Behind the Lens  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    BROADCAST VIEWS    
From AJR,   October 2001

Behind the Lens   

A documentary reveals how local TV news is made--and its not always easy to watch.

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


Why is local television news the way it is? Why do some stories get on the air and others don't? Why are stations always changing anchors?

Most viewers may not have much of a clue, but they can get one from a documentary series that begins airing this month on PBS. "Local News: One Station Fights the Odds" takes a candid behind-the-scenes look at WCNC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina, and at times, it's not easy to watch.

Anyone who has ever worked in television news knows it's not "all hairspray and glamour," as the station's news director points out in the first episode. This series makes that abundantly plain by showing, not telling, what it's really like. (Full disclosure: I played a small role as an adviser to the producers at Lumiere Productions and Thirteen/WNET.)

Viewers will see a reporter, drenched to the skin, doing live shot after live shot in the midst of a hurricane and losing his cool when his earpiece fails and he can't hear the cues from the control room.

Another reporter, who says she is the lead, scrambles to turn a breaking news story around. "I don't know what I'm going to say," she says.

"People have this impression of what we do," says anchor/reporter Alicia Booth, "but it's just nothing like what people think it is."

So what will people think after seeing the five-hour program? Some will no doubt have their preconceived notions confirmed. "Local News" doesn't disguise the shallowness of local television, with its inexperienced reporters who'd rather look good than work hard. And the series lays bare the pressure to increase ratings that so many viewers blame for the lack of quality in local news. "We want you to bust everybody's balls [at the other stations]," a corporate executive instructs News Director Keith Connors, who is seen fretting over the lackluster overnight numbers.

But the overriding impression is of an understaffed, No. 3 station struggling to cover the news responsibly. Reporters and producers wrestle with how to tell the community about a school bomb threat, the murder of a young boy and a complex court battle over classroom desegregation. In the process, they second-guess themselves, question their own values, and sometimes pull their punches.

One reporter seems more concerned about her relationship with police sources than her duty to inform the public, but her caution about naming a teenage murder suspect later appears justified. Another reporter--an African American--worries about the tone of her desegregation story because of her connection to the black community. "I have to be careful to toe the line," she says.

The documentary producers chose WCNC not only because they were granted access, but also because they believed the station, recently purchased by Belo, had a "commitment to 'do the right thing'--to produce quality news programs." That commitment comes through, at least occasionally. Connors pushes for political coverage, while admitting to his skeptical staff, "I know it's not great television." He lobbies for more resources, only to be told bluntly by a senior station executive, "I don't care." And he resists suggestions by some in the station that the late news needs more spice to keep viewers tuned in. "I want to see the roller-skating elephant," one manager says, in apparent seriousness. "I think the answer is in news," says Connors, "not in a gimmick."

Viewers of "Local News" will know a lot more about how television operates by the time the series is over. Personnel issues normally handled in private play out in front of the cameras. They'll learn how "research" is used to take an anchor off the air because she doesn't appeal to the desired demographic group: other women. "Maybe you're too pretty," a colleague muses. When an African American reporter is dismissed after eight years at the station, the black community rallies to her support. But she knows the new bosses want their own team. "I'm in the way," she says. A consultant criticizes the station's crime reporter for being "low energy" and advises the station to hire someone else.

Some of this may be a little difficult for the uninitiated to follow. The documentary series has no narration to glue the pieces together, and a few of the vignettes may be more puzzling than revealing. But the program explores many of the critical issues in local television news: the rootless nature of so many journalists, the tension over diversity, the emphasis on appearance and the pressure to always do more with less. At the very least, it should help viewers better understand why things are the way they are--and perhaps even prompt them to push for change.

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