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MEDIA / KEVIN BRASS : It Is Better, But Fluff, Puff Still Plague Television News

September 11, 1989|KEVIN BRASS

KGTV(Channel 10) anchor/commentator Michael Tuck said in a recent radio interview that "television news is better now than it was five years a go."

This is some sort of ritualistic chant practiced by just about everybody employed in the television news industry. Question any aspect of TV news1 and they get this glazed look on their face, usually followed by, "Well that may be true, but it is better now than it was five years ago ."

Or they start talking about Edward R. Murrow. Either way, television news professionals tend to defend the present by comparing it to the past. The constant comparisons to the past could lead some to believe that TV news had been pretty lousy. Especially since five years ago they said TV news was better than five years before that. In fact, they've been fondly reflecting on the leaps and bounds made by TV news ever since someone first said, "Maybe it would be a good idea to show some pictures while we read the news."

Local TV news people say the resources at their disposal are far greater than ever before. Now that news is a moneymaker for stations, they have more staff, more equipment and more technical versatility than ever before.

Of course, ask them why they don't do a better job of covering the day-to-day news, and they quickly point out that they don't have the resources. Then they get that glazed look.

Echoing the thoughts of many in the industry, Tuck said that competition has improved television news, that the overall quality of journalism is far better than in the Happy Talk Era of a few years ago.

He also said television news is "more cynical and penetrating of what public officials are doing," which, except for his aggressive "Perspective" pieces, could be called laughable. A recent Tribune analysis of local TV news showed that KFMB-TV (Channel 8), for example, devoted twice as much time to sports as to government and education stories, and twice as much time to weather as national news.

Beyond covering every obligatory press conference and staged-for-television photo opportunity, political coverage by television news is rarely more sophisticated than a few talking-head interviews.

"Instead of just being reactive and covering (stories) on the surface, we're looking at root causes more," Tuck said.

That's probably true. They are far more willing to go in-depth on some subjects. Channel 10 devotes quite a bit of time to its annual swimsuit feature.

Last week, Channel 10 was one of many stations to focus on drug issues, which gave the station the opportunity to show footage over and over again of narcotics officers making a bust. Or maybe that was "Cops" or "Geraldo." It's becoming harder to tell the difference these days.

Witness the antics of Channel 39's Paul Bloom, who gleefully reenacts crime scenes, pointing to blood stains and pantomiming the use of guns for emphasis. Other than coming across as a shill for the Police Department, Bloom's style of reporting, and the rapidly growing group of television reporters doing similar reports, aims to strike emotional chords with the audience, more than simply telling the story.

That's a relatively new development in the industry. Whether it is better or not is a reasonable topic of debate.

Other elements of TV news remain relatively unchanged. At least 90% of the stories covered by television are generated from press releases or newspaper stories. Far too often they simply pick up stories without bothering to check facts. It's the same type of rip-and-read approach used by old radio news programs.

Television news undoubtedly is better in its ability to cover events live, to instantaneously be at the scene of a breaking news story. On the other hand, the preponderance of unnecessary stilted live reports is a truly annoying part of modern television news. Was it really necessary for KNSD-TV (Channel 39) to have a reporter live at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, even though it was empty, to babble about Pete Rose?

Tuck said television news is better because it does a better job of covering the stories that are important to people, such as environment and health issues. Just last week, Channel 10 had "focus groups," or average citizens, watching its newscasts to tell the station what is important, what they like and don't like about Channel 10 news.

Input from such groups, aided by surveys and the all-important, God-like barometer of TV news--ratings--shape TV news, even more so than five years ago. The polling methods are more sophisticated now, and therein lies the well-documented basic flaw of the industry.

Asking people what they want to see on TV is sort of like asking children what they want for dinner. They may not watch what they say they want to see, and they're rarely going to ask for what's good for them.

The result is a truckload of sensational yet superficial stories, an emphasis on warm puppy features instead of the real factors that control people's lives.

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