The Standup Syndrome
When television reporters go on camera, they often leave attribution and objectivity behind.
By Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He worked in television for 19 years, with stints at ABC News, Satellite News Channel and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour.
Afghanistan, 1980 . Dan Rather is with Afghan rebels on a hillside overlooking a Soviet army encampment. In a dramatic and whispery voice, Rather describes the scene and the urgency of the rebels' remaining undetected by the enemy below. The camera has him in silhouette, but in a previous shot viewers were shown that he's not wearing the usual war correspondent's khaki. He's decked out in a long, flowing Afghan robe and a circular, squashed, flat-topped hat.
Texas, 1993. Rather is in a helicopter, "hovering above what's left of the cult compound outside Waco, Texas. Good evening..." He's wearing chopper pilot headphones, looking a little like Michael Dukakis in a tank. "From up here," the anchorman intones, "we can tell you that investigators continue laboriously and carefully looking for bodies of the perhaps 90 people believed to have been in the compound when it became an inferno..." Rather has to tell viewers that, because through the helicopter window the camera doesn't show much of anything except prairie and some black smudges. CBS has to use a freeze frame and superimposed labels to make sense of the shot.
What the two pieces have in common, apart from unusual headgear, are Rather's snippets of breathless on-camera narration, the "standups" from the field. It usually takes a big story to get an anchor out of the studio, but network correspondents perform standups in virtually every one of their reports. The idea behind them is that the journalist on camera serves as a guide for viewers, leading them through the television screen, deeper into the story, showing through words, reactions and body language what it's like on the plains of East Texas or deep in the Hindu Kush.
Most reporters only get to relate what it's like on a street corner or in front of city hall. And the "firefight" usually is between politicians or neighbors. But producers at the networks and local stations still want standups for their promotional value. And the reporters still want to provide them because it's their only chance to get their faces on television.
Standups, however, can severely undermine the credibility of television news. Critics say many reporters use the device to interject their own opinions into their pieces. Assertions are sometimes made on camera that aren't supported by anything in the story. And even when standups are written responsibly, some say they simply aren't necessary.
"There's no question that TV reporters have come to use the standup to say things that are more opinionated than in the body of the story," says ABC News White House correspondent Brit Hume.
"Right or wrong," agrees John Aubuchon of Tribune Broadcasting, "that's been true for a number of years." Aubuchon says that reporters should "know the difference between urging a point of view and explaining the 'why' of a story."
But Hume says plenty of reporters don't know the difference. "You're going to find some lulus," Hume says with a laugh, "because they're out there."
Hume is right. Television reporters often seem to forget standard journalistic practices during those seconds when their faces, as well as their voices, are on the air. It's then that attribution sometimes disappears. All manner of stereotype, slant and speculation may be proffered. In the full thrall of the standup syndrome, reporters simply voice their opinion or, worse, drop in a line merely because it's punchy.
One of many examples was broadcast earlier this year, on February 8, when NBC's Jim Maceda reported:
"But for a growing number, particularly women, it's not just [Sen. Bob] Packwood but the whole U.S. Senate that's now on trial. If the so-called 'old boys' come to his rescue and let Packwood off the hook, it could well mean a declaration of war."
Maceda's spot included brief footage of anti-Packwood demonstrators, but no one said the "whole U.S. Senate is on trial" or mentioned "old boys" except the correspondent. What sort of "declaration of war" was looming remained obscure at the story's end. And however correct the perception that his colleagues might "rescue" the Oregon Republican from sexual harassment allegations, the report contained not a single attribution for that assertion.
The viewer might conclude that it was Maceda's opinion.
Maceda denies it. "That sentiment was the demonstrators'," he explains. "They said if they don't do something to this guy, we're declaring war, war in the sense they'll take it to talk shows, op-ed pages, radio shows."
But Maceda chose not to include that information in his piece. Another network correspondent, reluctant to be quoted criticizing a colleague, nevertheless concludes that Maceda "plainly implied there's substance to the charges [against the whole Senate]. He should have put it like, 'What these women seem to be saying...' "
Maceda doesn't think so: "I would cut 'they say' because it seems redundant. It takes another half second, and you don't need it."
