Why You Don't Learn Much From Watching TV News

The dismissal of three Channel Nine employees and the resignation of its Queensland news director after fake footage of a "live cross" was broadcast is a timely reminder that television news often ranks being accurate and relevant fairly low on its list of priorities. This is why watching broadcast news is generally a waste of time.

Yesterday, two TV news reporters, a producer and the news director at Channel Nine Queensland got the boot after it emerged that the network's Brisbane news broadcast had faked footage of a "live cross" to the location where police were searching for the remains of Daniel Morcombe. And Nine did it not just once, but twice. Mumbrella sums up what happened:

In both incidents, viewers were told the chopper was hovering near the search for murdered teenager Daniel Morcombe. In reality it was on the helipad at Nine’s Brisbane HQ, with the lights turned off so viewers could not tell it was on the ground.

After the deception was exposed, reporters Melissa Mallet and Cameron Price and producer Aaron Wakeley were dismissed, and news director Lee Anderson resigned. I feel sorry for those guys, because they got singled out for an extreme example of what TV news broadcasters do all the time: emphasise getting pretty pictures and looking "involved" over actually providing information, context and insight.

The visual imperative

Distant video footage of police roaming through Queensland scrub does absolutely nothing to add to the audience's understanding of the story. Neither does footage of a helicopter in an area so dark you can't see anything. But television is a visual medium, and the top priority when compiling news for TV is coming up with new pictures, not new information.

That's why, for example, TV crews stalked the family of Sydney teenager and collar bomb extortion plot victim Madeleine Pulver for days after her ordeal. The repeated pleas for privacy from the family counted for nothing against the need to get a few seconds of footage for that night's news.

Australians aren't very keen on those tactics. A survey of 1200 Australians by ACMA found that around three-quarters objected to the use of hidden cameras or extensive footage of someone grieving. However, our distaste for those approaches doesn't stop us tuning in. The ACMA study suggested 93 per cent of Australians watch a TV news service at least once a week. The number rises with age, but even amongst 18-24 year olds, the figure was 85 per cent.

Crosses and competition

Running close behind the need for pictures is the desire to make viewers feel that the station in question is deeply invested in the story, which is why the "live cross" is so often used. There's no obvious way in which hooking up via satellite to a reporter reading from a prepared script adds real value and information to a story. But from a TV network perspective, it has value: it reinforces its own news brand, by promoting the fact that its reporters are "live at the scene", even if there's nothing happening at the scene and all the relevant information was unearthed by newspaper reporters or bloggers or summed up in a press release.

Many of the other tricks used by TV news are equally vapid. Given the choice between running vox pop interviews from the public or actually explaining the sources of information used and potential biases involved, TV news will pick "random comment from guy in the street" every time. Sports news is apparently so important that it takes up between a third and a half of every bulletin, and requires a separate person to read the autocue. If a Melbourne station has to choose between reporting on a brawl involving an AFL player and a natural disaster that killed hundreds of people, the drunken jock fight story will win every time.

Competition remains fierce in TV news because masses of Australians watch those broadcasts. The 6pm news broadcasts on Seven and Nine are routinely amongst the top-rated programs of the night, often accounting for more than 2.5 million viewers between them. The ABC news normally adds another million or so, and that's not counting earlier broadcasts on the commercial networks, SBS World News, or the 24-hour services available through the ABC and Sky.

People choose to watch TV news for a variety of reasons. In many cases, I suspect it's habit: our parents watched the news at 6pm (or 7pm), so we do the same. We may well view it with a cynical eye, lamenting the emphasis on sport and minor celebrities and the lack of depth when an issue we're well-informed about gets covered. But if we keep on watching regardless, our criticisms don't count for anything. As a business, all the networks care about is that we're watching.

The dominance of TV news is clearly no longer absolute. Many of us (myself included) rely on online sources for news instead. That has its own flaws: a quick scan of the most popular stories list on any news site will demonstrate that the unholy trinity of sex, showbiz and stupidity is just as much in evidence, and the online world is all too often guilty of endlessly repeating information from a single source without checking if it's true. But at least it doesn't generally fake "live crosses" to try and establish its trustworthiness.

Are you a regular TV news viewer? What keeps you watching, and what (if anything) makes your blood boil? Tell us in the comments.

Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.


Comments

    I don't disagree with this sentiment on the whole, but the inherent bias that this column was sponsored by Bigpond and decided that online news sources are more trustworthy seems hollow and manipulative.

    Perhaps the ad that shows at the front of this article "sponsored by Bigpond" is just coincidence, but if not, lifehacker just went down in my opinion.

      FYI Telstra sponsors the Communicate section -- not individual stories as such -- so yes, it's a coincidence.

      Mate, your attempt at diminishing the truth in this story is quite poor.
      Yes this web site has advertising and yes it's Bigpong, so what, how do you think they are going to pay the bills.
      You are missing the point entirely and the point is the content.
      The content of this story is true, accurate and well put together.

