Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Network

Time versus Carefulness

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program-clock

There was an interesting conflict between broadcasting necessity and journalistic necessity this morning on CBS This Morning.  Susanne Craig and David Barstow, both reporters of the NY Times, co-wrote a story which they broke about the taxes of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Apparently, Ms. Craig discovered three pages of Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax return in her NY Times mailbox.  After she and Mr. Barstow verified the authenticity of the pages with the tax professional that actually prepared the return the pages seemed to come from, the reporters released the story.  The reporters were asked if they feared legal consequences for writing the story based on documents Mr. Trump’s campaign said were obtained “illegally”.  They responded that a  tenet of journalism is that if a reporter does nothing to solict the receipt of such documents and they are verified as true, they can report the story as factual and be held harmless.

Ms. Craig spoke succinctly and briefly about how she got the documents, while Mr. Barstow was extremely measured in how he talked about conversations with staff attorneys, odd presentations of numbers on the form itself and getting the preparer to verify his work.

But because he took so much time carefully going through those aspects of the story, Charlie Rose and Gayle King began getting cues from their director that time was running out and that they need to wrap so the show could go to a break.

It was ironic that the journalists at that table, all of which were seeking the truth in the spirit of the First Amendment, were also essentially at odds over the amount of time available to tell that truth.

The chasm between TV news and newspaper reporting has been an open secret for decades.  If you notice, TV people are often reading stories written by newspaper people.  Newspapers reporting has been and remains the backbone of American journalism while TV is the compromise that adds pictures and speeds things up while removing much of the useful nutritional information.

I understand the program clock.  I understand affiliates down the line waiting their turn to insert local news, weather and traffic.  And I understand the need to make sure advertiser’s commercials get aired since ultimately, that’s the fount from which everything flows.

It just made me a little sad that such an important story was abbreviated.  To read the full, fascinating article at your leisure, visit http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/02/us/politics/donald-trump-taxes.html

Wake up and Smell the Coffee in your NPR Coffee Mug

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NPR coffee mug

Public radio listeners can be an insular bunch.  In some ways, they are opposite to American citizens in general and a contradiction to one of public radio’s main selling points.

American citizens, in general, are interested in what happens in other states even though they themselves live in one state.  Public radio listeners, by contrast, like to think of themselves as citizens of the world, but have little to no idea what is happening elsewhere in the public radio universe.  In part, it’s the fault of the public radio stations themselves.  They have, each and every one of them, set themselves up like little Levittowns.

Every listener need is met.  Every street has a grocery store, a hardware store, a restaurant.  There’s no reason for anyone to leave their own block and that’s the way station’s like it.  If you never feel the need to go anywhere else, then all your time, attention and money stays here.

But that means public radio listeners never hear of the turmoil elsewhere between stations that are fighting over audience, or the white knuckled panic with which affiliates and networks eye each other over the effect of podcasts on funding, or state cutbacks to public radio support and the struggles stations are having over when and for how long to have fund drives that are both, effective and don’t drive listeners away.

Stations have succeeded too well at making things comfy.  And that is where some of the responsibility needs to shifts to listeners.

They could afford to be more engaged with the state of public radio, not just their local station, because of domino effects.  In these times of tight budgets when state A decides to cut or end support to its public radio station, states B, C and D, looking across the border, start wondering where else besides public radio they could put their money.  And while station A in Nebraska misses a fund drive goal, and its board sells its frequency – making it disappear, listeners in Connecticut are blissfully absorbed in the soft tones of Garrison Keillor.

Public radio listeners pride themselves on being advocates for every cause NPR, PRI or APM reporters haul out before them.  But they also need to pay attention to the medium as well as the message because without the medium, there is no message.  Contributing to your local station is fine.  Volunteering for your local station is great.  But your public radio community is a lot bigger than your neighbors your public radio station serves.  It is part of a hemispheric network of wheels and cogs.  All of them, together, make this amazing thing called public radio.  If any of them start to grind, or strip, the whole thing could come to a smoking stop.

I know it might seem unlikely.

But unlikely things are happening everyday.

 

Written by Interviewer

June 30, 2016 at 03:00

The Look of News

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Network Logos

I’m dating myself, but I remember when there were just three channels on TV.  Well, not really just three.  There were the PBS channels and everything else that lived above Channel 13 on UHF.  But in most places, viewers watched network programs through their network affiliates that existed somewhere between Channels 2 and 12.  For the most part, they still do.

I am thinking about how much the local channels try to look like their network parents and what that really means.  If you are a connoisseur of the look of TV, you might get what I’m saying.  With the years I’ve spent behind studio cameras, in master controls and at home, the feel a station wants to convey with its look is very recognizable and distinctive to me.  And I am convinced that they each have had decades long recipes for how their picture looks to the world and what they’re saying about themselves with those pictures.

CBS, it seems to me, has colors that have higher than average black levels.  Black level is one of the components of a TV signal that becomes your TV picture.  High but not too high black levels make the pictures rich in their clarity and sharpness but not overly bright or overly colorful.  The feeling I get from a CBS image is credibility, authority and power.  So with that in mind, it’s probably no coincidence that the old nickname for CBS headquarters is “Black Rock”.  Anyway, their picture is what you might see with your own eyes if somebody else was controlling them on the assumption that you wanted to see the most real reality* possible.  That may sound a little woo-woo, but I think that’s how CBS has always tried to present the world to its viewers; in a digitally sharp, not a lot of frills, down to business, just the facts ma’am manner.  Local CBS affiliates mirror the network look and feel as much as they can.  If CBS’s look was a setting, it would be an office.

