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Guest Commentary: Let’s try to fix what’s broken in local news

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Recently, a radio interviewer, thinking he could get a great “bite” from a leading Boston emergency room physician, reportedly asked: “How do you tell people to be safe?”
Since there is no answer to that question, the doctor answered: “Stop smoking. Exercise. And wear your seat belt.”
Not what the reporter expected, but perhaps the doctor is onto something. All we can do is “go back to basics.”
Is there a lesson here for us?
Remember the picture in our newsrooms before Sept. 11? Back then, which seems so long ago now, we had a chronic problem. Newscast viewership was fractured and dwindling and getting worse. A researcher who studies our industry tells me that the number of viewers avoiding local newscasts had doubled in two years.
These are our viewers. They know our anchors. They know our brands. They know our promotion.
They know us, and they do not like us!
Their reasons run the gamut. Basically, they don’t care much for our fake, breathless hysteria:
Did you know that the sheets and bedspreads in hotels are dirty?
Did you know something is lurking in your kitchen that will kill you? (and we wouldn’t tell them about it until 11 o’clock).
Did you know that sharks were devouring our entire East Coast?
Did you know that the L.A. police are chasing a very bad guy on the freeway?
Did you know that Gary Condit will cause the collapse of Western civilization?
Viewers wondered if anything we did was relevant to their lives.
And then-9:04 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Our entire world came crashing down. Real tragedy. Real anxiety. Real hysteria.
Suddenly, viewers want television news. No, they need television news. Indeed, they devour television news. Viewers are demanding-What can I do to help? What can I do to feel safe? What can I do to protect my family, my business, my community? They’re begging us to be there for them.
What the doctor ordered for America-stop smoking, exercise and wear your seat belt-is what the doctor should order for our newsrooms: go back to your journalism basics-reporting, storytelling and connecting with your community.
So, let’s visit the prescription for a moment:
Stop smoking: We need to reduce the “heat” in information, provide unvarnished, straightforward, easily-understood information. Maybe we should ban Mountain Dew from the newsroom and order up some Valium.
Exercise: We need to send our writing to the gym! It needs a gut-check. What we write, how we describe events, the exact words we choose, the tone we take-all are paramount right now. Not just in our stories, but in those teases which populate every block in every newscast.
Wear your seat belt: Hold on and tell me a stem-winder of a story.
A Greenville, S.C., mother took her 4-year-old boy to one of those many public ceremonies honoring the ground zero rescue workers. The group, including some local firemen, formed a circle. To distract him and keep him quiet, the mother gave her son a quarter.
As the group discussed the need for Americans to aid the relief effort and they prayed for deliverance, the little boy unhooked his finger from his mother’s hand, walked over to a fireman and gave him his quarter.
The story wasn’t about a prayer service.
The story wasn’t about a plea for donations.
The story wasn’t about what we can do in the face of unimaginable horror.
Yet it was all of those things.
A 4-year-old gets it … and it breaks our hearts.
Just like that Boston radio reporter, we’re desperately seeking answers. We can’t hire. We can’t do research. We can’t cover everything. We know viewers are demanding more at a time when we have fewer and fewer resources. We’re already scraping the bottom of the budget barrel.
The doctor’s prescription for America is indeed our therapy too: back to basics.
If we tell real stories, involving real people; if we’re involved in our communities and don’t pay them lip-service with just another slogan; if we help viewers get involved in the community and help them make informed decisions to make them feel safer; and if we take them places they’ve never been and show them things they’ve never seen and introduce them to more 3-year-old boys … maybe, just maybe, they will stay awhile, and come back tomorrow night at 6.
Andy Sill is news director of WYFF-TV in Greenville, S.C. He originally made these remarks before the Atlanta Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.