EMPATHIZE, PERSONALIZE, HUMANIZE

by Al Goldstein

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the newspeople, but I do question if empathy exchanges belong in a newscast.

Generally, they are emotionally based and contain little or no useful information.  Words such as “tragedy” and “shame” are editorial judgments and personal opinion.  The audience may very well agree, but it’s up to the viewer alone to make that decision based on factual information presented in the story. 

THE PERSONAL EXCHANGE

This exchange popped up on Channel 4 at the end of an Olympic report on the new body-hugging swim suits.

Reporter: “...Wendy, if you’re interested, it’ll cost you about $225, but I’ll bet you’d look pretty smart in that suit.”

Anchor: “Well thank you very much. But I think I’ll pass on that…. Kind of you to say that though.”

Co-anchor:  “You know people are going to be wearing those suits….”

Anchor: “Oh my goodness….”

Co-anchor: “...inside of 6 months, every place, whether they’re racers or not.”

Anchor: ...”to work.”

At the end of a Channel 7 story about old movie theaters and efforts to save them from demolition or conversion to other commercial use:

Reporter: “...the inside will be turned into a gymnasium. A gym, I am told, that will also show movies while you work out.  I’m not sure I like the idea of Humphrey Bogart watching me while I work out, but it’s an innovative idea, none the less.”

Anchor: “Incentive maybe, I don't know.”

Co-anchor: “I’d be more worried about Lauren Bacall lookin’ at me when I’m working out...I’d have envy...She looks so good she’d just keep you going.”

    Anchor: “Absolutely.”

    Co-anchor: “I love those old movie houses...”

    Weatherman: “...nice and quaint and a lot of charm and character.”

    Co-anchor:  “As do you.”

This type of chitchat is a common element in local television news.  The conversations, themselves, are mostly pointless, but no journalistic standards are violated.  Their purpose is to show the anchors as likable, warm and friendly and that you, the viewer, will respond by watching.

THE HUMAN EXCHANGE

     This example is from Channel 5.

      Anchor: “Mr. Sussman?”

      Weatherman: “Yes.”

      Anchor: “The weather...”

      Weatherman: “But first...”

      Anchor: “...poopy.”

      Weatherman: “Yeah, OK.”

      Anchor:  “I know, I know, I know...”

      Weatherman: “Poopy cool or poopy too hot?  What is it?”

      Anchor: “Poopy cool.”

      Weatherman: “OK. A little too cool for you?”

      Anchor: “Yes.”

      Weatherman: “OK.”

This exchange confirms that anchors are not just cold messengers of bad news, but warm humans, capable of using the word “poopy.”

My favorite exchange was missing on the nights sampled.  It normally follows a weather-related story.  Here’s a re-creation.

      Anchor: “Thanks for that report Joe. Stay (cool), (warm) or (dry) out there.”

      Reporter: (forced grin) “OK Lou.”

The reporter must wonder how to stay cool, warm, or dry, while covering the story and doing a live shot without getting hot, cold, or wet.

It’s an empty exchange, but it does show the anchor cares and is concerned about the welfare of a “family” member, if only for a fleeting moment.

Behind these exchanges, sometimes called “chitchat” or “cross talk”, are news consultants.  They have been selling the concept to clients for the last 15 to 20 years, and when station clients buy something, they normally use it.

The concept is not journalistic; that’s not its intent. Its intent is to evoke warm feelings and friendship between newspeople and the viewer.  The consultants want to give you another reason to watch a particular newscast.

I’ve heard station managers describe it as “retail.” It means that if a newscast is like a supermarket, then there is information, anchors, sets, graphics, music and chitchat for sale. If you don’t like our set, then please try our chitchat.

Some stations plan their chitchat in advance and set aside time for it in their newscasts. Several exchanges in the same newscast can total two or more minutes.

In a half-hour, excluding weather, sports, commercials, and promotions, the average time for news is 12 minutes or less. The exchanges result in even less time for the important news of the day.

Grade the News sampled three newscasts of the four large commercial bay area TV stations on August 4th, 9th, and 12th.

We found that the newscasts on Channels 5 and 7, on the nights surveyed, had the highest number of personality-driven exchanges and devoted the most time to them.

Channel 4 was significantly lower in number and amount of time.

The acting news director at Channel 4, Stacy Owen, said “we do not ask the reporters to address the anchors…. It is not legislated...and there is no consultant-driven direction.”

Channel 2 was virtually a chitchat-free zone.

Channel 2 News Director Andrew Finlayson said he refused to warm up his anchors, despite consultant urgings to do so.  Finlayson quotes his boss Kevin O’Brien as saying “Consultants and research are like perfume. You sniff it, you don’t swallow it.”

It is interesting, and there is no suggestion of cause and effect here, that the stations that have the most exchanges and devote the most time to them are the ones that receive the lowest scores from Grade the News in overall newscast quality.

--Al Goldstein is former news director at KRON.

 

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