      I have rarely watched TV for years, it is outdated and biased, it is generally regurgitated rubbish from the same newswire.

      The TV news directors need to stop being lazy and give the audience original and truthful analysis of current events with commentary on how it may affect their audience or they will go the way of newspapers.

      Love you anyways

    Slightly off topic but can anyone explain how Today Tonight and ACA always run the same obscure stories on the same night?

      Because a lot of news is generated from press releases, and you don't want to be the show that ran with the story the night _after_ the other channel.

    Ok... What Channel 9 did was poor and really takes a dent out of their journalistic integrity but i have seen a few fake Sky News interviews as well and no one is on their backs, it might not be to the extent of 9 but they do "interviews" is just a pre recorded interview with a different host but edited to make it look like the interviewer was the one asking the questions.

      People don't expect anything run by Rupert Murdoch to actually be factual,... Unfortunately! #{

    What really bugs me and my wife is the way they just hammer any event that they feel should be forced on us... Daniel Morcombe for one, the death of that family in the fire in Brissy, pretty much any celeb that does something out of the ordinary! Show it while its relevant, for Gods sake! and keep the story short, instead of sensationalising it... But what we get is fifteen minutes of the same story and the actual news wasn't worth broadcasting in the first place! A similar thing is happening at 'LH and "Giz" with this Steve Jobs thing, just hammering the crap out of it, until everyone who isn't a fanboy just wants to throw up! #{

      Er, we ran two posts about Jobs. Not sure how that's hammering.

        I think that was more directed at Gizmodo, where there's been over twenty articles about Steve Jobs in the past two days.

        Yeah, sorry, I kinda lump 'LH and 'Giz' into the same homoginous piece of clay, since I generally treat both sites equally! #]

    I watch the news because I find when I am reading the paper or online paper I tend to skip articles that have world relevance because I'm not looking for *that* story.

    Sitting down and watching the 45 minutes or so of news i get from channel ten seems to fill in that gap.

    The Guardian and New York Times are good for real news. Pity we don't have anything like them in Australia.

    For sources that aren't exactly news, but offer analysis and background to the big issues, try Griffith REVIEW, Crikey, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker.

    Consider getting a subscription - it will change your life!

      The Guardian is heavily biased towards the political left so I tend to balance it with the Daily Telegraph (UK right leaning), The Economist (slightly right of centre Pro-European UK) and The New Statesman (left-leaning UK). Oh, and the BBC (centre-left).

      Living in Toowoomba, I have The Toowoomba Chronicle (laughable attempt at a tabloid, known locally as the Chronic), The Courier Mail (laughable atttempt at a right-wing tabloid, barely worth wiping one's bottom with) and The Australian (the country's only national paper, centre-right and biased towards the opinion of the Murdoch empire)

      Is it any wonder that I turn to the British press for a balanced view?

    I usually watch TV news just because it's on.

    I'm keen to hear everyones recommendations for online news sources. My preference would be to get my news online rather than TV, but besides tech/gaming news I never know where to look.

    I ssometimes "comparison shop" the channel 9 news and SBS. You'd swear they were from 2 different planets. Lead items (about some boofhead "celebrity" or "sports star") on 9 don't even make the cut on SBS. Plus SBS always has an interview of someone who IS actually influencing the real news, not the parish pump gossip that appears on 9.

      I did a double-take last night when SBS news interviewed 'alex kidman', the IT journalist and gizmodo guest-editor.

    For a better analysis of international events I go to www.infowars.com
    While they are not perfect by any means and they are US centric I found the overall message to be true.

      YES!
      Alternative independent news sources are the only place you will find true news coverage.

    I love Triple J's "Hack".

    They spend a good amount of time on real issues, really nutting everything out with expert commentators or people who have proper connection and relevance to the issue, rather than using the random vox pop tactic, or 3-second sound bites.

    They devoted an entire 15 minutes of discussion in one podcast about the famine in East Africa last week - about the same amount of time that's been dedicated by all other commercial news networks over the last month on the same issue (SBS is not included in that - their coverage of real, serious unsexy issues is amazing).

      Hack is the only true Current Affairs program on any kind of Australian airwaves.

      It is true journalism. Something we should be proud to have.

        +1
        Totally agree that the only journos doing real current affairs reporting is Hack.

        Most news nowadays is sensationalist rubbish that doesn't impact society as a whole. Integrity has been missing in journalism for quite some time now...

      Hack? lol. Opinionated Uni students ranting about topics they are uneducated on.
      Coupled with the fact ABC and TripleJ are government sponsored stations, pushing whatever propaganda the current government wants them to.

        That may be your opinion of them but they're actually doing some great work from what I've listened to them. Get off your high horse and actually listen for a change. Forget your political agenda and just try...

    I hate the "live cross" when it adds nothing to the story. It reeks of Fox style showmanship, rather than real news reporting.

