More business than journalism

Erosion: The media's values have become dominated by what sells, rather than what matters.

May 21, 2000|By Rich Robertson

PHOENIX - When I told my television station's news director a few months ago that I intended to end nearly 30 years in print and broadcast journalism, I borrowed a line from a former British minister's resignation letter. I said I wanted to spend more time with my principles.

I don't think he understood. How could anyone walk away from a job that many people would kill to have?

Pay and benefits were certainly not an issue. And I thoroughly enjoyed and admired the people I worked with. The public recognition was nice, too.

But somewhere along the line, journalism's values (or, more accurately, what journalism values) had diverged from mine.

I'm not alone. A new study by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that four in 10 journalists, both print and broadcast, now admit to working in an environment that increasingly asks them to avoid "newsworthy" stories to benefit the financial interests of their "news" organizations. These journalists believe market pressures are pushing them toward the salacious and sensational and away from the complicated and important.

I was among the four in 10 journalists.

I began feeling I was doing a disservice to the TV audience by telling them only what was happening rather than why. I felt it was unfair to compress complex subjects into a few breathless seconds or inches. I was embarrassed when my stories were so often oversold, or just wrong, in "promos" and "teases." I was frustrated that news is defined as being whatever is urgent rather than what is "important."

"Breaking news" becomes the most important news, even if there's no news to report.

I cringed that every story had to be "shocking" or some kind of superlative, even if it wasn't: "a parent's worst nightmare," "a story you must see," "an exclusive interview" (with someone who is constantly being interviewed).

I once suggested to a news manager that we program the Alt-H keys on the computer keyboard to automatically insert hype into every story.

Television, in particular, is increasingly in the business of marketing itself, not the news. The primary criterion is that a story be promotable. In fact, story promos usually get more air time than the stories themselves.

Putting out a competent, useful news product isn't the goal. The only goal is to have the largest viewer- or readership.

Sadly, criticisms I'd dismissed for years -- "You're only doing this to sell more newspapers or get higher ratings" -- are now coming true.

For example, I was heartened one morning a while back to hear a group of news managers discuss doing a story about the local fallout of the Asian economic crisis. The electronics industry, in particular, could be affected, leading to lost jobs and distressed families. It was an important local story.

But the discussion fell silent when one producer asked, "How do we avoid the glaze factor?" Those are the code words for "It's boring." Everyone looked at each other and shrugged.

"Well, how about the double murder?" someone else offered. They were off and running.

I've always known that news is a business. You have to have readers and viewers to be able to attract advertisers who pay the bills, including your salary. But we tried to separate ourselves by saying that if we do good journalism, readers and viewers and therefore advertisers will come.

That is no longer true. Now, journalists are forced to pander to the same gawker reflex that causes traffic to snarl near car wrecks. We want viewers and readers to slow down to see us, so we give them a whole bunch of car wrecks and other forms of mayhem.

It isn't just television. Newspapers, radio and Web-based news services are suffering from many of the same pressures cited in the Pew Center study.

Newspapers have pared their staffs or shifted them away from fulfilling a socially critical but apparently financially unprofitable role of public watchdog.

As the pressures increase, journalists, both individually and organizationally, have little time to think, let alone be thoughtful.

Get on the air or in print. Move on to the next story.

I'm not suggesting that all news shows become the Bloomberg Report or be like demolition derby. Somewhere, there's a balance.

Do the crime/accident story, but don't bludgeon it with "team coverage" and reaction sound bites from people who always say they are shocked it happened in their quiet neighborhood.

Give the headlines so that viewers and readers have a sense of what's happening in their community, but devote time to the important topics.

"Important" is more difficult. It's hard to take pictures of it; it's harder to understand and then explain it. And it's hardest of all to make it compelling. But that's what professional journalists are supposed to be able to do.

Rich Robertson is a former city editor and investigations team leader for the Arizona Republic and investigative reporter for Channel 5 (KPHO) and Channel 12 (KPNX) in Phoenix. This article first appeared in the Arizona Republic.

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