Itís news to me?

By Jim Youngquist

[OCT. 28, 2000]  The entire news industry seems to be having a great cathartic struggle. It recently came to light as network television stations wrestled over what to do about the sagging, flagging and falling ratings for coverage of blockbuster news events such as the Sydney Olympics, the Republican and the Democratic national conventions. All three of these events were bombs for the networks. They lost viewers, they lost money and they believe they have lost face. The problem, they say, is that these events should no longer be regarded as news.

The Olympics in Sydney wasnít "news" because by the time NBC rebroadcast their tapes of the Olympic event, the viewing public already knew who the winners and losers were, because the "news" came to us over the Internet, the medium which is ready when you are, unlike television, which is ready when you arenít. The networks are actually thinking of giving up on the fierce competition for the broadcast rights to the summer games and instead moving on to other events which are far more newsworthy and far more attention-getting, like professional wrestling.

The networks say the Republican and Democratic national conventions are no longer "news," and therefore the network television stations will no longer spend the big bucks to broadcast them. Even the pundits are saying that the conventions, which were previously highly regarded as newsworthy events, are now nothing more than three-day-long infomercials for the party, with their pre-rehearsed, prepackaged, already-heard-it before speechmaking and the announcement of their pre-convention-picked, everyone-knew-it-before-the-convention-anyway nominee.

 

They seem to be wrestling with the same problem in both of these cases, but they have come up with the wrong conclusion and cast it in wrong pile. And their decisions over these two rating losers may cause long-term changes for the worse in the entire news industry.

The two elements, they purport, that make news important and newsworthy are RATINGS and SURPRISE. They say that valuable news commands great ratings. Without ever-increasing audience share and without increased ratings, news, they say, is of little value. Therefore, every news event must have some sensational edge, command greater audiences than any previous event, and, if it fails to draw in the majority of the viewing public, will be cut from the budget and left for sub-class or non-network broadcasters to pick up. If this is the case, watch for the summer Olympics of 2010 to be a $200 pay-per-view event on Directv rather than a network television news extravaganza.

The problem with being RATINGS-driven is that after a while you will begin to do almost anything for more audience share. Take for instance the status and condition of many British and European newspapers that have moved away from good, conservative journalism and news-reporting values and become scandal sheets that attempt to gain audience share by reporting news that manipulates or exposes or sensationalizes or even invents news in a manner not unlike grocery-store tabloids such as the Examiner or the Sun. Imagine for a moment an entire news industry that purports that the only important news is not news at all but is instead based on ribald lie and scandalous trash.

 

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The problem with being SURPRISE-driven is that surprise is not the right quality with which to measure news. Surprise is up there right alongside shock, and news doesnít have to be shocking to be good-quality reporting. The best news stories I have read, heard or seen in my life were not necessarily the ones which caused my jaw to drop and hit the floor or the ones which made me do a double take and change the channels to make sure that I had heard it right. I donít need to be taken aback by the news. The news industry should never be compromised by the temptation to take our breath away or by competition to see which anchor can stun us into coming back tomorrow to see what startling thing he or she will say next. Hearing, seeing or reading the news shouldnít necessarily be accompanied by a sudden rush of adrenalin or have the capacity to cause a mild coronary or stroke.

The networks are wrestling with RATINGS and SURPRISE because both of these short-term qualities are directly connected to their bottom line, and unfortunately, money may soon dictate the quality and the definition of news.

 

News is far more than ratings and far more than surprise. News is telling the story of your people, your community, your country and your world. It does not compromise the facts in order to gain market share or get a higher rating. It does not discard stories that fail to gain a greater audience than last week or last year because their entertainment value is low. News should be new but not shocking and not always surprising. Sure, there will be news stories here and there in our lifetimes that will shock or surprise us, but not every story should have those values, and stories and events that donít take our breath away need to be told even though their sensational value is nil. News is our story, and each story will naturally have people who are either interested or not.

So take note, news industry. Show us the good news, show us the bad news, show us the fast-paced news and show us the slow as well. We donít need to be entertained. We only ask to be kept informed.

[Jim Youngquist]

 

 

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