News you can lose, or what I hate about cable TV journalism.

Media criticism.
Sept. 4 2005 2:48 PM

News You Can Lose

What I hate about cable TV journalism.

When al-Qaida attacks, the United States invades, or mother nature strikes, I increase my newspaper, Web, and TV diet to stay on top of events. So it's during times like these, as I surf from CNN to Fox to MSNBC and back again, that I comprehend how truly, deeply, madly I hate TV news.

Not to take anything away from  the reporters and producers slaving away on Katrina and the corporate owners who've spared no expense to capture the story, but the medium's conceptual blinders and stupid conventions keep it from projecting the story in a coherent way.

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In no particular order I …

… hate it when the news networks pair music with montages of newsworthy footage. The broadcasters usually avail themselves of this gimmick when they're wrapping up a day or half-day's worth of coverage. If I want emotional cues that music provides, I'll hire a therapist to coach me on when to sniffle and cry.

… hate the use of undated footage, especially when it's two or three days old, that runs as "video wallpaper" as the anchors talk about looting, the breached levee, death, destruction, or what have you. It's TV news if it's live or happened recently or is placed in context. But if I have to look at that shirtless guy with the extravagant butt-crack trying to shatter the store door one more time, I'm going to fly down to New Orleans and arrest him myself. Likewise the footage of the rescue helicopter blowing roof shingles into the air.

I offer this easy remedy: If the talking heads need a visual backdrop, let them run the footage as they gab. But all footage that's not live or taped "today" should be date- and time-stamped conspicuously.

Why won't the networks do this? My friend Mark Feldstein, a recovering broadcaster who now teaches journalism at George Washington University, explains that this video ambiguity is deliberate.

"Labeling the video as a few days old draws attention to just how stale the most dramatic shots are and thus makes it harder to hype for ratings," he writes in e-mail. While undated footage often confuses viewers about the who-what-when-where-why basics, it helps the news networks by concealing how much of their "coverage" consists of cheaply produced talking heads in New York studios speculating on what's happening, rather than more expensive in-the-field reporting, he continues.

… hate the conspicuous lack of maps illustrating where the camera and reporters are in New Orleans, Biloxi, Baton Rouge, Mobile, or elsewhere. Not being New Orleans-savvy, I've had to rely on newspaper maps to orient myself as the action moves from the Superdome to the Convention Center to the French Quarter. Not even Slate's New Orleans-born and -bred Josh Levin could figure out which neighborhoods the heli-cams were observing.

Every reporter and aerial camera should be equipped with a GPS unit that reports to a visible map of the region that the producers routinely inset at the bottom of the screen. Knock out the running ticker at the bottom, if need be, to make room for good maps. (While we're on the subject of the ticker, the producers should delete it whenever they go to split-screen.)

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