Fade to Black

As a video revolution sweeps the world, US television news caps its lens

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.”

On Tuesday, June 14 and Friday, June 17, we recorded the evening news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News Channel. To this reporter, with fifty-two years at ABC, CBS, NBC, and Al Jazeera English, among others, the single biggest shock came from former host Cenk Uygur’s 6 p.m. hour on MSNBC (he has since been provisionally replaced by Al Sharpton). One of his hours used all of one minute and ten seconds of video; the other, one minute and forty seconds, and this was video of more talking heads.

“You call this a news channel?” I asked NBC’s Alex Wallace. She replied: “MSNBC is a place for intelligent conversation . . . more than the latest video. If it’s the latest video about a political candidate, MSNBC would want it, but it’s more of a niche market, MSNBC, than a news market.” ’Nuff said.

PEJ measures Fox’s share of news programming devoted to video packages at consistently close to 30 percent, and Fox is often aggressive and original in finding video stories not on everyone’s radar—a manhunt in Montana on June 14, for example. But this was someone else’s video, smartly acquired by Fox. Not that a Fox reporter on the scene always makes a difference: correspondent Rick Leventhal filed a one-minute, twenty-second report on his overnight crossing of the Gulf of Sidra to Libya’s besieged Misrata, on a ferry filled with weapons and fighters. Someone had a video camera, but the report offered only twenty pedestrian seconds of footage.

Still, the big change is at CNN, and it’s not just a few seconds of video here or there, but its whole approach to covering the news. In 2007 almost half its airtime went to packaged reports from journalists in the field. By 2011, that was down to less than a fifth. Jonathan Klein was the president of CNN over that period, until he was replaced in September 2010. If he’s the guy who killed the composed video report, he isn’t apologizing. “I think the art of the package had fallen on very hard times,” Klein says. “Of course, there is still nothing better than a well-crafted 60 Minutes package, but those are not the instantly forgettable roundups that you are talking about.”

As Klein explains his decision to move away from packaged reports he critiques his own employees, comparing the creation of cable news to the expansion of Major League Baseball: “There was such an explosion of outlets that you had people rushed to the majors, to the networks, without a very good grounding in reporting or telling a story, so what they were doing was just mindlessly aping a format they had learned when they first got into the business.”

Rather than fix this sorry level of performance, Klein says, he chose other, cheaper ways to cover the news.

Gosh, did I say cheaper? Yes. 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.”

Indeed, “We go to fewer places, a lot less often,” says an A-list network correspondent with years of domestic and international reporting experience, and “finance is one of the reasons.” Does this make a difference? “It’s the difference from seeing something up close and seeing it only from afar,” he says. “It goes to the very essence of reporting.”

More and more, the correspondent says, he and his colleagues report on international stories from Washington, using the money-saving formula described by Klein. “The audience gets a different perspective if the story is seen from the outside looking in, rather versus the inside looking out,” says our correspondent.

But turning the focus of news away from video is not just about pinching pennies. Klein explains: “The challenge that I and a lot of news executives laid down for our people . . . was to break out of the standard formula and think about what the best way to tell a story would be. Sometimes, the tape package is the best possible way to tell a story. But sometimes there are other, better ways.”

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.”

Both Wallace and Clemente offer the same strategy to keep such demands under control. They are always, they say, ready to break their correspondents away from the live shots, “for three or four hours,” they both estimated, of reporting.

Such talk sounds good in the newsroom, but in the world, where the live location may be miles away from “the story,” where finding and talking with witnesses is not like making instant oatmeal, the time between live shots is often not enough. And as Jonathan Klein confessed, sometimes even the best intentions get steamrolled by newsroom habit. “That’s a big problem we tried to change at CNN. We tried to push hard to reduce the number of live shots. At the White House, we tried to free up our reporter from the north lawn just to see if they could up the real reporting. It failed because muscle memory snaps back. Producers automatically schedule live shots, and we had to challenge our producers: ‘Why is Suzanne Malveaux on the lawn again? Isn’t she supposed to be doing some reporting?’ ”

Almost all news executives say they want the same thing—news that is new and true and distinctive. Mike Clemente of Fox: “I’m forever telling our reporters . . . what we want is whatever is new and factual. And if we do that, we’ll get more people watching our channel.” Alex Wallace of NBC/MSNBC: “What we want is stories told with unique video that separates us from the mass of video out there.”

So we looked for ’em—stories that were unique and distinctive and new. But comparing what the three American networks and the three cable news channels did on those two days in June with some foreign news channels—Iran’s Press TV, Russia’s RT, Britain’s BBC, and Qatar’s Al Jazeera English—we came away wanting more from America.

There were excellent video reports on each channel (except MSNBC), but few felt unique or even new. There were classics of afflicting the comfortable (ABC’s Jake Tapper on Congress’s exclusive gymnasia); and comforting the afflicted (a terrific CBS piece by David Martin on the military’s lack of programs for wives of returning Afghanistan and Iraq warriors); and two examples of NBC correspondents pushing the envelope—Stephanie Gosk penetrating an anti-American mob in Tripoli and John Ray sneaking across the border into Syria to video the devastated town of Jisr al-Shughour.

