A recent Gallup survey reports Americans are increasingly frustrated with the quality of television news. Only 21 percent of Americans now express “a great deal” of confidence in television news. That is the lowest score ever, dropping from the 46 percent level when Gallup started asking this question in 1993. Declines in confidence are found across all age groups and political affiliations. Given the recent performance of TV news, further deterioration in confidence is inevitable.
ABC’s Brian Ross jumped to conclusions and suggested a link between the Aurora movie shooter and the tea party. CNN and Fox News Channel both rushed to air with incorrect information about the Supreme Court’s health-care ruling. NBC’s unprofessional editing of the George Zimmerman 911 audio led to a false impression. Then NBC made misleading edits of a Mitt Romney campaign speech that seemed to make the GOP nominee appear shocked by the technology at convenience stores.
These are not accidents. They are egregious errors in judgment that could be avoided if the professional culture were more committed to accuracy and fairness, and less preoccupied with being first, showing off and sensationalizing the news.
Television is still the source from which most citizens get their news. A free press was established to provide the information needs of a democracy. Television news, as the citizenry’s prime surrogate, assumes a heavy responsibility. The nation needs and deserves a television news industry that enlightens and empowers citizens.
What we get, however, is disappointment after disappointment. We get shallow, boxing-match coverage of political campaigns. We get a dumbed-down lineup that focuses more on Katie Holmes than on the economy or health care. We get morning shows that start each hour with headlines that include words such as “dramatic,” “shocking” and “exclusive.” What we need is a news agenda of importance and relevance.
The network and cable news saturation coverage of the shootings in Aurora exemplifies television’s preoccupation with the dramatic and bizarre. People need to know what happened in Aurora, of course, but the hyped, extensive coverage is out of proportion with the lack of coverage of other lost lives. The escalating murder count in Chicago has received much less focus than Aurora. More than 175 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan this year, but the networks seem uninterested.
Al Tompkins, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, responded quickly by posting online his “Seven Tips for Covering the Colorado Theater Shooting.” He encouraged reporters to keep the story in context, “to lower the temperature” of coverage and “to not ignore other important stories.” Sadly, most news operations ignored his advice.
When public confidence drops, audiences will seek information in other places. A Pew Research Center report this month shows an increasing number of people going to YouTube to find news, thus pretty much setting their own news agendas. The study also found that 39 percent of YouTube news content was by citizen journalists. While there is certainly a role for citizen journalists, accuracy and authenticity of this content can be difficult to verify. One must wonder how well informed citizens are when they rely on YouTube.
The father of the First Amendment, James Madison, defended the importance of press freedom before Congress in 1800. He said, “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press.” He went on to point out the many “triumphs” of the press for reporting with “reason and humanity.” As Madison said, the press can’t be perfect, but we can surely expect television news to post a better batting average.
Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, responded to the Gallup survey by acknowledging the broadcast news industry is “going in the wrong direction” by putting “competitive pressures above all else.” He challenged the industry to give viewers “reasons to believe they can depend on what we report.” The association’s members should listen to their leader. In a complex world, Americans need and deserve a television news product of “reason and humanity.”
Dr. McCall is author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. Follow the professor on Twitter: @Prof_McCall.