Good News and Bad News
for Television Journalism
Overall, television news is losing sight of citizens in its quest to deliver as many consumers to advertisers and maximize profit, said speaker after speaker.
Former ABC News Executive Producer Av Westin said that minute-by-minute ratings are used to keep African-American reporters and anchors off the air because these measures of audience size show blips when black talent is reporting. In over 100 interviews with network journalists, he said he was told “blacks don’t give us good demo[graphic]s [viewers with good customer potential].”
“We are on a downward slope,” Westin said, “the bottom line has trumped the journalistic line every single time.” His generation of news directors was trained by Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly and Walter Cronkite, Westin explained, but the current generation of news executives are schooled only in “ratings, ratings, ratings.”
Rick Kaplan, former news executive and producer at CNN and ABC News, said the minute-by-minute audience ratings are being used more and more to decide what’s included and what’s not in newscasts, to the detriment of journalism. “It’s a tremendous mistake to ask what people want from the news,” he said. “We may expect more of the public than it can deliver, but that shouldn’t make a difference in how you report the news.” Avoiding telling people what they don’t want to know for fear they will switch channels is “the opposite of journalism.”
Kaplan, who recently resigned as executive producer of CNN, said producers now calculate the cost/benefit ratio of stories. “You now think twice when you send crews…. Is this a story that’s going to get me an audience return.”
Journalism Professor David Kurpius reported on surveys of local TV news showing 26 percent of news time spent on crime. Education rated less than 5 percent of the newscasts. “Fear is entertaining,” commented Matthew Kerbel, another journalism teacher.
In his keynote address, Professor Robert McChesney, argued that the “glory days” of American journalism lie in the past--from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. Issues important to the poor and lower middle class are overlooked by news corporations focused on the wealthier consumers advertisers favor.
“Business news is going mainstream,” he noted, while labor reporting languishes. The number of prisoners in the U.S. has tripled recently, but attracted little notice because most inmates come from poor families. White collar crime is rarely reported and not rigorously prosecuted, he said.
McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois and author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, charged that public relations practitioners hired by powerful companies and government do more and more of the reporting for newsrooms in which fewer reporters attempt to fill more newscast time and space on web sites.
--John McManus (the author participated on one of the panels)