Superstorm Sandy brought to the fore the efficacy and immediacy provided by local television news stations. For millions of homebound New Yorkers -- those whose electrical service did not vanish -- the local TV outlets afforded gripping accounts of the unfolding disaster and its overwhelming impact on residents.
However, TV broadcast journalism has many problems: Given that news outlets must depend on ratings and advertising revenue, news programs frequently focus on trivial subjects (entertainment, fashion, etc.) or deliver simplistic, superficial accounts of complex topics like crime, health care, poverty, unemployment, and war.
International Business Times spoke with an expert on mass media to discuss the current state of TV broadcast journalism.
Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies and director of the professional studies in new media program at Fordham University in New York.
IBTimes: TV news broadcast stations are purely commercial enterprises that are driven by ratings. Do you think this is why "broadcast journalism" has become so degraded and "dumbed down"?
Lance Strate: The increasing emphasis on profits certainly exacerbates the declining quality of broadcast journalism, along with the deregulation of broadcasting that was instituted under the administration of former President Ronald Reagan, and the concomitant loss of a commitment to social responsibility on the part of media corporations.
But the fundamental problem is that the medium of television, broadcast and cable, stress immediacy and imagery, rather than careful statement of fact, in-depth analysis, and thoughtful verbal dialogue.
The broadcast news adage, "if it bleeds, it leads," sums up the emphasis on exciting visuals that captures the viewers' attention, as opposed to making determinations based on the significance and seriousness of the content.
And in the absence of dramatic footage, drama can be generated by heated exchanges between individuals, because television also favors the close-up, and puts a premium on nonverbal expression, so the cool, calm demeanor of the news anchor conveys credibility, while the pundits provide an agonistic appeal akin to boxing matches.
The medium of television is designed to deliver information quickly, instantaneously, and in favoring the rapid it ends up giving us the vapid. And the medium of television is designed to be watched, to give us visual stimulation, dramatic scenes that stimulate the emotions rather than the intellect, in contrast to print media which require a great deal of cognitive effort to decode and interpret.
IBT: Women reporters and newsreaders on TV are almost all physically attractive and slender -- some are even stunningly beautiful. Are they hired principally for their looks (as women are in the worlds of fashion and entertainment)?
Strate: Just as photography gave us the idea of being photogenic, television gives us the concept of being telegenic, which is similar but not exactly the same.
It is clear that individuals who appear on television tend to be attractive to viewers, and if not attractive, have a distinctive appearance that viewers find appealing in some way.
Coming across well on camera should not be equated with being attractive in real life, however, as some physical characteristics are over-emphasized. For example, television personalities often have larger-than-average heads in relation to their bodies, which plays well on the screen.
When it comes to television news, there are exceptions, but there is a tendency to favor a certain look, attractive but not too attractive, because even if they are just reading the news off of a teleprompter, they need to be taken seriously. This is especially true for local broadcast news, while on cable broadcasts Fox News has pushed the envelope in their emphasis on very attractive, typically blonde, conservative news personalities. Broadcasters will say that all of their journalists are qualified, and being presentable on the air is simply an added requirement of the job, but I think it is safe to say that once the minimum requirements are met, say an undergraduate degree in journalism or communication, employment comes down to looks and personality.
IBT: One sees very few women who are overweight or middle-age. Are such women "banned" from TV news broadcasts?
Strate: To say they are "banned" is perhaps too strong a word, but they are certainly not favored.
IBT: Men seem to fare better -- there are quite a number of older (and unattractive) males on news broadcasts. Or are they also increasingly hired primarily on looks, too?
Strate: This reflects our cultural notions on what constitutes “attractiveness.” Men have traditionally had the advantage of being seen as distinguished as they age, but male newscasters still tend to be handsome, or at least clean-cut, since they are provided with proper attire and immaculate hair styling.
And while men have it easier than women in the looks department, how many men on news programs can you think of who have a high-pitched voice? Broadcasters favor the baritone to convey seriousness for anchors, reporters, and analysts.
IBT: Are the ratings of these shows driven by the popularity and attractiveness of the anchors and reporters?
Strate: Yes, to an extent, but it's a tricky business. Look at the failure of Katie Couric as a network news anchor. Being “perky” is fine for a morning show that mixes news and entertainment, and perhaps for a special correspondent, but she lacked the credibility and gravitas we look for in an anchor, and it is important to understand that credibility and gravitas are dramatic qualities, relating to presentation of oneself on the audio-visual medium, a performance attribute that again brings us back to looks and personality, with the need to fit into a certain character type or role.
