Thus, TV news’s oft-discussed (and oft-disgusting) tropism toward both repetition and its corollary: sensationalism. This is most often attributed to the size of the news hole—Well, we have twenty-four hours of air to fill, after all. Of course we’re going to need to be repetitive, and to be interesting—but I’d argue that the problem isn’t merely one of size. It’s also—and maybe more so—one of speed.
Because loop coverage, for all that it’s derided, is the least of TV news’s problems. Repetition, generally, is only an issue when what’s being repeated isn’t, you know, any good. And though low-quality coverage can have myriad sources, one of the most common is news outlets—which are, by and large, populated by smart, committed journalists—simply falling victim to time pressures. One reason problems—misinformation, to be sure, but more generally the shallowly sensationalized coverage for which cable news, in particular, is infamous—arise is that outlets often fail to take (or, to be fair, simply lack) the time to step back and consider what they’re throwing out on the air.
Or, for that matter, to fact-check it. To wit: David Shuster, two weeks ago, repeating the false claim that one “Martin Eisenstadt” (actually, the serial hoaxer Eitan Gorlin) was the source of Carl Cameron’s “Sarah Palin doesn’t know Africa is a continent” reporting. And Rick Sanchez gleefully—and, as turned out, incorrectly—reporting that, during last week’s G20 summit, world leaders had refused to shake President Bush’s hand. Time considerations don’t excuse the reporters’ errors (in Shuster’s case, a mere-seconds-long Google search would have been enough for a fact-check: The fact that he that he was a hoaxer was on the first page of the engine’s search results on the day Shuster made his ill-advised “Eisenstadt” report). But while journalism may be deadline-oriented as a general rule, TV, in particular—even more than blogs—often demands that journalists who use its platform make split-second judgments about what information to distill, how to distill it, etc. A “twenty-four-minute” news cycle, as Time’s James Poniewozik had it, tends to rob TV reporters of the breathing room required to think before talking—to the air, if you’re an anchor, or, if you’re a producer, to the ear of your anchor. The speed of the current news cycle turns televised journalism’s chief asset—its immediacy—into a liability. A big one.
When TV anchors and reporters “break” news, what they’re really doing, 99 percent of the time, is regurgitating information that is already (and readily) available on the Web. Which is not only redundant—it turns news reporters into little more than script-readers—but also, in today’s split-second world of news consumption, inefficient. Why spend fifteen seconds listening to Kyra Phillips announce Obama’s latest cabinet appointment when you could ingest the same news, as an online headline, in two? The thirteen-second difference may not mean a huge discrepancy on its own, but multiply it out over several days or weeks or months…and the result is a lot of wasted time, on the part of audiences and journalists alike.
TV’s current method of news-breaking filters two-dimensional information into a three-dimensional platform, which manages to undercut both the information and the platform in question. The whole system is approximately as sensible as Michael Phelps chucking the whole swimming thing for a career in astrophysics—or Barack Obama deciding to give up politics to play pro basketball. Indeed, to watch many news shows is often to feel that one is watching a radio broadcast whose participants happen to be wearing a lot of makeup.
So, then. Looking ahead—past these years of adolescently awkward transition in our journalism, past this period that finds us growing into the Web, past the period when “a digital world” is a prospect rather than an established fact—here’s one thought for TV news to serve its audiences and itself: Stop thinking in terms of immediacy. Put another way: Stop trying to be a platform for breaking news.