For the first time in history, mankind is developing a universal language: video. People now communicate with video on two billion computers and more than one and a half billion television sets, and by 2013 you can add another one billion video-capable people regularly accessing the web from their cell phones. The most popular spoken and written language is English, with 1.8 billion users. Looks like video already wins.
No wonder. Video is the distillation of the four ways people exchange information—speech, print, sound, and pictures. Video can convey more information more powerfully to more people in more places—and more quickly—than TV, radio, print, or the voice of the evangelist. And since, historically speaking, this age of video is relatively new, people are still getting better at acquiring and distributing their information via video.
Good news for the future of television news, right? “Luckily,” says Alex Wallace, an NBC News senior vice president, “we’re TV; we’re also based on pictures.”
Yes. Logically, the video revolution and television news should thrive together. But just as the rest of the world is alive with video information about a bullet-train crash in China or revolutions in Bahrain or Syria, America’s television screens, especially on cable news, are tuning out the world. When YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter show so much video of real life, why do ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox show us so little?
Data from long-term monitoring of American television news by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, as well as observations from our own much shorter-term sampling of American TV news outlets and a handful of foreign news channels, reveal several things:
• CNN has made a sharp turn away from video reporting. Fox News Channel now shows more video than CNN, while MSNBC, after some excellent reporting of the Arab Spring, rarely uses any video. Most of what it does broadcast is sound bites from the campaign trail, talking-heads-coal to talking-heads-Newcastle.
• At the networks, the loss is not in airtime but in authenticity, as “new ways to cover the news” increasingly substitute for journalists actually reporting from the scene.
• Worse, and displacing far more airtime from reporting, is the amount of talk. Interviews, panels, conversations among anchors, pundits, scholars, and “experts” which, at best, produce intelligent but evergreen generalizations by people who haven’t “been there” for a while, are preempting the current and specific observations available only from those who are there.
While more and more of the world is “speaking” video, American TV news is ignoring it, in favor of cheaper but less informative ways to report the news.
The project for excellence in journalism monitors American television news, breaking down content into three categories: domestic stories, foreign stories involving the US, and foreign stories with no direct US tie. They also separate programs into components, like video packages, interviews, stories the anchor reads, and live appearances by correspondents. To Mark Jurkowitz, the former television beat reporter for The Boston Globe who now watches TV news for PEJ, the video packages are where you find “sophisticated, on-scene, edited reporting.”
We asked PEJ 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.
Elsewhere the cuts have been more subtle, particularly the cuts in foreign reporting. You may not have noticed, because the networks are getting better at hiding their retreat behind compilations of video gathered by other news organizations but packaged by familiar network correspondents. Even counting those compilations, PEJ measured cutbacks on video packages of 8 (NBC), 10 (ABC), and 13 (CBS) percentage points between 2007 and 2011 in the category of international stories with US involvement.
One example from that category: “There’s been a stunning lack of coverage of the Afghanistan war,” says Jurkowitz. “Despite the fact that the strategic stakes are high, despite the fact of the scores of thousands of troops we have on the ground, despite the fact of the growing casualty count.”