But several other correspondents and producers contacted for this article did not agree. A producer for another network says, "I wouldn't let that on the air." An executive for yet another network adds, "That example obviously makes one cringe."
Another illustration, this time from Giselle Fernandez of CBS:
"Analysts say slashing the price of a pack will only be a temporary fix for the embattled tobacco industry. Cigarette sales are down, and with the Clinton administration considering a hefty cigarette tax it's not likely to get much better for manufacturers, not in a country set on kicking the habit."
Fernandez' on-camera close followed an April 27 report about cigarette price-cutting during which she also proclaimed, "The health-conscious '90s..have made smoking un-hip." However widely shared that perception may be, her report presented no evidence to support it. "Ask anyone," Fernandez said later, "ask a smoker. You can't smoke anywhere... I made the assertion based on facts and polls and studies."
But her report didn't cite any studies. Instead, it presented teenaged girls claiming they will smoke more with lower cigarette prices, and Surgeon General Antonia Novello talking about "the epidemic of smoking in this country."
If there's an epidemic, one wonders, how can you conclude that the country is "set on kicking the habit?"
"You can't present every expert or analyst you talk to," Fernandez says. But the producer of her piece, Alan Golds, acknowledges, "If we had said 'seems to be set on kicking the habit' it would be slightly better." Both blame network time constraints. "You start cutting things," Golds says, "[and] sometimes the attributions get lost altogether."
Sometimes the standup syndrome leads to locutions that imply some inside knowledge that is almost too obvious to state, let alone to attribute. CNN's Richard Blystone in Somalia, on January 7:
"But one thing for certain: Those captured arms are just a drop in the Somali arms bucket."
Probably true, but Blystone provided no source for the view.
Another example, from ABC's Bob Zelnick on April 23, the day the Navy released a report on the Tailhook incident:
"Most Navy pilots enjoy the swagger and public acclaim that comes with having the skill to land jet planes on the decks of carriers at sea. For those who carried the swagger too far, the public acclaim and their Navy careers may soon end."
The impression that Navy pilots "swagger" may be widely shared, but it's a stereotype. Zelnick came close to stating it as fact. And since no one else in the story talked about swaggering, it sounded like Zelnick's own opinion.
On-camera comments like these can damage credibility and make a thoughtful viewer wonder how reliable are the other elements in the story. "I think it's OK for a correspondent to have a point of view," says CBS News Washington Bureau Chief Barbara Cochran, "but not an editorial opinion."
Editorial opinion? Listen to Martin Bell, reporting for ABC from Bosnia on April 23:
"What happened here can frankly not be shown in any detail. But the room is full of the charred remains of bodies, and they died in the greatest agony. It's hard to imagine, in our continent and in our time, what kind of people could do this."
The first sentence perhaps showed admirable restraint, since the glimpse of holocaust in the preceding shots did suggest there were things in that room that a dinner time audience would not want to see. Bell's outrage is understandable: He had to go into the room. But the second sentence is, at best, superfluous.
In an example from local television, reporter Linda Vester of WRC in Washington, D.C., said this in a January 19 standup:
"Today we saw several different faces of Bill Clinton. We saw his somber, his casual, his political game-face. He's doing at this inauguration what he did during the campaign: trying to be all things to all people..."
Vester denies that the phrase "trying to be all things to all people" is a negative description. "It's an observation of a journalist who followed the campaign," she says, speaking of herself. "It's a slam only if you take it that way. It wasn't written that way."
ABC's Hume disagrees. "That's a value judgment," he says about Vester's remark. "The phrase is so associated with the idea of pandering that there is a pejorative connotation."
John Aubuchon of Tribune Broadcasting says standups like Vester's come "from lack of self control and supervision."
