April 24th, 2007 12:27 EST
News as Improv - Hot Copy #23
News as improv (Transcript of Del Marbrook’s Hot Copy, a weekly podcast #23.)
The emotionalization of news may be rooted in the late 1950s when editors decided that a microscopic approach to macroscopic news would help readers understand issues.
The editors’ thinking went like this: Congress amends the tax code, but instead of wading into the details, starting with the most important ones first, the writer paints a portrait of an average family and how it will be affected by the amended code.
There was always a problem inherent in this approach. There is no average family. There is only the writer’s construction of an average family. That problem has never been resolved. But from the 1960s onward newspapers tended to approach complicated stories by describing the impact of issues one or two people with whom the reader presumably finds much in common.
Once you accept the idea that averages are always elusive, you run smack dab into another problem with this approach. The story, with its rich array of subtleties, tends to get oversimplified. Once you’ve decided to relate everything to an average protagonist you start looking for all the issues you can throw away to keep the focus of the story.
Many prizes have been won by this approach. But it has its limitations. It was based on a widespread perception in the industry that the old wire service style of story writing had become outdated. This style required that stories be a pyramid, with the most important facts at the start. Such stories could be handily cut from the bottom. In many instances editors would take a 21-inch story and reduce it to a three-inch sidebar by simply snipping off the bottom.
In other instances several wire stories were pieced together or melded into one story by a rewrite man in order to get the benefit of the essentials of each story.
But there was a growing concern that with the advent of television readers were losing patience with recitals of facts. When this concern first voiced itself evening papers were often dominant and tended to use more human interest stories and photographs than morning newspapers. But soon rush hour traffic was killing off the evening papers—the delivery trucks simply couldn’t get into the suburbs and exurbs on schedule—and so editors had to decide how to write and design morning newspapers, which had tended to be drier than their evening counterparts.
Television, always seeking to press its visual and kinetic advantages, was nudging the newspaper industry towards a more emotional approach to news. An industry that had prided itself on not being theater was hustled by economics towards theatricality. Just as the television and newspaper industries must now compete for advertising with the Internet, so the newspaper industry had to compete in the late 1950s and 1960s with television. Inevitably editors sought to make their pages more entertaining. Then, in the 1980s, as media groups bought up independent newspapers, the corporate comptrollers realized that the trend towards entertainment could help them cut costs. Covering Hollywood, for example, is infinitely cheaper than covering Washington, because Hollywood spares no expense to get attention. This was very good news for the mega-corporations, but it has proven to be very bad news for the public.
Like every trend carried too far, this one ran from syrupy to silly last week when a deranged student killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. Television reporters were making like therapists, asking students how they felt, holding their hands, trying to convey their empathies to the camera. By and large the students were too traumatized to say how they felt, and the reporters would have learned more by asking them specific questions. Reporters are not therapists or chaplains. They are not experts or pundits. But their bosses have put so much pressure on them to dissuade viewers from switching channels that the reporters are becoming entertainers.
Television’s idea of in-depth reporting is to find a talking head to expound on something, ask a few leading questions, and then make appreciate noises in response. It’s evident from most television reportage that we’re watching celebrities, not thoughtful people who read. People who don’t read can’t ask thoughtful questions. TV news is produced, not reported, and to the extent to which newspapers have followed TV’s example journalism has suffered.
The advent of citizen journalism may redress some of these defects, and a debate ought to begin about whether our education system has failed to inculcate in students the idea that democracy is not a free ride. To sustain a democracy we have to do our homework. We have to read, ask questions, and hold both government and the Fourth Estate responsible for telling us the truth so that we can make responsible decisions. If TV reportage is hair-brained it is as much our fault as television’s. If we prefer a tonnage of infotainment compared to ounces of information, then we had better be prepared to pay the price. What is the price? Crooked politicians, piratical businessmen and an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, the very gap which history has taught us always brings on violence and revolution.
Some of the breathtaking changes in journalism that we have seen were brought on by changing demographics, unremitting suburban sprawl. Some were brought on by technological advances, and those advances continue to accelerate, and some were brought on by a change in ethos. Society has not caught up with either the changes in technology or ethos. We still lack sophisticated business models for web journalism. And our view of journalism remains mired in the Gilded Age when tycoons owned newspapers for better or worse. Today most of them are owned by conglomerates that have no loyalty to circulation areas, to readers or to the very idea of publishing for the common good.
There is one other factor that now must be added to this mix. The environment. It takes 17 trees to make a ton of newsprint. To print more than 1.6 million copies of its massive Sunday edition, The New York Times, according to Vanity Fair, consumes about 62,860 trees. How long can that last?