So, where did television news go wrong?

The following content is a commentary produced by David Baxley. The comments and opinions in Baxley’s article are his own and does not reflect any opinions of SPJ Region 3 or – Sharon Dunten, editor

By David Baxley, SPJ South Carolina member and Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University

How did the media handle the 2016 presidential campaign?

The nasty realization of what journalism has become reared its ugly head on Nov. 8, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump’s many tirades on members of the media at the same time pollsters predicted a Clinton win did nothing to help out the state of journalism.

The emergence of fake news sites left the historically revered media treading to stay above water as reliable and trustworthy sources of news. This includes:

  • A candidate’s agenda to use the media to his advantage
  • The media’s inability to capture the mindset of rural American in voting for that candidate
  • Inaccuracies in reporting – even from mainstream media
  • 24-hour news networks never-ending appeal to their increasing fragmented audiences
  • Consumers shuffling through confusion over fake news distributed through social media
  • Decline of solid journalism

all combined for a perfect storm of lost faith in the Fourth Estate.

Entertainment and the internet

Who are the gatekeepers for the internet?

But these problems have been building for years. News organizations are to blame for the growing skepticism of mainstream media. I can think back to my college days at Mississippi State University. Sure the internet might be blamed for the explosion of news across the world. I recall my introduction to a Mass Media professor describing to my class how the internet would create a world without gatekeepers.

News organizations have failed to become respectable outlets where consumers receive news that is impactful to their lives. When it comes to broadcast news, we’ve failed to give consumers a reason to watch real journalism. In many respects, we allowed entertainment to replace our role in society by not doing enough. We let the internet walk all over the foundation so many true journalists laid out many years ago.

Edward R. Murrow, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite are rolling over in their graves.

While the internet is a wonderful way to get immediate news, we didn’t step up to the plate soon enough. In the age of conglomeration and concentration of ownership, CEOs saw dollar signs through entertainment without understanding the important of news — or perhaps those CEOs just didn’t care.

Do TV news tidbits build trust with the media?

Are the news makers looking for a new image or makeover?

The internet can’t be blamed for our integrity issues, but, as journalists, we can be blamed for the way we have evolved through technology. For instance, I can’t tell you how many times a day I run across a local TV news anchor posting to a Twitter account with something to effect of: “I just got a new hairdo. I hope you like it. Join Sam and me at 5 p.m. if you want to see more of my hair.” Sure, I am exaggerating slightly — and I do mean slightly. The tweet usually comes with a lovely picture of the anchor smiling sensually at the camera and the post goes out all over social media. I get it.

Where do news consultants fit into news?

News consultants have pushed time and time again reasons each member of the on-air staff should be engaged on social media. But, I hate to tell these consultants that’s NOT the way to do it. It’s great that John won a bake-off at the TV station’s annual party. It’s great Jim played football with some kids at the park earlier today. It’s wonderful Janet went for a jog today and took a few selfies. But how in the world are posts featuring these types of inconsequential tidbits contributing to building trust in the media today?

Do you want your own fans like the alumni of the Star Trek franchise has?

At a time when journalists must work harder than ever to gain viewer loyalty, we can’t afford to have news consultants delivering false assumptions of news engagement. Do you really believe posting trivial photos — with no substance — is helping build your audience? We can’t look at news consumers as our “fans.” If you think of it that way, you’re looking at your journalistic responsibility all wrong. You need to be a cheerleading coach or a NASCAR driver.

If reporters and anchors choose to post such personal items to their own social media account, it’s their prerogative. Posting this kind of information to an official news site is shameful to our profession. News outlets should be posting and retweeting information that’s important to consumers; after all, that’s the reason we are “news” organizations in the first place — to provide “news.” To stay relevant, we’ve got to get away from these menial posts on social media.

Keep in mind, news consultants will always find something wrong and find a new way to do something? They are paid to make changes. They are paid to tell newsrooms how to build and maintain audiences, including engagement on various platforms. If these consultants came in and told news management everything looked good and nothing should be changed, news consultants would be out of a job. Let me be fair: some strategies may work. But news and station management must be smart.

Why are you posting on social media?

Yes post — but post responsibly.

Make sure news reporters and anchors are engaging with audiences to uphold our end of the First Amendment. We must recognize our responsibility as members of the press, even in the area of changing technology. Technology should not lessen the way we provide investigative, enlightening, thought-provoking information; it should enhance it.

Take a moment to understand what and why you’re posting to social media before you do it. If you work in broadcast news and you only want to be an entertainer, you chose the wrong profession. You may want to try to get on Big Brother or an episode of The Apprentice. Our industry does not have time for fake news people right now.

Reporters and anchors are NOT the news

The line between entertainment and news has blurred. Broadcast journalists have a responsibility — and that responsibility involves providing news that matters to consumers. Unfortunately, the news managers have bought into this belief that “entertainment and news” is a rating-grabber. Look around. Trust in the media is at all-time low. It’s not working. And, if you want to work in television news, you’ve got to be a professional. That includes an appropriate wardrobe. News isn’t about YOU. It’s about the news consumers you serve.

If you want your work product to be taken seriously, it’s time to act the part of being taken seriously. Let’s all work toward  rebuilding trust in our industry before it’s too late.

David Baxley

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years.