It Isnít Over  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    BROADCAST VIEWS    
From AJR,   November 2001

It Isnít Over   

TV news has some lessons to learn as it covers the ongoing terrorism story.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     


Hard as it may be to imagine any good coming out of a terrorist attack, the truth is that the events of September 11 and the aftermath were good for television news. The networks, broadcast and cable, once again served as an electronic hearth that people gathered around for information and comfort. As in earlier traumatic times, television news connected us as a national community--first in shock, then in mourning and resolve.

Network news divisions that have wasted so much of their time and ours on silliness and scandal turned their focus to a news story that not only deserved but required their attention. In the process, television news began to earn back its lost respect and to repair its damaged credibility.

"I think this has been a wake-up call to the public and to all of us in the news business," said CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson, "that there are certain things that really matter more than the latest trivial thing that can cause a ratings boost."

But as the days passed, the networks stumbled. They made mistakes and reverted to old habits that seemed more inappropriate than ever. And you had to wonder: Had they really heard that wake-up call?

Dramatic pictures have always been like manna to television news. Bodies falling from the World Trade Center, the second plane crashing into the building, the towers crumbling as people screamed in horror--this was powerful video, the first few times. But in too many newsrooms, it became just so much production material for slow-motion replays set to music, as if the real thing wasn't dramatic enough. When ABC News finally moved to keep those images off the air, a spokeswoman said the network wanted to avoid "turning this powerful image into a kind of wallpaper." Too late. The damage was done. Lesson: Compelling pictures should not keep running until they're devoid of meaning.

The networks' efforts to differentiate themselves by labeling their coverage also seemed misguided. One CBS banner practically crowed: "America Rising." On CNN, the label "America's New War" seemed designed to evoke fear. And both were off the mark, as they accompanied reports about such topics as intelligence failures or the stock market. Lesson: When the news has real value, there's no need to hype it.

As if the fancy branding weren't bad enough, the networks quickly added animated flags, spinning globes, double-box framing and multiple lines of scrolling information--often at the same time. The resulting graphic clutter made it more difficult for viewers to absorb the content. Lesson: The more complex the story, the less you should gussy it up.

For several days after the attacks, the networks acted in the public's best interest by dropping commercials and sharing video and information. CNN's Nic Robertson showed up on competing channels with what would ordinarily have been an exclusive report from Afghanistan. Many local stations also went commercial-free as they covered the response to the crisis. And people noticed. Reporter Toni Morrissey of WISC-TV in Madison, Wisconsin, marked the change. "For the first time in my 20-plus-year career, random people are stopping me on the street to thank us for our coverage," she said.

But as the days passed, the old competitive juices started flowing again. NBC began touting its "terrorism task force" of reporters, as if naming a team would make their coverage more worth watching. And the networks tried to "out-flag" each other in an orgy of on-screen patriotism. Viewing levels declined. Lesson: Playing it straight can be its own reward.

While the coverage of the attacks and the recovery efforts was generally laudable, the networks' efforts to explain the "why" and the "what next" seemed feeble by comparison, hampered by a dramatic reduction in international coverage over the past decade. According to the Tyndall Report, which tracks the content of the network evening newscasts, the amount of time given to foreign bureau reports on ABC, CBS and NBC declined by two-thirds since 1989. The bureaus themselves have been decimated by budget cuts and staff reductions.

Relying on stringers, video agencies and parachute journalists to cover breaking news around the globe, the networks have sacrificed the depth of understanding that experienced foreign correspondents once brought to the news. Lesson: It's time for news managers to meet the challenge CNN's Christiane Amanpour laid down a year ago to broadcast news directors: "Don't cut our costs. Give us more money so that we can produce real quality that will reverberate in all the right places."

And learn those lessons. This story isn't anywhere near over.

###