the interviews, we can decide for ourselves which is inspirational, tragic or despicable and which is not.
Second, stories should not end on an instructive note. For example, a story on a boater drowned in Utah Lake should not conclude with the reporter’s suggestion that “if you want to know the five ways to tread water, go to our Website.” Almost as objectionable is the closing appeal: “Anyone with information please call the police.” If the police are to be invoked, better Joe Friday and his famous insistence on “just the facts.”
Third, reporters should keep a respectable distance from the story. They are paid to observe not participate. If it’s the Days of ’47 Parade, no reporters on horseback, please. Same for the opening of the deer hunt. Cozy, sitting-around-the-campfire reports are only embarrassing. It has become so bad in this regard that I would expect a story on bungee jumping to close with a tethered reporter shouting “Back to you, Dick and Deanie!” as he took the leap. The fact is that a story need not include the reporter’s face.
Three easy steps straight from Broadcast Journalism 101.
Next, the news director can exclude out-of-state stories by fiat. I can tolerate a feature story on a meandering bear in Park City, but I have no interest in a bear in Pennsylvania, no matter how cute the visuals are. Finally, reporters should be assigned “issues-based, policy-relevant stories” and given the time to do in-depth reporting on opposing viewpoints. They need more than the two minutes of airtime they now get for most stories.
Opportunity is knocking at the door of Channel 5. With a modest effort, the end of the Dick Nourse era could mark the nadir—not the zenith—of quality local-news coverage in Utah.
Mullentown will be back next week.