Getting It Backward
A standup presents a special challenge to television reporters. Often, he or she has to record it in the field before the rest of the script is written. With experience, the reporter knows that new story elements may emerge later, perhaps even a new lead. So, for the standup, the television journalist seeks an element of the story that won't change, in case there is no chance to reshoot it. Sometimes he or she finds a relevant fact that lends itself to colorful description. "I've known correspondents to spend all day writing the standup," says CBS' Cochran, "and then write the story backward from there."
"Backward" is right, because most often the standup is the story's finale. The danger of writing it first is that sometimes the elements do change, leaving a standup that seems like it belongs in another story. Here's Tom Hendrick broadcasting on Fox's WTTG in Washington on February 8:
"Although there will be no official ratification until next month, it looks like a done deal between the mayor, the council and the school board, in spite of all the dire warnings that conditions in many schools here in the nation's capital will go from third rate to Third World."
Hendrick, who was reporting on proposed school budget cuts, led the piece with footage of angry students blocking traffic in front of the building where the school board was meeting. The story that preceded the standup included no source for the claim that classroom conditions "will" deteriorate so badly.
"I had all the bites, teachers and parents..making the dire warnings," Hendrick says. Why didn't he use those bites? "I did the standup before the parents and teachers got pushed out of the story by more dramatic events that happened outside."
But the standup remained. "Looking back," Hendrick says, "I can see how you'd conclude that was my opinion."
To avoid such traps, the reporter usually will use the standup to project the story ahead, to leave the viewer anticipating some future action, like "the bill now goes to the Senate" or "the cleanup begins tomorrow." When imagination fails, he or she will use the familiar only-time-will-tell formulation:
"The more we learn about ozone, the more questions we seem to have. Is our environment improving or getting worse? That's a question that only time, and more research, will answer. Lisa Cutone, CNN Newsroom, Atlanta."
That standup aired on April 22 – Earth Day. It is hard to see what it added to the story, except Cutone's face.
Are Standups Necessary?
Almost daily, the network morning news shows feature correspondents appearing in front of a White House that, at 7 a.m., is not exactly bustling with activity:
"There is a very unusual move this morning by 12 experts at the State Department, reported in the New York Times as the lead story. It says that these people, who are all desk experts on the Balkans, have sent a memorandum to the secretary of state urging him in impassioned tones to intervene militarily in Bosnia, saying that diplomacy has utterly failed..."
That was CBS' Bill Plante on April 23. Did the network have to put him on the White House lawn just to read the paper? Is it so important to see the correspondent on the scene – and on the screen?
Michael Rosenblum, an independent producer who sells news video to television, says no. He calls standups "a primitive kind of grammar in TV, [done only] to prove the reporter is there... You end up making a movie about what the reporter does for a living." Rosenblum has an interest in changing that practice; his company, Video News International, produces footage without standups because his reporters operate the cameras themselves. But he asks a cogent question: "Why do you need the guy's face?"
Because, reporters and their bosses reply, the standup can lend impact, especially when the video isn't strong enough to carry the story.
"A lot of pieces, especially from Washington, are done over not particularly compelling pictures, because they're relating issues, not events," says CBS' Cochran. "With the standup, the correspondent looking into the camera, people listen up to that." CNN correspondent John Holliman agrees: "If I have some information that is important to the story that we don't have pictures for, then I do a standup." Otherwise, he says, "some of the information would be lost."
Rosenblum says good journalists can find a way around that problem, and he cites public television documentaries as examples. "What about 'Vietnam: A Television History?' " he asks. "Where's the standup? 'FrontLine'; where's the reporter? Where's the standup? 'Eyes on the Prize'; great, dramatic, riveting TV... You don't need the reporter's face...."
But Gregg Ramshaw, managing producer for PBS' "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" suggests that's not a valid comparison. "People work for weeks and months on [documentary] pieces," he says. "[They] have time to create graphics, to locate your crews, obtain rights to file footage... [With daily television], it's not that you can't get the pictures, maybe you don't have time to get the pictures."
