It’s tough out there for a reporter. Hey, I get it. Writers, publishers, editors and photojournalists, they’re all in a bad way these days. What was once considered a noble profession, the lynchpin of democracy, now finds itself perpetually on the brink. It’s besieged on all sides by brands and bloggers and politicians who can easily bypass the once established gatekeepers. It’s constantly under threat of “disruption.” This is a world where people customize their news, and they’re beginning to think quite little of the fourth estate. We are witnessing the steady erosion of the media landscape, with journalists’ integrity following closely behind. After all, they’re in the same business as the producers of Jersey Shore.
It’s lead to the rise of ridiculous TV news tropes that no one enjoys but from which we can never seem to escape. Tropes that hurt media’s credibility as an authoritative voice operating on the public’s behalf with little to show for it. So, I’m begging you: step back from the brink, and knock this off.
1. Making someone stand outside in a hurricane
Or a blizzard, or on the edge of a dock while 40-foot waves crash against the rocks behind them. A trusty trope in the Action News toolkit designed to ratchet the intensity up to X-treme levels, shooting a stand-up from inside a burning building or similarly dangerous location is quite possibly the most distracting way to deliver information. Not because it makes for jaw-dropping visuals so compelling you’ll want to break the remote in half for fear of accidentally changing the channel, but because we, the audience sitting safely at home having to endure these five minutes, can’t help but wonder what that Red Shirt Reporter did that was so bad management is now actively trying to kill them with a disaster zone. Not even Anderson Cooper can pull it off.
Incidentally, we all have smartphones with GPS and weather apps. No one should have to suffer through that unique brand of awkward banter between anchors and reporters just to find out it’s probably better you wear your coat today since it’s January.
2. Reading social media posts
If live remotes in bad weather are desperate cries for excitement, this is the exact opposite. In an attempt to breathe life into an old medium with new ideas, there are times when news anchors will, for whatever reason, drop all pretence of factual reporting and instead simply just, y’know, read random tweets and Facebook posts on the air, sort of like you do when you’re waiting in line to get your coffee. This is often done as an easy way of crowdsourcing public opinion, or during breaking news events when no one seems to know just what is going on but there are still 10 minutes to fill before the next break. It is neither helpful nor informative, two qualities viewers are ideally looking for when trying to learn about something. Since it relies on fast-moving social networks though, it is highly susceptible to bad information. So it can be funny, sometimes. This seems like the product of a tragic brainstorming session that began with a producer writing “JOURNALISM 2.0" on a whiteboard.
3. Getting tased/stabbed/shot on the air
If one thing is clear from 24-hour news coverage, it’s that the world is a dangerous place. At any given moment, there are so many terrible crimes and conflicts raging across the globe punctuated by acts of horrific violence it can be difficult to muster the courage to even walk outside in the morning. Perhaps that’s why, every now and then, a segment will air demonstrating some new gadget meant to keep you safe in this dog-eat-dog world. And invariably, the network enlists some poor bastard to stand up and give the thing a try, to show the folks at home either how much something hurts, or how much it won’t hurt because you’re wearing protection.
These stories are ostensibly framed around safety, but are more an excuse for us to watch someone get tased, stabbed, or shot. I assume the reporters who get these assignments either have a death wish or are valued even less than their colleague currently reporting from inside a tsunami.
Now, while I and most others in the TV audience have no direct experience with any of these things, as a functioning adult who has his eyes connected to his brain, I understand that having electricity or pieces of metal pass through my body can be painful, and something I should generally seek to avoid. A 3-minute clip from the local news isn’t covering a startingly revelation. It’s just a mediocre appeal to our collective bloodlust…
4. Treating terror attacks like prime-time dramas
…or maybe those were just preparing audiences for the main event. The way most TV news outfits cover terrorist attacks, while they are happening as well as their aftermath, is not only deplorable, but actually does more harm than good. During a time of extreme anxiety, when people are scared and confused, and even uncertain of their very place in the world, TV news moves to exploit rather than inform in hopes of keeping people from changing the channel. Attacks like the ones popping up in Africa and Euope and the U.S. are treated like installments in long-running dramas for onlookers’ entertainment.
A terrorist attack amplifies the worst of the previous tropes, as if they were all soaked in a concoction of Red Bull, cocaine, and fire, and then cranked up well beyond 11. Reporters will be sent into harm’s way to give reports of spotty substance from the middle of crowds, and social posts from virtually anyone will be plastered across the screen to fill in any gaps. And while they may come faster and more breathlessly as things unfold, these reports rarely offer the information necessary to lend the situation appropriate context. That comes later. Instead, they sew fear, resentment, sorrow and hostility – and keeps people glued to the screen.
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And yet, despite lacking in any depth the coverage repeats, with descriptions of blood and body counts laid out in grim, voyeuristic detail. In wanting to captivate their audience, journalists are letting their rhetorical flourishes get the better of them. Their storytelling doesn’t just add colour of these stories, it warps them, makes them seem otherworldly, and in the process drains them of the reason and objectivity that is so desperately in these extreme situations.
TV news is a tough business, having to walk a difficult line between being informative and entertaining. But rather than strike a balance, most networks seem to have fallen off the deep end, peppering their coverage with a series of increasingly bizarre stunts that would be insulting to the audience if they weren’t so sad. And on top of all that, in times when we rely on the news the most, in times of overwhelming duress when we are at our most vulnerable, the producers and directors and everyone else move to turn tragedy into an opportunity to boost their own standing in the media landscape rather than out understanding.
Please, no more. The nonstop drive to maximize fear and outrage is exhausting. Put down the parkas. Stop scrolling through Twitter. Just tell us what is happening in the world without edging us closer to the cliff. We could all do with a break.