Better in what sense? Not in representing reality, but in giving viewers the familiar personalities they love. “TV news programs are increasingly driven by star anchors,” Klein points out, “The audience is drawn to the anchors’ performance and their insights and their presentation of the day’s news.” But, he says, “as soon as you go to these generic packages, ordinary correspondents, many of them not known to the audience, the show becomes generic.”
But is that true? It is, in fact, a huge group of “ordinary correspondents, many of them not known to the audience,” that has helped make Al Jazeera English into the world’s fastest-growing news channel. And that popularity has come during a period of growing global competition.
I’ve counted sixty-six television news channels broadcasting in English today, and after more than two years of watching many of them, I can tell you that most look like they learned to shoot and edit watching the old BBC and CNN. They’re all using more or less the same gear as today’s CNN and BBC, and more and more often demonstrating professional levels of mastery. By my reckoning, 90 percent of these channels didn’t exist ten years ago, and some of them operate under severe political constraints. For both those reasons, most do not yet approach the quality of journalism or videography found at ABC, BBC, CBC, or AJE. But their ambition is to compete, and every year they get better at it.
Where did all of CNN’s minutes go, you ask? the ones that used to be spent on video packages? PEJ’s numbers give a simple answer: to chat. At CNN, between 2007 and 2011 the share of airtime for packages dropped by 28 percentage points, while the share for interviews went up by 26 percentage points. This exchange did more than rob correspondents of storytelling time; it changed their work.
In addition to interviews, another net gainer of airtime at every one of the American channels was live interactions—“two-ways,” they’re called—between anchors and correspondents. They can work sometimes, but once correspondents become recognizable people, there is curiosity not just about their opinions but about their emotions, a subject often probed during these conversations. “I remember telling my reporters, one thing I never want to hear in your reports is, ‘I think,’ ” says Frank Sesno, a former CNN White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief. He laughs at the memory of a different, more buttoned-up time, but he worries, too: “We have celebrified the news to the point where we are losing the news, where it is more about what some people think than what they know.
“If we were producing a video piece,” Sesno continues, “there was an editorial process. There was a producer assigned to it. There were interviews. There was a copy edit procedure. When people were doing live shots . . . there was no way to scrutinize every word. So you stood up in front of the camera and spoke spontaneously.”
Okay, Jonathan Klein might retort, live shots may not give viewers much depth or precision but they have other qualities. “A well-done live report has the advantage of energy and immediacy over a package,” Klein says. “Sanjay Gupta reporting live from the medical center in Haiti, as the Belgian doctors were abandoning, was by far the most powerful story to emerge from the Haiti earthquake last year, and that was a live shot. No tape package could have captured the drama of this situation as it unfolded.”
For correspondents, this “drama” comes at a price. Live shots steal time from reporting, the work which provides reporters the facts from which their authority is built.
Some TV news executives don’t agree. “I can see your worry,” says Michael Clemente, a former aide-de-camp to Peter Jennings at ABC who is now a senior vice president at Fox News Channel. “If they’re going to be doing it almost hourly, the reporting might suffer at the hand of live shots. That may be true for correspondents who grew up only filing at six o’clock for the evening news, but most of the reporters out there now at a place like Fox know how to file for radio, write a story for dot-com, do their live shot, and report.”
Alex Wallace, Clemente’s counterpart at NBC and MSNBC, says, “That’s something we struggle with. For example, when we were in Libya, when MSNBC would want three live shots and nbc wants the reporter to go out to find a small town that the rebels say they’ve taken back. That’s the demand of having five platforms.”