Obituary: Broadcast Journalism, 1938-2010

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Broadcast Journalism, arguably the most influential sociological development of the 20th century, was born in 1938, when CBS Radio began broadcasting The World Today with Edward R. Murrow. For the next few decades that followed, Broadcast Journalism would come to define even further the principles of integrity established by the newspaper industry.

My participation in this saga began in January 1976. I had just been accepted to the broadcasting school at Brown College in Minneapolis. In order to help put food on the table, I worked full-time as a dispatcher at KMSP-TV, channel 9. My job was to monitor all the city and county police and fire channels for any sudden breaking news events. When something came up, such as a multi-alarm blaze, I would run down the hall to the senior news editor’s desk and report the details of the event. It was his decision, then, whether or not to dispatch a film photographer, and perhaps a reporter, to the scene.

For this baby-boomer with plenty of aspirations, it was a glorious time to be in broadcast news. While my work was done mainly in the dispatcher’s den, it was always exciting to run into the bullpen where the news director, news editor, producers, anchors, and reporters were hard at work putting together the stories for the evening broadcasts. What were the facts of the story? How many sources? Were there the requisite multiple confirmations of the facts? When these questions could not be answered to the satisfaction of the news director or editor, there was the occasional shouting match. However, when airtime came, there was an overwhelming sense of honor and professionalism, for the stories on the air were presented in an unbiased way that upheld the time-tested principles of journalistic integrity.

My interest in broadcasting was more on the music radio side, but I was extremely glad I got the chance to work in TV news. It allowed me to set a standard of excellence and discipline that helped me to build a solid foundation for my career, wherever it might take me. That feeling of honor and journalistic integrity grew within me and registered soundly as the years went by.

Even so, a few years later in 1979, I began to see other seeds being planted that would grow deep roots and eventually yield a harvest of deadly fruit that threatened the principled values I held so dear. At the time, the seeds were presented innocently and even logically to TV station owners and managers. The name of these magic seeds was Focus Group.

A market research company, Frank N. Magid and Associates, based in the unassuming heartland state of Iowa, was offering their growing list of client TV stations the chance to conduct market studies with their constituent audiences. The viewers, having been invited by Magid to attend so-called focus groups, would be presented with a variety of video clips from the TV station and then asked for their response. The content of the clips ranged from an anchor reading the news, to a reporter out in the field, to even the hair style, clothing, make-up, vocal delivery, and overall impression of the journalist in the clip. Often, the focus groups would even include marketing slogans, logos, set design, station promotional commercials, and even surveys about what kind of news stories the public wanted to see more, the so-called top-of-mind paradigm. Whatever was presented, focus group attendees would respond by giving a thumbs up or thumbs down.

I was extremely glad I got the chance to work in TV news. It allowed me to set a standard of excellence and discipline that helped me to build a solid foundation for my career.

To put it another way, Magid was taking a cue from the world of American advertising (which had been using this form of quantitative research since around 1960). They were putting a slightly different bow on it, and packaging it to TV stations and networks in order to help them monetize their news divisions, which until then had difficulty breaking even or making a profit. Thus, as each station signed up with Magid, they made the same mistake as Eve in the Garden of Eden; they ate the innocent-looking evil fruit of market research. Now that the poison had been ingested, it would only be a matter of time before true and honorable Broadcast Journalism met its untimely death.

By the 1980’s, the health of broadcast journalism was already on a steep decline. News outfits everywhere, large and small, were subordinating almost every aspect of their operations to the whim of the market researchers and the results of their sacred focus groups. When a legacy journalist retired, video clips of the heirs apparent would be viewed in multiple group sessions and analyzed thoroughly. Up for review was not the journalistic integrity of the prospective talent, but rather their appearance, wardrobe, voice, and body movements. This gave way to two new industries: the talent agent business for negotiating contracts for news anchors, and the talent consulting businesses that helped anchors improve their craft, most of the techniques having far more to do with style and appearance than journalistic substance.

Along the way, research indicated that viewers tended to watch TV news more frequently when a crisis of one kind or other had occurred. Focus group data also demonstrated how viewers tuned in when there was a newly developing story of significance, or what has come to be known as breaking news. By the mid to late 1990’s, news networks in particular began to use the term breaking news for just about every new story they reported.

Also in the 1990’s, there was a proliferation of news channels on cable TV. The world of broadcasting is all about domination, and the legacy TV networks decided CNN had been enjoying dominance on cable long enough. NBC and FOX came on the scene with their own news programming, and in response, CNN added a few more channels to the burgeoning array. Suddenly, Americans were besieged with news content. There was one problem, however. There simply weren’t enough hard news stories to fill twenty-four hours of content on one channel, let alone four or five. So, the executive producers, in their desperate search to fill up their broadcast schedules, began to add in-depth analysis of news stories. Every channel would break a story and invite so-called experts on both sides of the table to come on the air and debate the issues centric to the story. This gave way to an explosion of new business at public relations firms all across America, and the talking heads era of TV news was born.

The broadcast schedules, however, were still not completely filled. To solve the dilemma, network executives decided to expand the scope of their programming to include more entertainment and legal stories; stories where there was not necessarily a clearly defined moral or ethical framework and which could be debated at length. This trend in the late 1990’s caused Broadcast Journalism to be rushed into intensive care, while its newer, younger, more socially relevant surrogate, known as info-tainment, stepped in to assume its role.

Viewership on many cable news channels started to drop significantly. Instead of doing some serious soul-searching, executives chose to migrate to more vertical, edgy programming in an effort to attract an increasingly fragmented audience.

There was a slight recovery in the health of broadcast journalism the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In the first few hours of coverage, TV news was unable to assemble a focus group, gather data, and present packaged, contrived and premeditated content with an agenda. They were in such shock that they simply reported the news as it happened in real time. For a few short hours on that horrifc day, TV news did its job; no more and no less. In the ensuing months, however, Broadcast Journalism was placed on life support. For, by this time, every little scare that society encountered was presented as a crisis of immense proportions.

The viewing public, however, began pushing back in the mid-2000 decade. Viewership on many cable news channels started to drop significantly. Instead of doing some serious soul-searching, executives chose to migrate to more vertical, edgy programming in an effort to attract an increasingly fragmented audience. At this stage, TV news more closely resembled a form of social engineering than anything else.

On January 12, 2010, the tiny island country of Haiti suffered a terrible 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Again, for a few hours, TV news did its job. But because there were very few journalists still working in TV news, coverage was anything but professional. On January 20, a Fox News reporter opened his introduction by saying, “The scene behind me is just like a made-for-TV movie.” At that moment, Broadcast Journalism died of heart failure.

If this story resonates in your spirit, I ask you to email it to a friend and pass it on. At some point, some in the business of TV news will probably read it. And maybe, just maybe, they will rebuke, resist, and break the stronghold of narcissism in their industry, and get a clue.