TV News Gives More Tell, Less Show

Veteran TV newsman Dave Marash reports in the Columbia Journalism Review that television news operations, both cable and network, have been turning away from prepared video packages:

We asked [the Project for Excellence in Journalism] to break out its data for two periods, four years apart—the first three months of 2007, and the first three months of 2011. What they showed is that airtime devoted to video packages "was down significantly," says Jurkowitz; on the three network news shows and the three cable news channels the time devoted to packages dropped from 43 percent of the typical broadcast in 2007 to 37 percent in 2011.
Almost all of that drop is attributable to CNN, where in 2007, 46 percent of programming was video packages. By 2011, that had dropped to 18 percent. Across the categories—domestic stories, US-international stories, and non-US international stories—in 2011 CNN was giving less than half the airtime to video packages as it did in 2007.

That time has been replaced by talking heads. The reason why, of course, is money. It's a heck of a lot cheaper and easier to have someone sit in the studio and talk about what the day's events mean than to prepare a package, which requires time spent shooting, writing, and editing. The middle way, on which TV networks also increasingly rely, is the "live shot," in which a correspondent talks to the anchor from somewhere news is happening, or failing that, at the sight of somewhere other than the studio. That does require a reporter and his/her crew to actually be at the sight of news (or sort-of news), but instead of constructing a narrative with words and pictures, she can just stand on a hotel balcony or in front of the White House and describe what's going on. Former CNN president Jonathan Klein gives this depressing explanation:

To send a reporting team to Alabama for a few days might cost a few thousand dollars, Klein estimates, but to send that same team to Afghanistan, "you're looking at extensive security, and it runs you into very serious money . . . between $50,000 and $100,000 just to get going." Instead, Klein explains, "It's far less expensive to have a reporter do a live top from the Pentagon, where we have a fixed camera, than to send a reporter to the battlefront. The best news organizations find ways to do both. You make periodic trips to make sure your reporting is authentic and informed, but you cannot afford to do that every single day."

That this is a troubling development isn't to say that packages can't suffer from all kinds of problems. But what distinguishes TV news is its ability to show us what's happening. It would be too bad if they move farther away from showing and more toward just telling, and then chatting about what they just told. As Marash says, "If a tree falls in the forest and all you've got is file footage and some guy who once was a lumberjack, the sound produced is likely to be bad news."