But Maria Finoshina’s report on RT, for example, on how selling and buying gas in Tripoli has become a female preoccupation because men in a city under siege had more important things to do, was news to me, and told me something more significant about Tripoli than the presence of angry supporters of Muammar Qaddafi. I also learned new things from RT’s Sean Thomas, who took me to the southernmost Russian Orthodox Church on Earth, in Antarctica, and from Press TV’s Ashraf Shannon’s story of conflict over natural gas in Gaza. During the civil war in the Ivory Coast, France 24 and Al Jazeera English regularly had reporters on the scene. My impression watching the story, confirmed with US officials there, was that no American TV journalists showed up.

Of course, these international channels have an advantage in the “new” department from our point of view, since they frequently address things that Americans know little about. But they often seem to seek out stories a little more imaginatively than their American counterparts. And many of them are mastering video, the world’s emerging lingua franca. Watch news channels like Express 24/7 in Pakistan, Channel NewsAsia in Singapore, or CCTV News or CNC in China and you see channels trying to catch up with the old masters, using the conventions of the trade and the equipment of the moment to create video news made better by what seem to be hordes of reporters and cameras in the field.

Many of the channels resemble their nations. France 24 is very French. It prefers theories to facts and lectures to video packages, but in some otherwise neglected areas of the world, like francophone Africa, they rule the roost. Notwithstanding the reporting triumphs mentioned above, RT, the former Russia Today, is a perfect paradox: its message is unrelentingly anti-American but its presentation is a pathetic parody of American TV—Valley Girl anchors, Barbarella reporters, and a steady diet of reports on American aggression abroad and oppression at home. Press TV of Iran isn’t too fond of the US either, and its lowest-budget, lowest-skill presentation is usually a waste of perfectly good bandwidth. But if you want a peek at Iranian life, where you gonna go?

As a student last year, Bilal Lakhani helped monitor these international channels for the Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism’s “Global Media Wars” project. He told me that after the death of Osama bin Laden he went on Facebook and was surprised to find “lots of people sharing RT and Press TV videos. That’s when I realized that on major turning-point events like Osama’s death, these channels are going to find an audience whose viewpoints align with theirs.”

Columbia’s Ann Cooper started “Global Media Wars” after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified in March before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that, “We are engaged in an information war, and we’re losing that war.”

Who’s winning? “Al Jazeera has been the leader in . . . literally changing people’s minds and attitudes,” Clinton said. “You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials, and, you know, arguments between talking heads, and the kind of stuff that we do on our news.” (Full disclosure: I was an anchor for AJE from its debut in November 2006 until March 2008.)

Al Jazeera English’s hallmark has been video reporting. “We have better visual content than anyone else,” brags Snorre Wik, a director of photography at AJE. He says he’s regularly allowed to give the viewer a “sense of adventure, the feeling that they are experiencing something tangible and not in theory . . . which is why real video is more valuable and more powerful than anything that anyone can tell you.”

AJE, he says, offers a marked contrast to his years at NBC, not just in creative opportunities but, more importantly, in terms of being there, where news is breaking. Lawrence Pintak, a former CBS News Middle East correspondent turned academic, says that AJE stands head and shoulders above all the other English-language news channels, because of its dominance in eyes-on coverage. AJE, he says, “just plain has so many more boots on the ground. It has more boots on the ground than the BBC and armies more boots on the ground than CNN International.” (See Pintak’s May/June cover story in CJR, “Breathing Room: toward a new Arab media.”)

The unfortunate bottom line, as Pintak sees it: “That’s why, after 9/11, Americans didn’t understand the impact American policy was having, because we didn’t see it from the perspective of the people on the ground, because there weren’t people on the ground covering the story.”

But things are changing at Al Jazeera, too. They still have people on the ground almost everywhere, it seems, but the endlessly breaking news of the Arab Spring has pushed aside prepared packages in favor of live updates, and even as the crisis settles into a turbulent routine, the change in formatting continues. As one video journalist at Al Jazeera English told me, “the new boss just loves his live shots. He thinks people relate to them better than to packages.” Uh oh.

As amateur video from the Internet grows like kudzu across the digital universe, TV news producers have to figure out how they can winnow and add value to it, to hold their audiences. One way might be to provide better professional video packages—better shot, more knowledgeably written and assembled—to provide context and balance and a storyteller’s touch to what can be just distorting fragments on YouTube or Twitvid.

Or, conversely, American TV news can cede the video field to the amateurs and add value to what they harvest from the Internet with talk, two-ways, or panel discussions about the news and all those images.

Of course, the challenge of dipping into that hurricane of Internet video is determining who made each one, how accurately it represents reality, what context it requires, and whose interests it might serve. Unfortunately, the very people needed to sort those questions out are only rarely on the job anymore. The American television journalists will be visiting the field occasionally, but the bulk of their reporting will be done from home. The bulk of the video they will use will be compiled from other people’s work, and will reflect no original reporting of their own.

And veracity and authority, where will that come from? Old recollections and unsourced pictures? 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. 

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Dave Marash is an award-winning broadcast journalist who has taught and reported on global issues for much of the past two decades. He now blogs at davemarashsez.blogspot.com/.