Two recent studies, one American and one British, indict TV news for its growing emphasis on live, unscripted reporting. Fast-breaking, popular, with a contemporary air of informality, such reporting is also measurably thinner, more opinionated, and less densely sourced than other news forms. Typically consisting of anchors (or “presenters” in British parlance) interviewing or chatting with reporters in the field or with experts, these live two-way reports now make up about half the coverage available on U.S. cable news, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ). PEJ, now part of the Pew Research Center (which describes itself as a non-partisan “fact tank”) was earlier affiliated with the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

PEJ’s 2005 and 2006 “State of the News Media” reports (available at www.journalism.org), find that cable TV news has “all but abandoned what was once the primary element of television news, the written and edited story.” In its place is “a journalism of assertion” where reporters perform “off the cuff or from hasty notes” and where “information is disseminated with only minimal attempts to check it out.”

The PEJ studies are based on a review of media content in print, TV, radio, magazines, and major online sites. For cable, their approach is layered. For 2005’s report, this meant analyzing CNN, Fox, and MSNBC primetime talk, daytime and evening news on twenty randomly selected days. For 2006, they tightened the net with a close analysis of four hours of news on each of the three stations on a single day, May 11, 2005.

The results indicate that 60 percent of live stories are based on a single identifiable source, and 78 percent include only one side, or mostly one side, of an issue. Forty-seven percent include reportorial opinion—compared to 48 percent for the morning shows on network news and 20 percent for network evening news.

Martin Montgomery, professor of journalism at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, addresses this cultural shift in the spring issue of Media, Culture & Society. He focuses on a close analysis of the case of Andrew Gilligan, the BBC reporter who in 2003 reported allegations that the British government had “sexed up” an intelligence dossier with a claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruction within forty-five minutes. Gilligan’s on-air ad-lib included this unsubstantiated remark: “Actually, the government probably knew that that forty-five figure was wrong even before it decided to put it in.” The government objected, pandemonium ensued, Gilligan resigned, so did both the BBC’s director-general and chairman, and under extraordinary pressure, the BBC rewrote its editorial policies to minimize the use of live “two-ways” on controversial stories.

Under fire, Gilligan admitted he had made a mistake—but what kind? He said, “… it was a live broadcast and once the words are out of your mouth, the—you know, I did not go back and look at the transcript.”

Just Montgomery’s point. Trouble ensues when reporters use “a soft discourse for a hard topic.” He sees the Gilligan debacle as emblematic of far-reaching changes in public discourse, a product of “pressures towards informality, dialogue rather than monologue, improvisation rather than script.” The new style allows correspondents to distance themselves from the facts they report, expressing doubt or skepticism about them, and that may be welcome for the journalist. But it also encourages transmitting suppositions and hunches and the “word-on-the-street” rather than validated facts. With news audiences increasingly difficult to attract, Montgomery warns, “live informality—with all its attendant risks (and precisely because of them)—will continue to surface.” And familiar images of a tightly controlled, carefully sourced, vetted, edited TV newsroom will be increasingly out of date.

The studies agree that the new unscripted discourse is part of a broad cultural change. PEJ notes, “Just as ‘reality’ TV is replacing scripted drama and comedy on the entertainment side, news on TV is also becoming a more extemporaneous medium.”

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Michael Schudson & Tony Dokoupil write The Research Report for CJR.