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Editorial: TV news at its best and worst

Feb 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As the nation has witnessed time and again, from the JFK assassination to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, television ascends to its highest purpose in times of tragedy. On Feb. 1, when the space shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas, television was there again for a nation in shock, providing the latest and most thorough information available on a story that, for at least a few hours, galvanized the American public.
In the quick response by news units during the first moments of the disaster, and in the tireless coverage during the hours that followed, we saw the men and women of network and cable news at their best. Unfortunately, as the hours passed and there was little new to say, the tragedy also revealed that that TV news has yet to learn the meaning of the word “overkill.”
By sometime Saturday afternoon these same news operations that had performed brilliantly all morning ran out of news. Then came the inevitable: the catchy graphics packages, the dreaded parade of marginal “experts” and the endless hours of pointless speculation from talking heads, as each news outlet scrambled to trump the competition in a futile search for an angle that hadn’t already been beaten to death.
Not unlike a fast-moving freight train, once the news express gets up to full speed it’s all but impossible to stop. It’s easy to come away with the impression that the men and women of TV news may be a little too comfortable in the national spotlight. Once they get the public’s attention they seem reluctant to let it go.
Chalk it up not only to human nature but also to the nature of the competitive marketplace. Regardless, the inability of news units to admit when enough is enough has become an embarrassment for the industry. Meanwhile, placing so much emphasis on showmanship and one-upmanship undermines the purpose of TV news: to shine light on the issues and stories, not on itself.
The shuttle tragedy also tested TV in other ways. While we all shared in the heartache of the tragic loss of life, there were immediate questions about how NASA monitors the shuttle program, whether the administration had cut its budgets too deeply and why the government allowed our space fleet to age without a clear plan to replace it. TV news doesn’t do nearly as well in dealing with such shadowy questions as it does when obvious heroes and villains are involved. It may not be as sexy, but if TV is to be the prime source of news for generations to come, it must find a way to deal with these serious subjects.
It’s high time the media learn to prioritize better. Where was the coverage of the space program when NASA was fighting budget battles? For a decade that story wasn’t hot enough to be a ratings grabber. But last week it was suddenly all the rage among news operations desperate to fill time with anything shuttle-related.
TV news must resist the temptation to turn tragedy into a commodity in the fight for ratings. And it must do its job more consistently during the dry spells between big national events. It’s not about keeping viewers from turning to another news channel. It’s about keeping them from tuning out the news altogether.