Over the past two weeks I have been quite the news junky. I’ve hardly been able to peel myself away from the major news sites on the internet. On several occasions this week I’ve read a couple of different newspapers (which is rare, I hardly ever read newspapers). I’ve listened to a lot of NPR and I’ve inevitably watched a lot of television.When I woke up last Monday morning the first thing I did was run to the television to see how bad the damage from hurricane Katrina was. After watching a few minutes, and seeing only the first trickle of footage coming from down south, I turned to the internet to read about it. And I repeated this scenario several times throughout the week.
Being exposed to newspapers, television, internet news-sites and even blogs all covering the same event has gotten me thinking about how the different media have covered the event. Each media seems to come with its own set of strengths and weaknesses.
Although television is capable of delivering pictures that clearly more emotional and easier to relate to than the other media, I find it to be one of the worst media for delivering news. This is not entirely the fault of the newscaster and journalists themselves, but rather a fundamental flaws in the media itself.
And here’s a few reasons why:
News does not happen 24 hours a day.
Cable TV news networks stream news to us constantly, often even when there really isn’t much of a story.
One inherent flaw of television news is that the networks must retain viewers, so they are reluctant to ever say “tune in tonight, when we’ll have more for you on this, but for now there’s nothing going on.” Normally what happens is, they find something that looks spectacular on television (like live footage of a house on fire or someone being rescued by helicopter) and treat it with the same gravity as they did the previous story.
There is no commentary, there is only debate. And there’s not much debate, there’s mostly yelling.
Jon Stewart appeared on Crossfire last year and asked for the commentators to “please stop, you’re hurting the country.” I really couldn’t agree more. Shows like this always have the same premise: Put on a conservative and a liberal and have them yell about an issue.
The things said are rarely informative, and nothing is ever accomplished. It’s not news. It’s not even insightful commentary. It’s crap.
There is rarely a summary of the day.
The nightly network news is an exception, but rarely do you ever see cable news back up and tell us what happened today. Or better yet, what happened over the past few months, years, decades that led up to this point.
During the coverage of the Iraq War, the networks would mention that the United States once supported Saddam Hussein. But I never caught why (of course it had to do with Hussein fighting against Iran, the United States at the time figured he was the lesser of two evils, but I didn’t learn that from TV news). What led Saddam to power? When? What was the chain of events that led up to where we are now? Why are there photos of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Hussein? Take time away from covering the Raelians and “debate” shows and back up and give us a summary.
The “News Scroll” Chyrons.
I’m sure they seemed like a good idea at the time. And they can be helpful, for example when a local station announces school closings or weather warnings or when a sports station announces scores for games not being televised. But as an informer of news, they are worthless. FoxNews seems to be the worst offender, throwing up headlines like “Roberts Hearings to Begin Monday” and “Victims to Get $2K Debit Cards”. They say little and explain nothing.
No “letters to the editor” or “corrections section”
Every Thursday on NPR, letters are read on air and corrections are made. Normally, they are minor but it is nice that they corrected it. Same goes for newspapers and magazines. I also find it comforting to see letters to the editor published, especially when the letter does not cast the printing newspaper in good light.
I’m sure that it happens, but I’ve never caught TV news mentioning mistakes they’ve made, or allowing criticism on air. And I know they make some mistakes worth criticizing.
There’s no “putting things into context”, in either time or space.
Much of the TV News coverage of the Katrina aftermath was utterly confused. Often times I had no idea which part of the city the news cast was in. Rarely was it explained to me when the footage I was watching was actually shot. I’ve seen the same footage on different times of the day on different days.
Television is simply not well suited for graphics, I understand that. Television is just plain better when it involves you emotionally. Viewers want to see the harrowing footage of fires and helicopters blowing shingles off of roofs. Viewers get bored when you show a map of the city and actually explain where the footage was taken, where the reporters are reporting from, where the water came from, which parts of the levees broke and so on. Is the Garden District flooded? Show a graphic explaining which parts of New Orleans are under water.
Having been there just a handful of times, I’m only vaguely familiar with New Orleans, and this week I’ve relied heavily on newspapers and internet to help me navigate the jarring shifts from the French Quarter to the Super Dome to the Garden District and suddenly over to Biloxi.
Television graphics are woefully inadequate when it comes to anything in-depth. TImelines, for example, are often laid out in newspapers, the internet, and magazines. And timelines work great at showing events happening, in context, in chronological order. Watching the news on television left me thoroughly confused as to when things happened and where.
And there-in lies the big problem with Television News. So much of news, at least the important parts, is tedious details and information. Television doesn’t do this well. Television is great at offering spectacle and images and grabbing us emotionally, but fails us all with what some would say is the boring details.