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More news on TV news? Blogs go behind camera

Websites offer feedback from employees and viewers on what was aired and why. But is it too much information?

November 15, 2005|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Why has broadcast television devoted relatively little coverage to the recent South Asia earthquake? Should the networks have done more stories about President Bush's troubled swing through South America earlier this month? And just what do viewers gain when television reporters deliver live reports while standing outside in the middle of raging hurricanes?

Those are just a few of the questions that have been raised on blogs in recent weeks, but not by outside critics of broadcast news. In each case, the queries have been posed by network employees -- including those as prominent as NBC anchor Brian Williams -- on the network's own websites.

Spurred by declining viewership, the growing prominence of the Internet and the public's increasing skepticism of traditional media outlets, the broadcast networks are now pulling back the curtain in an attempt to preempt criticism and burnish their reputation. In recent months, all of the network news divisions have adopted online features aimed at providing more transparency about their operations and decision-making.

Their efforts come at a time when the news media as a whole have been engaged in substantial public introspection. Those assessments -- such as the New York Times' recent examination of the role played by now-retired reporter Judith Miller in the CIA leak investigation -- have increasingly become part of the story itself, sometimes leading to even more controversy.

The network blogs, while often remarkably candid and self-critical, have not yet generated a public debate comparable to those instigated in print. Some media critics, though, question whether such in-house productions offer true accountability or mere promotional efforts.

Certainly, the online forums signal a new era of self-scrutiny in broadcast television, which has never formally instituted the equivalent of newspaper ombudsmen to publicly handle viewer complaints. In the wake of the searing fallout from last year's CBS piece that questioned President Bush's National Guard service, the networks are now moving to head off viewer dissatisfaction by providing information about news-gathering ahead of time.

"There are way too many examples lately of how human foibles can intersect with journalism," Williams said. "I think if we can show our processes, if we can show how a bill becomes law in terms of television news ... we become more approachable, more human in people's eyes, less of a monolith."

Williams has tried to change that perception through daily dispatches on his MSNBC.com blog, the Daily Nightly, in which he previews the pieces being considered for the evening newscast, answers viewer criticism and offers mea culpas when the network misses a story.

Over on CBSNews.com, Public Eye Editor Vaughn Ververs plays a slightly different role. Working independently of the news division, Ververs functions more as a go-between for viewers, posting video of editorial meetings, soliciting answers from news executives about coverage and examining charges of bias. (While similar to an ombudsman, Ververs notes that Public Eye does not seek to be the final arbiter in disputes between viewers and the network.)

For its part, ABCNews.com launched a half-dozen new correspondent blogs this fall, including a feature called the Blue Sheet, which promises a behind-the-scenes look at the making of "World News Tonight." Eventually, the new anchor (or anchors) named to replace Peter Jennings will file postings as well, executives said.

Meanwhile, PBS went one step further than its commercial brethren and hired former Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler last month to serve in a similar capacity at the taxpayer-supporter network, the first such ombudsman position created at a broadcast network.

"I do think it tells the public that we are willing to open ourselves up," said Getler, who begins his post today and will regularly post his commentaries on PBS.org.

Jeff Jarvis, who writes about media and technology on his blog BuzzMachine, called the networks' efforts at transparency "significant and overdue."

"It's a reaction both to what's happening in journalism and the fact that the public can now do its own acts of journalism and can check these guys," said Jarvis, a former TV critic and newspaper columnist. "The irony of journalism is we expect everyone else to be transparent and we're not. That's not going to fly anymore."

Decision-making process

The power of the blogosphere to shape public perception was underscored last year when conservative bloggers posted harsh critiques of CBS' piece on Bush's Vietnam-era service just hours after it aired. Questions posed on the websites about memos purportedly written by Bush's commander were picked up by the rest of the media, and the network eventually acknowledged that the documents could not be authenticated.

Now television broadcasters are turning to the Internet to provide the context they cannot cram into a 22-minute newscast.

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