NBC, by comparison has a film-ish look.  Not grainy exactly, not soft focus exactly.  But when I watch NBC, I think of history in the making.  Also, for many people, film is to images like vinyl is to sound.  There is just something about the earlier mediums that feel original and thus, more true.  Film makes the things we’re seeing more authentic and believable in part because film is what we all grew up with.  That’s why almost all of the movies we see don’t look like a TV news story and instead, look like, well … life.  Even movies that are shot digitally are made to look like film.  You can bet the engineers, producers and executives at NBC, as well of all of its affiliates know that’s how people see them and that is a perception they want to protect.  If NBC’s look was a setting, it would be a library.

ABC has always struck me as the most immediate network.  I think that mostly because of the colors.  Colors always seem most intense and lighting always seems brightest to me in ABC programming.  I see this especially on ABC news programs although I also noticed it on the old After School Specials and see it in many current prime time shows.  Of the three networks, the action on ABC programs seems to move fastest, with quicker edits and effects, more in-your-face use of sound and overall pacing.  The feel I get from watching something on ABC is it’s a wind in your hair kind of experience.  To me, ABC creates a mood of immediacy and energy with the way it presents itself.  And again, local ABC stations seem to follow suit.  If ABC’s look was a setting, it would be a party.

What I’m talking about here is how television engineers light for the camera to create a world that exists on a continuum from stark reality to dreamtime and everything in between.  Each of these networks has settled on a recipe for a picture of the world that mirrors how they see it, and they attract people who see it the same way.  They and their affiliates, present that world but we each have a preference for how we want to see it which is why many of us choose one network over another.  Of course, if a better show is on a different network, that’s where the viewer goes.  But networks are brands and they have brand loyalty based in large part on how people have come to expect they will look and feel to them.  There are distinct differences which is no accident.

*BTW, Aaron Schachter of PRI’s “The World” also used the superlative “real reality” in an April 7th radio story but I hadn’t heard it yet.

Joining the Conversation

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bait and switch

Public radio stations have adopted online message and comment boards as forums. They use them strategically, 1) To mine them for particularly relevant comments related to whatever story they want to highlight, 2) To find people who might be good candidates for future stories, and 3) To let people feel like they are being heard by the station. But conversation isn’t always the intention or the outcome and it is questionable as to whether this medium hurts or helps journalism and public engagement.

Often, general interest programs take callers. But callers can be volatile in different ways. They can of course, be abrasive. That’s why almost all stations have kill switches that let hosts or engineers cut off rude callers. They are able to do this because the program you are hearing is being delivered to you anywhere between 7 and 20 seconds behind the actual program at the station. When a caller becomes inappropriate, they are cut off in some cases before you ever hear them.

Another way callers can be volatile is by forcefully continuing to talk as the host is running out of time. Radio programs run on tight schedules, especially if they are part of a network that must let affiliates down the line jump in and out of network programming to meet their own local needs. Missing times can upset affiliates and consequently, their advertisers. So hitting time cues is critical. A caller that won’t stop talking can cause big problems for stations because hosts don’t want to seem rude but sometimes must be abrupt to keep to the clock.

For these and other reasons, many general interest programs have stopped taking as many callers and have moved to comments posted on social networks. This way, they can get the same public engagement by cherry picking the best comments without the fear of being surprised by rudeness or droning. But these programs often receive so many commenters that they don’t even have time to include most of the condensed responses they get on social networks. And since many of them rebroadcast their daytime programs in the evening, those programs have been encouraging people to “join the conversation.”

But this can sometimes sound like “pass the buck” on the obligation to actually give people an opportunity and a voice to engage the subject of the story about a particular issue. What people want is to ask the expert, which is why the program invited them on it in the first place. Instead, what these programs are doing is giving participants who use comment boards the less than ideal substitute of engaging each other. This can have benefits in terms of allowing people to see that listeners of the same program can differ widely about its message. But sometimes, relying on comment boards leads to disastrous results for the commenters and the entity.

Online comments aren’t free from volatility. Some publications with similar online comment boards like the Huffington Post, have ended anonymous comments and now force users to use their real names. They and others make this choice to insure people who post vicious comments are out in the open with the thinking apparently being that sunlight kills germs. Mainstays like Wired Magaazine and Popular Science have ended comment boards altogether. The latter choosing so because research has shown that even a small number of people who post wrong information can skew the perception of the entire group. As a publication dedicated to science and research, suffering the ignorant minority at the expense of the innocent majority was something PS could not stomach.

Some see the solution to better comment boards as being heavier moderation while others are pinning their hopes on software that looks for offensive keywords or polices syntax to remove phrases that have antisocial intentions. But some reporters and journalists say comment boards are true forums for public discussion and the poisons injected by trolls and flamers is the price we pay for free speech in a free country.

Still, when a station or a program invites me to “join the conversation”, it feels cheap. They are trying to convince me that they are listening and that I matter and I’ll be part of a vibrant, thoughtful and intelligent community discussion on the issue of the day. I suspect that what is actually happening, as it has happened all too often, is that I am joining nothing and conversing with no one.