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.

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