We can relate anchors and reporters to the host of talk shows and their associates, so popularity is based in part on those elements, and in part on the content that they are able to summon up in their roles and within their programs.
IBT: Back in the halcyon days of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, did they not also have to worry about ratings? Or did they just focus on delivering serious, hard news?
Strate: Ratings were never entirely irrelevant, but news was seen as a public service, necessarily fulfilling [Federal Communications Commission] requirements, but also the media moguls of that time like [NBC chief David] Sarnoff and [CBS boss William] Paley had a sense of pride in delivering a certain quality of journalism.
But tensions over ratings did exist back then, along with pressure from advertisers, and from government.
IBT: One sees a good number of ethnic minorities (blacks, Hispanics, Asians) on New York news stations. Are they hired according to a "quota system"? If so, do you view them as "window-dressing"?
Strate: Maybe not a strict "quota system," but there is an idea of presenting a certain mix. Some time ago, it shifted from the emphasis on male anchors to a news team consisting of an older, distinguished-looking man and a younger, attractive woman, creating a sense of family, with the sports and weather reporters being the "playful kids."
More recently, the preferred mix emphasizes racial diversity, and news programs were for a long time the only place on television where you would see Asians, often Asian women, who provided racial diversity while playing off of the stereotype of Asians as being “serious and intelligent.”
Overall, there is an almost democratic notion of having the on air mix be representative of the audience's demographics, but, of course, that is fundamentally impossible to obtain.
IBT: When a major story breaks (Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, 9-11 attacks, Iraq invasion, etc.) news stations are forced to cover it and refrain from their usual lightweight/entertainment subjects. Does this, in a way, "hurt" their ratings and advertising revenues?
Strate: For cable news stations, major events increase their ratings, which will help with advertising revenues on the whole. When there is real news, especially news that affects us, and when there is great uncertainty about what is going on, people will turn to news programming.
However, when nothing is going on, viewers will choose entertainment programs -- consequently, news channels are forced to "manufacture" news through interviews, talk, discussion, etc.
This is what Daniel Boorstin referred to as “pseudo-events” in his book, "The Image."
And they will try to present this manufactured "news" in a format that is entertaining, which has the effect of trivializing serious discourse, as Neil Postman argued in "Amusing Ourselves to Death."
IBT: I have noticed something very peculiar -- almost no one on any New York news stations has a "New York accent." Rather, they all speak in what I would call a "flat, broad, Midwestern accent." Even down South, very few TV news-readers have a "Southern accent"! Is this done on purpose? What's the point of "diversity" if everyone talks and sounds the same?
Strate: That's a longstanding practice -- the elimination or at least minimization of regional accents in broadcasting. When you are trying to reach the largest possible audience, you want to eliminate any hint of the local and regional.
A "New York accent" or a "Southern drawl" would only be played for comedy under these conditions. But it also reflects the decline of regional accents generally, which is a result of great mobility, especially more migration to the south and southwest. But what counts as "diversity" on television is not the sound, but the look, because television is a visual medium.
And given a visual bias, television favors a diverse set of attractive faces to gain the attention of its audience.
There is an interesting subtle message here, though, that there may be differences in the way we look, but that acoustically we are all Americans.
IBT: Do you think the quality of TV news broadcasting will continue to get worse?
Strate: Yes and no. As what we call television expands into an ever larger array of channels, it has opened the door to greater political bias, first with Fox News becoming the voice of conservative Republicans, and then with MSNBC becoming its mirror image on behalf of liberal Democrats.
I think we can look for further diversity of politically oriented news channels, and more specialized channels in the sense that we already have several channels devoted to business news, sports news, and the weather.
But this may also allow for one or more networks to reclaim the mantle of objectivity in reporting, and to some degree of in-depth coverage.
I believe there will be a market for high-quality journalism on television, although it may be confined to elite and highly educated audiences, much like the audiences for PBS.
Overall, though, objectivity in journalism was born out of print culture, and it is dying along with it, we're seeing a return to an electronic version of the partisan press, and in audiovisual formats sensationalism and personality will continue to dominate, while an elite minority will turn to text-based news sources for a better source of fact and opinion.