Home > Uncategorized > Ten Things They Hate About You

Ten Things They Hate About You

-first posted at RTDNA.org on September 15, 2009

I hope by now you’ve checked out the piece we posted with regular news viewers from Kansas City reacting to coverage by CNN and other outlets of the Potomac River scare on 9/11.  The focus group was part of RTNDF’s “New Tech Creates New Pressures” workshop held Friday and Saturday to help news managers navigate the today’s complicated news delivery environment.  Nearly 50 of your peers—including me—had the chance to sit down and listen to viewers talk openly about what they love and hate about TV news.  Now, I’m not a negative sort, but the things they hate always tell me more than the things they love.  Workshop leader Al Tompkins (ably assisted by KPNX’s Lynn French) summed it up well following the panel, letting the assembled journalists know that viewers sometimes find it hard to tell us what they want us to do, simply because they don’t know what’s possible.  But they can almost always tell us what they hate, because they’ve been watching us do it for years.

With that clarity at the forefront of my purpose with this column, I’ve set out to share ten things I picked up last Friday night that viewers HATE about us.  Al put together a more constructive view of what came from the viewers at the focus group.  You can read that here.

He was also kind enough to give me the last question of that evening and I asked them point blank to tell us those informative hates of theirs.  And they did.  So now, the ten things TV news viewers hate about you:

10.  Your seemingly endless obsession with pets:  More than one panelist pointed to coverage of dogs in the news as a tremendous waste of their time.  “Dogs swimming in the pool” grew to be a code phrase for stories they deemed unimportant.  Though cats didn’t get much of a mention, the viewers seemed to be saying the short time we have with them in each newscast is too valuable to be spent on something as big-picture trivial as cute shots of animals.  Most said we need to stick with things that are more important.

9. Your need to look your best on air: Do the viewers notice the time we spend on makeup, clothing, and hair before we go on air?  Yes—but don’t get too excited about that angle.  While our youngest panelist said he was a fan of “hot” anchors on air, the rest of the group wrote off what they as our obsession with looks and grooming as a big waste of time.  The focus, at least for the duration of the focus group, was on content.  And most felt like reporters who look too good in the field must not have spend enough time working on the story before that live shot.  Their advice was to tell the story and trash the hairspray.

8. Your efforts beat the competition with weather coverage:  This one may come as no surprise to any of us news editors who regularly answer calls from viewers angry we cut in over “Knight Rider” to warn of impending doom from above.  Most of us on the station side are quick to point out that lives are in danger here.  But the viewers weren’t buying it.  They accepted actual weather emergencies as a coverage necessity, but questioned the hyping of weather coverage when things just aren’t that bad.  Worse than that, they say, are delays in giving the forecast just to make them watch a whole lot of junk they don’t want to see anyway (reference aforementioned “dogs swimming in the pool”).

7. Your need to show how cleverly you write:  “I just want the news” was a comment I heard throughout the evening, usually in reference to how we write our stories.  Despite all our attempts to draw in viewers with smart headlines and snappy lead sentences, these viewers pleaded with us to just get to the point already.  After watching a story from Phoenix showing the fatal fall of a man from a radio tower, several took aim at a lead sentence that talked of the man’s promise to climb that tower some day.  They scoffed at the need to begin the story in such a roundabout way, asking instead to get right to the news of the day in the lead—that a man fell to his death.

6. Your need to be the news source covering Hollywood and the rest of the world: The spectators in the room observing the panel were billed as local news managers, and group members certainly focused on local news coverage.  Some showed an innate grasp of the concept of proximity as a determinant of news value.  They questioned the need to show stories from Hollywood or even news from other parts of the globe.  Nearly all said they wanted local stations to be local first.  One viewer even talked of his strategy of watching where reporters were working around the city and searching the channels to cover as much geography as possible.  They turn elsewhere for news from elsewhere, and expected their Kansas City station to cover the city in which they live first.

5. Your endless use of teases: I have to admit they won over my heart with this one.  Those who know me know how much I hate teases.  And I’ve know for years how much the viewers hate them.  Sure, you can make the argument that a great tease writer will get you to stick around and watch—even if you were thinking of leaving.  But there was no respect for that skill in this group.  Most of the panelists abhor teases that draw them through the newscast to a less than satisfying payoff.  They ask instead for more meat and less sizzle when if comes to partitioning the news hole.

4. Your efforts to sensationalize the news: This is a word you would expect to hear from any group brought together to talk about journalism.  But the panelists had a surprisingly cohesive view of what “sensationalism” means in a post-9/11 world.  From the Friday debacle on the Potomac to the coverage of crime on the streets of Kansas City, the viewers felt a constant sense of manipulation by news producers to compel them to watch stories that were not everything purported to be.  Much like the plea that came with overly-creative writing, the panel members asked we get to the news and tell the facts, while leaving the exaggerations out.

3. Your political bias/correctness: Though pointing the finger more at the cable news channels, a couple of panelists were sure to point out that they think local news coverage has political bias.  Strangely, the word “liberal” or “conservative” never came out.  But the term “bias” did, and it shows a disconnect between the values of the viewer and what they perceive the values of the news operation to be.  The same panelist worried about bias also accused political correctness of getting in the way of full reporting.  He specifically cited the race of suspects in crime stories.  And though the panel seemed to have a cross section of political points of view, no one spoke up to contradict him.  Could there be a disconnect with the audience’s values across the political spectrum?

2.  Your constant negativity: Perhaps the most commonly heard complaint for as long as there has been journalism is that reporters focus on the negative too much.  That sentiment was not absent with the Friday night group.  Though nearly all pushed for harder reporter, more investigations, and an end to “happy talk,” most also wanted to have a break from the heaviness from time to time.  One panelist—a firefighter by trade—spoke of his own personal struggle with being the center of negative news.  Firefighter John talked of his injury on the job and his appearance on the news that night.  He was in pain and laid out on a stretcher.  John’s question was why show him like that?  Why not show him fighting the fire or saving the children?  His questions fell heavy in the room.

1. Your lack of respect for the people you cover: Time and time again throughout the entire panel discussion, the viewers found examples of what they considered news people going to far covering the story.  Airing the 911 call of the woman who just shot her husband went too far, showing the young boy crying at the state of poverty in which he lives cut too close, and moving the camera in close to the man weeping after witnessing a tragic fall pushed too much.   The panelists implored the journalists present to treat their sources—especially victims of crimes or disasters—the way they would want their own family members treated.  Most understood the need to get tough with sources who might have something to hide and therefore not be part of news coverage.  But the group concurred in its assessment that we often go too far in our reports.

The whole session took a couple of hours of my Friday evening, but provided so much in return that I could take back to the newsroom.  As Al and Lynn often said when leading our group this weekend, we need to ask questions about what it is we do.  So I don’t view this hate list as laws nailed to the newsroom door.  Instead, each point will give me pause when next I assign a story or look over a script.  What would Mai or Paul or Judy say?  All our markets have their own versions of the Johns and Laurens who took part in our panel.  What are they saying about your newscasts?  Do they have then things they hate about you?

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