Local News In The Digital Age

To paraphrase, Poynter’s Al Tompkins: Blame it on the barber shops.

“There has been misinformation as long as there have been barber shops.”  That’s a quote from Tompkins in a recent article by Diana Marszalek titled “How Local News Can Avoid A Credibility Crisis” on the website TVNewsCheck.  (I urge you to read the whole article, you can find it here.)

The focus of the article was on recent mistakes in reporting made by (mostly) local television news outlets during their coverage of breaking news situations.  The recent example was the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, although the article lists several other examples as well.

To be clear, Tompkins was not excusing the mistakes television journalists were making.  Rather his point was that saying that mistakes are inevitable because misinformation is so prevalent in today’s digital age is a “cop out”.  His point is that for as long as there has been information passed from one person to another, there has been misinformation and it’s a journalist’s job to sift out the truth.  Below are some excerpts from the piece that I found particularly insightful along with some of my own thoughts.

“’I fear that too often the technology has driven the journalism rather than the other way around. And that’s never a good situation.’” – RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender

These mistakes in reporting highlight the sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful relationship television news has with technology.  It was the development of television that gave birth to the television news industry.  The on-air product was bare-bones and basic (downright antiquated by today’s standards).  Then came more portable cameras and live transmission capabilities.  The battle was on over who could be ‘first’; first with a story, first on the scene, first with the pictures.

As the pace of newsgathering quickened and the 24-hour news cycle was created, television stations once more turned to technology for an edge.  Satellite transmission allowed stations to travel further to get a story.  Helicopters with gyroscopic cameras helped them there faster.

As competition increased, the demand for better ratings intensified.  Newsrooms started producing more hours of programming and flashier newscasts.  The focus turned to breaking news and away from issues and a focus on “breaking news”.  This resulted in less time to confirm, double-check and vet information.  The attitude became: be first, be fast and (if forced to) make the correction later.

“The demand to continually crank out content for multiple platforms, just part of the new 24-hour news cycle, is taking its toll on the usual vetting process… Behind the scenes, stations having, say, just one or two-person digital teams managing content on a myriad of platforms — websites, social media, email alerts and Smartphone apps, for example — gives those people very little time to spend on confirming content, says Barb Palser, a VP at St. Paul, Minn.-based Internet Broadcasting.”

In the digital age, what had been a barely-manageable flow of news became a veritable torrent of information, both accurate and inaccurate.  From Facebook posts to Tweets to websites, information is everywhere.  With the fear of getting beat by their competition, stations have even less time to confirm any of it. 

Technology has helped make newsgathering more efficient.  Stations have fewer people who do more.  Some stations are lucky enough to have a dedicated digital team.  Others have created hybrid positions (“multi-media journalists”) who produce content for both digital and broadcast platforms.  This needs to change.

What can be done?  Here are a couple of suggestions:

Create clearly defined standards.

“Todd Mokhtari, VP of news at NBC-owned KNBC Los Angeles, says there is no excuse for a decline in newsroom standards, regardless of whether information comes in through avenues like the Internet or over the telephone like it used to.”

I’ve talked about this before but it bears repeating.  What does your newsroom stand for?  Who are your viewers, what are the stories you cover, how do you tell them?  Keep it simple and stick to it.  Put it on a poster in your newsroom so the entire staff can see it and refer to it.  A unified vision will create clarity for every staff member and be a touchstone for them when they are unsure.

Develop systems and procedures.

“Broadcasters also need to expand their digital teams and improve — most notably by streamlining — the range of platforms they oversee to be efficient and effective…” – Barb Palser

I’ve found a little planning goes a long way.  Having proper systems and procedures in place and practiced makes it easier to respond to breaking news.  Who does what, how is information processed and aired, how will you handle information on social media?  More care needs to be paid to how this is handled on the digital end.  In many operations there are one or two digital producers who repurpose content.  But when news breaks, is this enough? 

Forge a new path.

In my opinion, local television news is at another crossroads with technology.  This is an opportunity for stations to reposition themselves.  With information literally at the fingertips of every viewer and news consumer, the race to be first is becoming less relevant.  Stations should instead position themselves as the reliable, accurate news leader.  Provide more analysis, more in-depth enterprise reporting, more context.  (I’ll have more about this in an up-coming post.)  Looking at the local television news landscape, this is what’s missing most and this approach could help a station stand out from its competition.

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