Ethics, Trust on RTNDA Agenda

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

A Pew Research Center study last year found that 53 percent of people don’t believe what the mainstream media reports. That’s a big problem and one of the stickier issues the Radio-Television News Directors Association plans to address at its annual convention, in Las Vegas this week.

On the list of topics for this year’s gathering-which runs concurrent with the National Association of Broadcasters convention-are trust, ethics, leadership, terrorism and localism.

Those are also the issues that news executives at local stations, station groups and national networks cite as top concerns for broadcast journalism today. The RTNDA is expecting 1,200 to 1,300 attendees at the convention. Last year’s convention drew 1,200.

Given the current tenor of skepticism of the news media, in part due to the “60 Minutes” fiasco last year and because of concerns regarding video news releases, the ethics sessions will likely be well attended, including a Tuesday morning panel, “Tough Calls and the Credibility of Journalism Today.” Barbara Cochran, RTNDA president, said that session’s panelists will address how to handle retractions, sourcing and similar matters. “[They will address] how do you handle the situation where you believe you have made a mistake in your reporting,” she said.

Along the lines of the credibility debate, the convention will also tackle the heightening profile of bloggers and the impact they are having on journalism, during a Wednesday morning session, Ms. Cochran said. “That’s where bloggers tie in, because news programming is under scrutiny from all kinds of people more than ever before. You really have to be very clear about what your policies and standards are and how you make sure everybody in your newsroom knows what they are,” she said.

Also on Wednesday, the convention will feature a panel on how to localize global news, an issue many broadcasters experienced firsthand as they covered the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami. The purpose of the panel is to demonstrate how a story of such tragic scope can be relevant to a local community, she said.

In fact, Ms. Cochran thinks the local connection needs to be top of mind for broadcasters. It may seem obvious, but localism is the key differentiator for a local broadcaster and that should be embraced, she said. “There are millions of different news sources trying to tell you about the Social Security debate, but there aren’t that many trying to tell you about your local schools. You can really win by distinguishing yourself, by telling those stories,” she said.

Steve Schwaid, senior VP of news and programming for NBC Universal Television Stations Group, agrees. “We need to make sure we understand the needs of our viewers, understand what’s driving our viewers’ behavior as they go for sources of news,” he said. For instance, the huge divide in the 2004 presidential election between blue states and red states only underscores how important it is for journalists to understand the viewers and all their differences, he said.

“I think the red state/blue state phenomenon gives us an opportunity to take a pause and say, ‘Do we fully understand our viewers’ needs?’ and to make sure we educate our people and spend time with our producers and our managers to make sure everybody gets it,” he said. “We should be asking questions for the community and answering questions for the community.”

Local broadcasters also must take steps to ensure their reporting is balanced, especially given the political climate, said Shannon High-Bassalik, VP of news at Viacom-owned CBS station WFOR-TV in Miami. For instance, during WFOR’s coverage of the Terry Schiavo story the station identified the two camps as “people who want her to live” and “those who believe she has the right to die,” rather than “Terry Schiavo supporters,” she said. “We can’t say ‘Terry Schiavo supporters’ because we don’t know what she [wanted]. We [had] to say ‘right-to-die supporters’ or ‘Michael Schiavo supporters,'” Ms. High-Bassalik said.

Restoring journalism’s damaged trust and reliability starts at each journalist’s own organization, said Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/U.S. “Make sure you have systems in place that ensure what comes out of the spigot is believable and totally vetted,” he said. “And from there you make sure the information you get from third-party sources [and] wire services is thoroughly vetted and reliable and be careful not to offer an unbalanced view of the world,” he said.

Another important issue for journalism is creating and strengthening shield laws, said Tom Doerr, news director at Viacom-owned CBS station KTVT-TV in Dallas. “Texas used to be one of the best states for a journalist because of shield laws, but recent court orders have taken some of those away,” he said. “[We need to] create an environment where journalists can operate with integrity. [We need to] pass laws that protect journalists from having to release outtake material and protecting sources. Our business is a watchdog for government and other areas of public interest.”

The conference will also feature sessions on news and terrorism, leadership, audience research, Web reporting, weather and news in high definition, a program in which RTNDA will showcase on the NAB show floor the makings of an HD station.

The convention will also highlight the winner of RTNDA’s recent Ultimate Newscast Makeover on Wednesday. The NBC affiliate in Bristol, Va., WCYB-TV, owned by Appalachian Broadcasting Corp., was chosen for a free makeover of its newscast, and the session will walk attendees through that process.

“It’s sort of playing off the reality show trend,” Ms. Cochran said. “We have documented the whole thing.” The station came away with a complete redo of sets, music, graphics, look and promotions.

“One of the reasons they were chosen is they do have a good newscast, but their look was holding them back,” Ms. Cochran said. “At the session everyone will see what happened and take home ideas they might [use] themselves and get a sense of who does music, graphics, etc.”

Other highlights include the dinner Monday night at which Charles Osgood will receive the Paul White Award. On Wednesday, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will speak about the relationship between the news media and government during the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation’s lunch.