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Home / Articles / / /  Rasmuson | Infotain Me No More: The sorry state of local TV news

Rasmuson | Infotain Me No More: The sorry state of local TV news

By John Rasmuson
Posted // January 16,2008 -

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.

 

 
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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 17,2008 at 12:56 I went to KSL’s website to see if I could find good, in-depth stories today at 6pm on 1-17-08.nnI found plenty;nnClean AirnGunnison Gas Leak InvestigationnSafety of Utah’s Highways backed up with 2007 statsnnHowever, here are the stories that VIEWERS decided to click on the most;nnBank robbernRoad Rage ShootingnFrozen deathnnKSL TV is different from ksl.com . With the TV, you HAVE to watch what KSL gives you. With .com, you get to CHOOSE what you want to know more about.nnThe viewers may say they want more in-depth stories, but it’s obvious they’re only syaing what they think they want. The stories SLWeekly are complaining about are the stories viewers seem to want more.nnIf in-depth, issues-based stories were so popular, why aren’t the ratings for PBS TV through the roof? Why does C-SPAN barely register any ratings?nnThose ARE the facts. Just like Joe Friday would’ve wanted them.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 17,2008 at 12:20 Local Newscasts aren’t even local anymore. When you get the local news half the news you get is news feeds from the networks. I watch local news to get news from my city and state not news from a 1000 miles away or Iraq. If I want National or International news or want to hear news about a Tiger attack at a zoo, news about the War in Iraq, news about the president going to Isreal, news about a leader of a foreign country being assisinated I will watch the National News, CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News I don’t have to watch it on my local newscast. There is already 24-hour around the clock national and International news on CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC. Local news is suppose to be news in the interests of the local community not in the interests of what goes on around the country or Iraq. Keep garbage about Bush and Iraq off the local newscasts. I think the multibillion dollar networks have hijacked local newscasts. I think that the major multibillion dollar networks dictate what kind of news should go on the local newscasts. I think local newscasts have become more liberalized. Local newscasts have become more liberalized by reporting more national and international news that is outside of the local community. Local newscast need to go back to being conservative by reporting more news in the local community. I think that local newscasts ought to put a disclaimer at the beginning of each of their newscasts to warn viewers that not all news stories will be local. People say the reason there is more national and international news is being reported on local newscasts is because budgets at local TV stations keep shrinking and that they have less reporters to cover local news. One of the reasons this is happening is because of the cooperate greed and biggest tax cuts in history the major networks are getting and because under this current FCC has more then doubled broadcasting fees that local TV stations have to pay for their licenses. Another reason more national and international news and network news feeds are being reported on local newscasts is because of the satellite technology that TV stations have but just because local TV stations have the technology doesn’t mean they should report more national and international news its just like just because a Police Officer has a gun dosen’t give him the righ to shoot anyone he pleases. Them reporting national and international news on local newscast is exactly like if they gave the local weather forecaast for another state on the weather forecast. These multibillion dollar networks are in the interest of making money not in the interest of what goes on in the local community. These multibillion dollar networks are another special interest controlling the American people. Local newscasts is news produced and reported by the people in the local community not by the people of the networks. One way to restore real local news back into the local newscasts is that hopefully a new FCC body will be appointed in a new Presidential Administration that will lower or repeal the broadcasting fees that local TV Stations have to pay and by a new Presidential Adminstration doing away with the tax cuts for the major multibillion dollar networks. Another way real local news can be restored in local newscasts is giving local TV Stations tax cuts that are willing to report more news in the interests of the local community. I think that these major multibillion dollar networks should have to pay a tax if they want to put their network news feeds on local newscasts. The major networks putting news feeds on local newscasts are taking away local air time that is set aside for news in the local community. I am glad that some people are starting to wake up and starting to address the quality of local newscasts. The more people start addressing and raising the issue about the quality of local newscasts the FCC and the news proudcers at local TV stations will have to start listening to the interests of the viewers and they will have to start changing the kind of news content on local newscasts.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 17,2008 at 08:55 I run a website for a couple of our TV stations and it’s fascinating to see what people who go there actually read. We try very hard to put in-depth material, extended interviews with key figures, comparitive stats - all those things you can’t squeeze into a 2 minute story.nnWhat do people read the most? The story about the teacher having sex with a student, the story about the dismembered snake that somehow bit somebody after it died, the police who thought they were busting a pot growing operation and it turned out it was tomato plants.nnInteresting, yes. Substantive, no.nnAll these stories were more than six month ago and they still show up in our top 10 most-read stories every week.nnNot passing judgment, just think it’s interesting. People selecting what they read and the same stuff we get criticized for doing on TV.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 17,2008 at 08:47 I appreciate John Rasmussen’s article. It is as honest an assessment as I have seen published in Salt Lake City in many years. In fact, that may be a contributing factor to the decline of content that John identifies. As late as the 1980s, there were legitimate, informed criticisms of local news coverage offered on a frequent basis. Hal Schindler at the Tribune, Milt Holstein for the Deseret News, Roy Gibson in print and on KUTV. Having received a pat on the back as well as a kick in the rear from each of those voices, I can tell you they valued content and service. We get very few voices making the clarion call for content that John offers.nSure, consultants play a role in the slide. But a sad fact is that it is much easier to package a story for 10 around a house fire...or robbery...or auto accident, than it is to deliver an insightful report on the economy or education or tax policies. Violent crime has--I shudder to point out-- the simple good guys and bad guys and victims that are readily identifiable. It is a sad statement when I see, for example, Utah’s best political reporter relegated to chasing ambulances because his news department allows neither the time for, nor has the interest in, politics or government.nMore people know about Britney Speare’s parenting lapses than who exerts greatest influence in the Utah State legislature.nNo adjustment of your set is necessary---there IS something wrong with this picture.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 17,2008 at 07:02 I wholeheartedly agree that TV news could use an extreme makeover, but the economics of TV news today almost guarantee it won’t happen. As the previous poster mentioned, viewers vote with their remotes, regardless of what they tell pollsters. Substantive news doesn’t sell in a marketplace dominated by the latest Hollywood gossip. When I started in the news business back in the late 1970’s, news was thoughtful, comprehensive, intelligently presented and highly regarded. The people doing the newsgathering were professional and high-minded about the craft of journalism. While there are still many in the industry--radio, TV, print--who take their jobs seriously, it is accomplished invariably while at odds with news directors and general managers who are armed with the latest market research, or at least their myopic understanding of it. While local news always has been victimized by the latest trends from consultants, it’s sad to see the same rules now governing network broadcasts. News You Can Use is so pervasive, we simply don’t get to see the world at large anymore. Try watching the news on BBC America some night and prepare to be astonished by the comprehensive nature of the product. Thank God that someone still cares to report what’s important.

 

 
 
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