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Opinion

December 12, 2013

JEFFREY McCALL: TV news blunders diminish public support

Viewers want more than ratings stunts

(Continued)

• NBC “Today” show hosts Matt Lauer and Al Roker received digital prostate exams live on national TV. Thankfully, cameras stayed outside the examination room. Promoting awareness of men’s health is one thing, but doing on-air stunts to sensationalize the process is another.

These problems aren’t merely technical glitches. They are serious errors in journalistic judgment that accumulate in the public mind, creating a corrosive effect that ultimately scares sensible news consumers away from the television medium.

The television news industry has plenty of solid journalistic talent eager to provide the nation’s citizens with a news agenda of substance. The disturbing component of this decline in television news professionalism is that corporate executives in tall towers deprive these professional reporters from doing their jobs.

Corporate big shots, many with no understanding of news or its function, look at television news divisions only as revenue producers. Out-of-touch consultants are allowed to drive the journalistic bus, literally tracking ratings minute by minute and overlooking the bigger picture. Thus, cable channels go with saturation coverage of Jody Arias and stranded cruise ships to generate artificial ratings jolts, while ignoring stories with broader relevance. For example, the new health care overhaul got on the TV agenda only when the rollout problems became too big to ignore. There was scant coverage of the matter, however, in the three years from passage to rollout, when some watchdogging might have been helpful.

Longtime CBS reporter Daniel Schorr was hired by the legendary Edward R. Murrow in the early days of television. Schorr later criticized television news of blurring the line between fantasy and reality by using “the tools and techniques of entertainment.” Television news as entertainment does a poor job at both functions. Audiences need TV news with a purpose that goes beyond stunts and crass ratings grabs.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle. Contact him at jeffmccalldepauw.edu.

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