Jun 062012

It’s no secret that television newsrooms are expecting more production from everyone on staff. And there’s nothing really new about reporters being expected to file multiple times a day for multiple outlets. Heck, I did that 30 years ago at CBS, filing for radio and TV. But a recent story on TVNewsCheck about this new reality highlighted some of the ways in which technology has made journalism faster but maybe not better.

Exhibit A: Reporters who are expected to snap photos with their iPhones and post them online, even before they’ve done any reporting. “We have [an informal] policy where we take pictures first and ask questions later,” KMOV’s Maggie Crane is quoted as saying. “Before I even walk in and ask what happened.”

We’ve done that forever, of course–shoot first and then figure out what’s going on. But it used to be that we’d need some answers before those pictures went anywhere. Not all of the answers or even most of them, but some at least. Posting photos or video without any real information just doesn’t seem like journalism to me. It’s something anyone can do if they happen to be in the right place at the right time.

I know all the arguments about news in the 21st Century being more about process than product. And I’m not suggesting that journalists should sit on what they discover until they can flesh out the whole story. But journalism is about context, not just content. Feeding the Web and social media and chasing the story are two separate tasks, David Michela of Internet Broadcasting told TVNewsCheck, and it’s difficult to do both at the same time. But that’s what TV newsrooms expect.

Unfortunately, I think it has evolved to the point where they realize the lifespan of the TV-only reporter is diminishing. There is a need for them to disseminate information on any platform. If you can’t do that, your days in the field are probably going to be numbered.

He’s right about that. And I have no problem with journalists being required to know how to distribute their stories on multiple platforms. What troubles me is how often they’re expected to do it and at what expense, not just to themselves but to public understanding. If there’s no time to report, to synthesize, to understand, then news becomes GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out.


  4 Responses to “How much can one journalist do well?”

  1. You’re rightly worried about how social media and online news consumption affects a news broadcast, but not for the right reasons. The audience expects real-time information all day long on multiple platforms. What we should be talking about is how a traditional 6 p.m. package with a bow on top feels clunky. How a newscast listing off all the stories of the day feels outdated to anyone who’s been online for five minutes. How I can read a story online and get 100 more facts (plus links and documents) than I can in a 1:15 TV news story.

    A policy of take pictures first and ask questions later would seem to apply only to spot news. How in-depth is a police chase? Do you think a reporter spending 30 seconds to tweet a photo is somehow missing the story? This is the easiest type of news to cover. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with tweeting what you’re seeing as you’re seeing it. How is that different than a 5 p.m. live shot at a shooting scene as a situation is unfolding and you don’t have all of the details yet?

    But here’s the thing – you can tweet, blog and Facebook all day long while still reporting in-depth, important, impactful stories. Nowhere in that TVNewsCheck article was that mentioned. There’s more to social media and multi-platform journalism that running and gunning. Tweeting from City Hall can be riveting. Really! And I’m not missing the story while I’m doing it. I’m developing relationships with existing viewers and creating new ones.

    But back to my original point about social media. The thing we should be thinking about is not how social media and online reporting is taking away from reporters’ ability to report – it’s not. We should be thinking about why TV newscasts haven’t adapted to the online world. I’d love to see more context, live guests, anchor chats with reporters. But I think it will take a lot more disruption, the kind we’re seeing with newspapers, for any significant change to happen.

  2. Thanks, Rachel, for your thoughtful comments. As I think I said, I’m not suggesting that disseminating information on multiple platforms while the story is still cooking is a bad thing, or even a new thing. But I do worry when I hear that reporters are required to put “stuff” out when they have no clue what it means. And I’ve worried about that for a long time, even before the online and mobile explosion.

    To be clear, I don’t think requiring reporters to spend 30 seconds tweeting will mean they miss the story. What it could mean, however, is that they have to tweet before they know what the story is and those tweets could very well be wrong.

    Interesting you should mention police chases as a parallel, because I’ve long felt that putting car chase video on the air live isn’t journalism either. The issue isn’t the lack of depth, it’s the lack of value. I wish I could find the classic video of live chase “coverage” during which the anchor had no idea which car was being chased on what streets, much less why the police were in pursuit. Useful? Not. We all know why that kind of thing gets on the air–to draw eyeballs, not to inform the audience.

    All of that said, I could not agree more with your conclusion that the TV newscast itself needs reinvention. Some have tried, but as far as I can tell most of those efforts have failed. Have you been able to introduce any of the changes you suggest into the newscasts you anchor? If you could start from scratch, how would you design a TV newscast that’s adapted to the online world? If you’re interested, I’d be happy to have you write a guest column to keep the conversation going.

  3. Years ago, someone gave me a calendar with daily journalism thoughts. The one that I’ve never forgotten said simply: “For journalists, as in traffic, Speed Kills.” This line has never been more apropos.. Social media, tweeting, etc. has dumbed down the process to a point that much of the stuff on-line is now highly unreliable. There is less and less thoughtful. analytical reporting than ever before. It has been replaced by a
    mania to get any piece of info..right or wrong..onto some social media site because there is this belief that the whole world has stopped in its tracks just waiting for that tweet about the new road repairs on Main Street. This is a dangerous problem. Quality work has been replaced on all “platforms” ( a horrible word) by press releases, guesswork, and misinformation. Requiring reporters to multi-task is not necessarily bad. But, and this fact has been lost… You cannot fight physics. I can be talking pictures OR gathering facts and information. But I can’t do both at the exact same time and do the best job possible. If I’m talking to the fire chief, I could easily be missing the best pictures. And while I’m making pictures and then throwing them onto whatever, I may be missing important facts. Ultimately, the story suffers.The example of covering spot news is actually a good one because anyone who has covered spot news for any legth of time knows that what you SEE may NOT be what’s actually happening. To throw pictures on-line with guesses posted as facts is just plain bad policy.
    And this notion that one “can tweet, blog, and Facebook all day long while still reporting in-depth, important, impactful satories” is painfully naive. Any reporter worth his or her salt needs the time to gather the facts and then think through what he or she has. If that reporter is streaming out bits and pieces all day, that time is NOT being used to do a better job gathering and analyzing the elements of that story. Just tossing out information and/or pictures runs a serious risk which the “new–social media” generation does not understand. This is not to say that every story takes all day to report. Some come together quickly.But the important stories need time. And with fewer experienced journalists out there..as witnessed by the massacre of so many older, more experienced, higher paid, reporters at so many newspapers and TV stations… taking time to figure out what one really has is even more important.
    I’m not rejecting the “new media” concept out of hand. There are ways consistant posting can work. One way would be for the news organization to have an editor (remember those ??) whose job is to take the raw facts and photos, put them together in a cogent form, and post them. The new technology certainly should be used to move the information faster. BUT let the reporter report..and let an editor take care of the tweets, etc. For those under 50, that’s the way the wire services have done it for generations. And it worked.
    Finally, there is this notion that evening newscasts and newspapers are inherently bad because they are not “up to the minute”..like the web. This is foolish because summaries are a good thing. They give us an overview and when done well, some perspective that tweets, postings, etc. do not. The key here is that it should not be one or the other. There is a place for both. Unfortunately, many of the proponets of the “new, social media” want us to believe that only NEW is good..that OLD is bad. It’s a stupid notion which ultimately cheats the consumer out of getting the best information from all places. And it is the enemy of quality journalism.

  4. […] article “How much can one journalist do well?,” which can be found on NewsLab.org, talks about how technology made journalism faster, but not […]

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