    Take the house fire in Brisbane the other day. Was the story better because the nightly news stations broadcast from outside the house. I would say no, if anything it makes the story worse, just more people getting in the way of the recovery effort.

    Same for the Daniel Morcombe story, even if the helicopter had been flying near the search site, how does that make the information being reported any better? Could the reporter see the shoes from his helicopter at night. Rubbish sensationalism at its best!

    I gave up on commercial TV news and gossip long ago - sometimes I will watch SBS or ABC. Mainly online news sources now, such as http://theconversation.edu.au/ [I'm not affiliated in any way - it is just one good example that quality journalism is not yet dead]

    SBS is usually better, but If I watch news on TV its usually Al Jazeera, which seems the most genuine and unbiased news source.

    Not really surprising.. I've seen these "vultures" in action, first hand, more than once and they really do act like carnivores in the most fundamental way.

    These days I get my news from the Net via a swag of RSS feeds and a couple of paid subscriptions (the main one being Crikey). I have not watched commercial TV news in years and even dear old Aunty is a bit pathetic these days. When staying with my folks for a few days earlier this week they had ABC24 on the go most of the time and there appeared to me to be 15 minutes of news repeated endlessly. The "story" they focused on was that house fire in Brisbane where so many people died. The coverage stank to high heaven...endless repeating of the same few known facts and then a whole lot of beat up nothing about people's reactions. I mean why ask QLD premier what she thinks? It would be news if she said "who cares, they probably didn't vote for me anyway" but we all know she (and any other identity) is going to say all the right platitudes over such a thing. This way we have of focusing on tragedy as the only real news sickens me.

    Other than occasional SBS and ABC news, I tend not to watch TV news. The commercial channels seem not to understand the difference between "news", "gossip", and "infomercials for one of our TV shows".

    It's all pretty sad.

      I really do HATE infomercials!
      Wrote a couple and I hated doing it, never again.

    I'm just hanging out for Monica Attard's new news site, The Global Mail http://bit.ly/pfELfn

    Drop the Dead Donkey is not far from the truth (originally on SBS and now on (ugh) 7NOW online. One of my writers at Auscam us a snr producer (well a few are actually) and he tells me thay the networks WANT to show Bad News Stories Without Happy Endings. Especially ACA/TT.

    Some online news sources can be bad - but they're the Murdoch sites like Courier Mail. The Fairfax and ABC online news sites are very good, without the garbage.

    You're FIRED!

    I haven't watched the news or read a newspaper in close to 10 years. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need to.

    Unfortunately, the news media look for pockets of trouble in the world and sensationalize it, blow it out of proportion, change the information, and feed it to the viewers/readers who live their lives by the mostly false information.

    If you were to ask most people on how they felt about the world, they would generally say that things are pretty grim. In reality the world is wonderful.

    Try it, ignore the news and commercials and watch how much better your life will be in all areas.

      Ignorance is bliss, yeah?

        Yes it is ;-)

        Ask yourself... How many events on the news do you have control over? I bet very few to none. So why take it on board? Doing so only makes a person feel terrible and in turn creates stress, anxiety and poor health.

        Remember, it's all blown out of proportion and sensationalised. Many people treat the media as a trusted friend! If you have a friend who spins stories all the time and even lies to you, do you still have them as a friend?

    The ch7 and ch9 morning shows always cross to the Hollywood news/gossip reporters in 'Hollywood'.
    They have the Hollywood backdrop, the sign, the palm trees, etc. . . but its obvious they are reporting out of Sydney.
    For one, the time delay which you normally get when someone is being interviewed on the other side of the world is not there. Theres a 'slight' delay, but thats more like an across town delay.

    I distinctively remember watching the news one particular night (one of the commercial stations) and the second top story was about a shop owner who saw on her security camera footage from the night before a snake slithering out her front door.
    They showed the footage of it, interviewed the lady, ran a good couple of minutes on the story.
    I thought "Thats it? Thats the news? Thats all that happened in the world?"

    So I switched to SBS news and what did I see? Civilians being gunned down by insurgents. Civil war breaking out. You know, 'actual' news.

    I stopped watching TV about 3 years ago. I don't own one. I have a monitor via DVI for my xbox, download all my movies and tv shows and play them on my laptop or xbox. The news's job is to sell adverts and fear to make you watch it in the first place. Do I really need to know about someone who was killed today? can i do anything about it? Nope and nope. so i don't see the point it watching it. all it does is increase anxiety.

    I get some useful info from www.democracynow.org and www.commondreams.org. Yes, these are american sites but they give often more truthful and insightful views into american news, much of which we receive here unquestioned in the world news sections of aus tv stations. Also listen to Philip Adams' interview two days ago, Fri 26 August, with a professor of Journalism challenging a lot of what passes for journalism, yet manages to keep us uninformed. http://bit.ly/rbu2JJ

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now