MacNeil/Lehrer's field reports don't feature standups as often as the commercial networks, but Ramshaw finds them valuable. "The face time is more for your sources than your audience," he points out. "When you call Janet Reno, she knows who you are because she's seen you doing stories about the Justice Department."
NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, who covers the White House for "Today," says standups build confidence among viewers. "The networks like to promote their people, and one way is to put their faces on TV," he says. "If people see the correspondent, especially a beat correspondent, day after day, it tends to lend more credibility."
Miklaszewski claims the on-camera segments are particularly important to the morning shows. "With no standup, people will say, 'Hey, that's yesterday's story.' When there's a live picture they say, 'Here's something new.' " He does admit that this can be misleading: "God knows we try [to find something new] but sometimes it is a story from yesterday."
No one interviewed for this article predicted that standups will disappear any time soon. "The standup has become something of a tradition that is hard to break," Ramshaw says. "Reporters want it for ID purposes, and news organizations want it to show they have an active presence at the scene." Adds CNN's Holliman, "The producers like them, [and] a lot of reporters [believe] it's part of the compensation..to have your face out there, becoming famous." Miklaszewski concurs. "You want yourself to be identified with the story," he says, "and the best identifier there is face time."
In fact, several correspondents and producers see a trend, fueled by the growing number of tabloid and magazine programs, toward greater use of the reporter on camera.
"The reporters are more visible [with magazine shows] and so become an even bigger part of the story," Miklaszewski says. "The standup has evolved into a walk-up, not only [the reporter's] face on TV but moving around... And some of this has shown up in the network newscasts. No longer is it enough to stand on a hillside with Sarajevo in the background. Now you have to pick your way through the rubble."
One possible treatment, if not a cure, for the standup syndrome may be found in newspapers.
When Washington Post reporter Michael Weisskopf wrote in a February 1 article that the audience for television evangelists is "largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command," he offered neither evidence nor attribution. The Post ran a correction the next day, admitting there was "no factual basis" for Weisskopf's claim, and within the week Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser said it was a "profoundly opinionated assertion" and that editors "really screwed up" when they let it be published. The Post's ombudsman, Joann Byrd, devoted her next column to the flap.
Might television news programs try adding corrections segments to their broadcasts?
Lucy Spiegel, senior producer for "CBS This Morning," says, "In theory I think it could be done, but I don't know about the practicality of [corrections segments]. What do you want them to say? Our reporter is full of shit? You risk making it a bigger deal." She thinks that Jim Maceda's whole-Senate-on-trial standup is a good example: "It makes me uncomfortable, [but] I don't think it's a correctable thing... It's his perception."
óacNeil/Lehrer's Ramshaw says that "the logistics of the print medium make it easier to do retractions. To try to do it in broadcasting..for the NewsHour every night to have a retractions-correction segment, I just think would be complicated."
Cochran, Ramshaw, Spiegel and Golds claim that most outbreaks of the standup syndrome are caught by editors or producers before they're broadcast. Says Cochran, "At CBS, [standups are] the things that get changed more than anything else." When opinions or unattributed assertions crop up, Ramshaw says, "You call the reporter on the carpet for it."
òould the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour run a correction? "We've done it from time to time," Ramshaw says. Spiegel says the networks sometimes go further than that: "When you really go over the line, you go back and do another story. You revisit."
But that doesn't happen often, Spiegel concedes, because television journalists don't like confessing publicly that they've "screwed up."
As for how far a correspondent should go, Spiegel says, "I don't think there's room for opinion, but there is room for perceptions." Where should the line be drawn? "I'm not so sure," she says, "but I know it when I hear it." Tribune Broadcasting's Aubuchon suggests that the line is drawn "where you and your boss and your stations draw it."
However, WTTG reporter Tom Hendrick suggests that often the line isn't drawn at all. "You've got so many cooks, sometimes it's taken out of the reporter's hands. A lot of pressure [is] put on the reporter to make it snappier."
And knowing the standup syndrome as he does, Hendrick has some advice for viewers: "People should take news with a grain of salt. We're people too. We make mistakes." l ###