Field Reporting: Going, Going, Gone?

Veteran TV journalist David Marash knows the news.

Marash is a former correspondent for ABC’s Nightline and won Emmys for his reporting on the Oklahoma City bombing and the explosion of TWA Flight 800. He was an anchor for Al Jazeera English from 2006–2008. He’s spent a good 50 years in the business.

Which also means Marash knows when the networks are trying to pass something off as news that isn’t news. He calls it “news whiz”: Like Cheez Whiz, it’s an embarrassing substitute for the real thing.

Hungry for substance, Marash set out to investigate his hunch that U.S. television news appeared to be abandoning video reporting at the height of a world video revolution. His instincts were right: Over the last four years, broadcasters have quietly “capped the lens” on this kind of journalism.

Instead of providing hard-hitting, investigative reporting from the field, with never-before-seen footage of breaking events, television news programs are now filling more and more airtime with chat. Gone is the newsreel. Gone are the exposés. Missing are the eyewitness accounts from journalists on the ground, replaced instead with grainy video snippets pulled from Twitter.  

This shift is occurring as people around the world communicate via video on two billion computers and more than one and a half billion television sets.

“The world’s most universal language, and one that is going to become more universal over the next several decades, is video,” Marash said in a recent interview with Free Press. “Every year...  a larger percentage of the world is going to be able to communicate at a [more] sophisticated and nuanced level than was ever true before.”

In spite of the potential to reach ever-larger audiences in innovative ways, U.S. television networks are turning away from video reporting. Instead, networks are substituting arguing pundits, conversations among anchors and interviews with so-called “experts” who expound from afar on what a situation might be like.

“So instead of reporting from the field, you’re getting [discussion] from the studio or the university office or anywhere but the field,” Marash said.

Marash partnered with the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) to compile data on the state of television news reporting. He documented the team’s findings in a recent article for the Columbia Journalism Review. While ABC, CBS and NBC have all cut back on their use of video reporting over the last four years, CNN’s numbers are the most dramatic. In 2007, 46 percent of CNN’s programming consisted of reporting featuring original footage. By 2011, that figure had dropped to just 18 percent.

Other cuts have been more subtle. Marash writes:

The networks are getting better at hiding their retreat behind compilations of video gathered by other news organizations but packaged by familiar network correspondents. Even counting those compilations, PEJ measured cutbacks on video packages of 8 (NBC), 10 (ABC) and 13 (CBS) percentage points between 2007 and 2011 in the category of international stories in which the U.S. is a player.

While ditching video reporting, networks are gussying up their news hours with fast-talking correspondents, incessant news tickers and dramatic graphics.

“When was the last time,” Marash said, “you ever saw anyone on television pause for a moment — or even a long moment — to think?”

The Whole Point of Journalism

 “The first job of journalism is to answer the question, ‘What’s going on? What’s it like there? What’s happening, or why is it happening?’” Marash said. “Video enables us to show it, to illustrate it, in some cases even to prove our judgments and reportorial conclusions.”

And yet American TV news is long on judgments and conclusions and short on actual reporting. Marash says that journalism just isn’t the same without genuine field reporting.

“You gotta be there to be there,” he said. “You can’t dial this stuff in.”

Even the most qualified experts interviewed on the news today, Marash says, are “thousands of miles and hours removed from what’s happening on the ground.”

“If you want to know what security is like in Kabul, your answer will be quite different today than it was yesterday,” Marash said. “And your sense, your personal sense as an expert and an explainer, would be quite different. And your answers to sincere and intelligent questions would be quite literally out of date.”

Of course, sending a reporting team across the country — let alone the world — costs money. And it’s no secret that behemoth news corporations with vast media holdings are looking to cut corners to cushion their bottom lines and please stockholders. It’s cheaper to feature a handful of arguing pundits than to produce a report on the ground in the Middle East.

“What gets covered and how it gets covered is first and foremost a budgetary question these days rather than a journalistic imperative,” Marash said. “Now there never was a Candy Cane Land where budgets didn’t matter. But I think it’s safe to say that they matter more today than they did when I got into the business.”

So what’s the big deal if TV networks are ditching on-the-ground reporting? Well, there’s the old but best-not-forgotten adage that knowledge is power. Follow this logic: The less our TV anchors truly know, the less we know, and if journalists have to be there to be there, but our journalists aren’t there, then our TV anchors really don’t know what’s going on, and neither do we, leaving us all the more powerless and under-informed.

“There’s a great information void,” Marash said. “Too many Americans know nothing about the reality beyond America’s borders. And not enough Americans understand why it matters what the reality is beyond America’s borders.”

And Marash worries about the endless hours of angry feuding and bluster that now get prominent airtime in lieu of actual reporting.

“I think that television news, along with radio talk, has facilitated a culture of clash and conflict rather than civility and reason,” Marash said. “In the terribly hard economic times that we are in now, a lot of people … are very angry and very self-motivated rather than nationally or community-oriented. And I think that television news has facilitated all of that. We’ve modeled shouting at one another. We don’t model talking reasonably together.”

If Marash’s predictions are anything like his hunches, we're in for an even sorrier state of video reporting in the coming years. Stay tuned to watch less news.

Click to listen to Megan Tady's interview with David Marash on Free Press' Media Minutes podcast.




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