Commentary: The problem with TV newscast copycats
By Jim Schuh
There’s a lot on TV newscasts I don’t care for.
As I’ve noted in previous columns, one big dislike is the mass overuse of “Breaking News.” TV news involves a lot of copying and this phrase has made it to the top of the list. You can’t avoid it.
I’ve heard enough “Breaking News” items for a lifetime and wish the TV newsrooms of the country would come up with something better – especially when “Breaking News” isn’t breaking news at all, or when the story isn’t worthy enough to merit the “breaking news” description. A garage fire is not breaking news – unless there’s something unusual about it – like living beings being trapped inside. I say put the phrase to bed.
“Developing story” is another one – nearly all news stories are “developing” – from a municipal government action that awaits implementation to a police crime investigation that will produce a conclusion.
TV stations and newspapers often rely on each other for stories. Just watch the network newscasts and check that day’s Wall Street Journal or New York Times and guess what, the story appeared first in the newspapers. They’re mostly the work of enterprise reporters.
On the local level, TV stations use newspaper stories for some of their local stories and with a reduction in print reporters, newspapers use TV stories a few days later. Sometimes the TV stations and newspapers have an agreement with their media brethren to do that and give the other guy credit; other times they don’t. There’s a decent chance that a TV newscast will contain at least one story from a newspaper and vice versa.
I’m not sure how this copycat reporting got to be so mainstream; it used to be that when a news medium did that, we referred to it as plagiarism unless we were clever enough to report the story with a much different angle. But now, if a story gets reported, other media feel it’s okay to lift it, often without attribution.
We hear weather reporters use phrases like “currently, right now” or “currently, the present temperature is…” Do they ever watch tapes of themselves?
Correct pronunciations are an absolute must for news and weather reporters if they want us to believe what they say. There’s no better way to destroy credibility than to mispronounce local towns and names. In a two-week period, I saw channel 12 meteorologists broadcasting a severe weather report mess up the pronunciations of “Ogema” and “Stettin.” The guy who mispronounced “Stettin” also peppered his recitation with way too many “right nows” just as a teen intersperses “like” at least once in every sentence.
For broadcast reporters and weather forecasters unsure of how to say a town’s name, a website can help them with towns they’ve never hear of. It’s www.misspronouncer.com and actually pronounces the word for them. You might wonder how to say some of our state’s peculiar names – give the website a try.
Many local TV newscasts waste time giving us stories that are of little value or not worthy of reporting. With almost no staff to report real news, newspapers have turned to fluff, too. I suspect the TV news consultants have told their clients to make sure they include plenty of fluffy material in their newscasts because it makes viewers “feel good” about the programs. It’s fine to include an animal story occasionally, but a daily regimen featuring Fluffy or Fido is a waste of time and resources. Dogs and cats aren’t the only creatures you’re likely to encounter on local TV newscasts; newly-born anythings are nearly guaranteed to make it on the shows, with the anchors gushing over “how cute” they are. All baby animals are cute.
I came across a piece by Christopher Jones-Cruise, a Voice of America and Westwood One broadcaster – who produced a list of useless time waters TV stories for the Radio TV Digital News Directors Association. I think you’ll find it fun to peruse and probably will agree with his choices.
- The cost of the 12 Days of Christmas – “…the height of irrelevance and stupidity” says Jones-Cruise.
- Black Friday sales volume – “What do these numbers really mean? And how accurate can these estimates be?”
- Punxsutawney Phil (and let me add Jimmy, the Sun Prairie groundhog) – “So we’re taking weather predictions from a rodent now?” (By the way, the StormFax Weather Almanac and records kept since 1887 show that Punxsutawney Phil’s weather predictions have been correct 39% of the time.)
- National (fill in the blank) Day – Since these days are almost always creations of business, Jones-Cruise asks, “Are we in the business of reporting news or giving away free advertising?”
- Hurricane season predictions – “What are we supposed to do with this information?”
- Old Farmer’s Almanac predictions – same question, “What are we supposed to do with this information? (How accurate have these forecasts proven to be?)
- “Local stations have picked up the cable TV habit of dragging stories out for days when there are no developments.”
- Baseless fear headlines – “Your (fill in the blank) could kill you.”
- “Hollywood is mourning” the death of (fill in the blank), “every time someone evenly remotely related to the entertainment business dies.”
- Anything involving the Kardashians.
My friend, news guru and author Merv Block, has added a few more.
- The American Automobile Association’s predictions of how many people will be going home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. “How accurate can these predictions be?” And who cares?
- How many turkeys the president pardons before Thanksgiving.
- The number of meals charities serve to the hungry on Thanksgiving or Christmas.
I’d add that news organizations need to find different ways of reporting stories like students returning to college every year. How many times can we watch video of students unloading cars and hauling their stuff up four flights of dorm stairs?