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The problems with live news coverage.

It started with regularity in the 1970s. New portable cameras made it possible to broadcast almost any event or non-event live. The ability to telecast any story while it is breaking changed the ground rules of what television news-is and how it is to be presented. In the 1980s and 1990s, the dominance of live coverage transferred editorial power from experienced producers and writers in the newsroom to less experienced reporters and producers in the field. It further reduced TV news reports and news broadcasts to quicker, simplistic, one-dimensional, and superficial coverage.

More than 20 years ago, several TV journalists came up with a list of problems dealing with the possibility of more and more live coverage of news. The list seems even more relevant today than it was then. Here were some of the concerns:

There is a danger of giving viewers misinformation and rumor. Live accounts often may be inaccurate. The reporter gives the viewer the best information he or she can at the moment and this account frequently is filled with misinformation, distortion, and inaccuracy. It's the nature of the beast. The drama of the moment is substituted for good, thorough reporting. This is not deliberate deception--just honest, unavoidable errors, As one colleague put it, "In a running account of a story, there will always be misinformation no matter how hard the reporter works. Errors are understandable, but I'm afraid not excusable. The fact that it is a live report, a running story, does not relieve you of the responsibility of being accurate, no matter how hard it is to live up to that responsibility." News operations are always running the risk of giving out misinformation, but with live news coverage, the risk is greater.

Live news coverage puts an incredible burden on field reporters who are perilously on their own. The hope 20 years ago was that a new breed of reporter would be developed, one who doesn't pop off and ad-lib just to fill in the blank spaces, one who is careful of what is said, and one who is so well-informed that he or she can tell a story and organize the facts quickly and accurately. This new kind of reporter has not materialized.

In the past, television reporters got a good deal of help from the inside news staff, a group of journalists who had the experience and the time to reflect on what was being said and how it was being said, on inference and nuance, on completeness and fairness. If a reporter were sloppy or inaccurate, the newsroom personnel could save him by rewriting the script or re-editing the film or tape. With live news coverage, the inside news staff, when it exists at all, often sits by helplessly as the reporter fills time as best as he or she can. The danger of the unexpected, the putting on the air of inflammatory, slanderous, or obscene material is always there. There is seldom any time to evaluate a news situation, to create a fair and accurate report, to edit out anything that might be objectionable or in poor taste. It is far more difficult to exercise good news judgment in a live news situation, but the responsibility doesn't go away. No station is forced to cover the news with live remotes.

There is a danger of being used by special interest groups or government. Stories are created simply by staging a live event. Both private and public citizens want to use live news coverage for their own purposes. When a live camera is there beaming directly to the public, the danger of being used is increased because there is no prior evaluation or editing. There is the danger of newspeople overreacting, overplaying and exaggerating a story, giving the event too much prominence and airtime simply because it is live.

There is a danger of being simplistic and one-dimensional in the reporting of complex events. In live news coverage, there is never an opportunity to apply reflective judgment to what a reporter is saying, no opportunity to acquire information from a variety of sources and build it into a balanced, multifaceted report. Real-time coverage is, by its very nature, one-dimensional. The more complex the story, the more danger there is of doing a superficial job. A picket line is a good example. On videotape or film, the reporter would talk to those on the line; would interview union leaders, a union family at home, management officials, and public officials; show an empty plant; and develop a polished story that covers all angles. In live news coverage, the reporter goes to the demonstration and reports on it, doing it all ad-lib over one static picture from one location.

Thinking about the ramifications of live news coverage more than 20 years ago, the newsmen concluded that real-time coverage must be the beginning, not the end of the reporting effort. "Live coverage can never replace thorough, in-depth reporting and clearly does not excuse us from doing it," said one local news director. In the end, the real danger of more and more live news coverage is that it will become a substitute for other forms of reporting. If that happens, the fear is that television's coverage of the world in which we live will become even more superficial than it is now.

Watching local television news in 1998, these predictions are eerily right on target. Live news coverage of car chases, live reporter stand-ups at the scene of some accident or crime or staged event, live coverage of entertainment, sports, and weather reports all have replaced any semblance of thorough, in-depth reporting, the kind that puts the news of the day into perspective and makes it possible for anyone watching news programs to get a sense of what is going on in the world that day.

Does the public really care if the local news is live and now? Perhaps not. In most markets in America today, non-news programming is beating out most live news coverage. It seems people would rather see taped and filmed situation comedies and dramas, many starring actors who died years ago, than events taking place live, right now, right here.

Mr. Saltzman, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is associate director, University of Southern California School of Journalism, Los Angeles.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:misinformation, inexperience, special interest group manipulation and other factors
Author:Saltzman, Joe
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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