Friday, August 21, 2009

TV News is Taking Viewer Opinion to the Extreme

This article also appears in

Sloppy Journalism Can Distort Public Sentiment
I have spoken out about the decline of journalism a number of times. Staff and budgets are shrinking, and the ability of the public to receive well researched news and information is suffering. How are news organizations coping?

One way has been to update and elevate the “man-on-the-street” interview. Used typically to gather some quick reactions from “average” citizens, television news has been devoting an increasing amount of air time to these spots at the expense of real reporting.

With an Internet connection, anyone can become an information source. And anyone can call him or herself a journalist. Some have heralded the arrival of the “citizen journalist” and the gigabytes of “consumer-generated content” as a way to fill the void. I am not one of them. As I’ve said before, citizen journalism is not journalism.

But that opinion doesn’t seem to be shared by television news. They are all eager to receive your emails, YouTube videos, “tweets” and Facebook postings in reaction to the issues of the day. In return, you will get your message posted and maybe even shown or read on the air.

I acknowledge that news and entertainment was converging before this big downturn in the business of journalism, and that this a clever way to engage the audience. Reaching out and obtaining feedback is smart. All businesses need to connect to their stakeholders. But you wouldn’t find a business pulling random customers off the street and putting them on the factory floor or on the phones.

Beyond this being a cheap and easy way to fill some time during a 24-hour day, there’s a more insidious element. Who chooses which comments to air? How are respondents vetted, if at all? Is a balance of opinion sought and, if so, how is it defned? Do the aired responses in any way reflect actual national, regional or local opinion? Does anyone understand how easily bias can be introduced to the news?

My fear is that expediency and a tilt toward showcasing intentionally provocative responses gives a warped portrayal of public opinion. More than just cutting corners or differentiating their broadcasts, this sloppy journalism can give the appearance of an actual poll. I’m all for sharing comments, and exchanging views and information but a more rigorous approach toward 21st century man-on-the-street interviews must be taken to ensure interesting but accurate reporting.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for so beautifully echoing my own sentiments. I've been wondering for several years now exactly how "news" is being defined.

I'm sure producers find it difficult to come up with "real" news on a 24/7 cycle. Like you, I'm concerned that too many stories are aired simply because something has to fill the time slot, and these stories may not be very reliable.

I also believe too many local and regional journalists are clinging too long to the "if it bleeds it leads" mantra. While I feel a great deal of compassion for victims everywhere, I fail to understand why a fatal single-car crash on a street 65 miles away is "news."

A few of my criteria for "news" include:
* The story must have relevance to the greater viewing audience.
* The story must draw attention to matters of public interest and/or action.
* A reliable/official/vetted source should confirm the information given.
* The information should be timely.
* People should be given all information needed to take personal action as desired.
* The story should be as free of bias as possible and offer opposing views as applicable.

I'm sure there are many more I could add, but time is short, so I'll leave it there.

Again, thank you for drawing attention to this issue.