(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, August 7.)
One night last week on NewsHub Live at 6pm, or whatever TV3’s news bulletin calls itself at the moment, I watched journalist Adam Hollingworth reporting “live” from outside Mt Eden Prison with the breathtaking news that an inmate had been diagnosed with measles.
I felt sorry for Hollingworth. It was dark and probably cold and he fumbled his lines.
For reasons that I don’t quite understand, any story containing the word “measles” seems to get editors’ pulses racing. But more to the point, it was impossible to see what purpose was served by Hollingworth reporting live from a locale where nothing was happening: no flashing ambulance lights, no stricken felon strapped to a stretcher, just a sign in the gloom identifying Mt Eden.
He could just as easily have delivered his report from a warm, familiar newsroom where, if he fluffed his lines, he could start again – an option not open to him when he was speaking live to camera. But the assumption in both main TV networks’ newsrooms seems to be that “live” reports convey a dramatic sense of immediacy, even when there’s nothing to see.
Later in the same bulletin another NewsHub reporter, Cleo Fraser, reported from the scene of an incident in the Hutt Valley in which the rogue driver of a road roller had terrorised a gathering of boy racers.
Again, why? The event she was describing – let’s call it road roller rage – had taken place nearly two days before. (And no, the story wasn’t about the roller driver being hailed as a national hero, although it would have been no surprise if he was.)
Fraser was reporting from a darkened stretch of road that could have been anywhere. She could just as easily have been standing in a service lane behind the NewsHub studio. No one would have been any the wiser and her employers would have saved some petrol money.
Now before I go any further, I should disclose something. When it comes to the television news, I’m a fundamentalist. I like my news delivered without unnecessary embellishment.
For a start, I regard the dual newsreader setup favoured by both main TV networks as pointless gimmickry, and for that reason I often opt for the no-frills Prime News read by Eric Young at 5.30pm.
Imagine that – a solo newsreader! But it’s how all our TV news used to be delivered, and it’s still the method of presentation used by most respected broadcasting organisations overseas.
Our TV bosses, however, apparently don’t think we can be trusted to tune into the nightly news bulletin, still less persevere through a full hour of it, without endless frippery to hold our attention.
And so we get ever-more-intrusive window-dressing. It’s no longer enough, for example, for the bulletin to open with a boring shot of a newsreader sitting at a desk. Instead, he or she now often stands, ever-so-carefully posed, against a wall-sized backdrop representing whatever story has been chosen – usually on the basis of its perceived emotional impact rather than importance – to lead the “news hour”.
The emphasis on “live” reports when they add nothing to the story, and are often beyond the competence of nervous reporters, is just one of many pointless elements in a news format that can best be described as selling the sizzle rather than the steak.
Add to that the silly and awkward gesticulating and flapping of hands in an attempt to dramatise whatever point the reporter is making, the increasing use of elaborate three-dimensional graphics that distract the viewer rather than enhance our understanding of whatever’s being reported, the use of “vox pops” to tell us what ordinary New Zealanders think about the complex issues of the day (as if questioning half a dozen shoppers chosen at random in a mall reveals anything of value or insight), the reporting of hysterical tweets by social media non-entities and the contrived chumminess of the interactions between newsreaders and reporters, and it all adds up to what I regard as debasement of the news.
Oh, and did I mention the tendency of some newsreaders to comment on whatever item has just been screened, apparently in the misapprehension that we might be interested in what they think?
Meanwhile, basic but essential things – such as captions identifying the people talking on screen – are commonly overlooked, leaving us scratching our heads about who they are and where they fit into the story.
In an informed democracy, news deserves to be treated seriously. It doesn’t need to be propped up by gimmickry.
To surround it with silly contrivances indicates disrespect for both the news and for the audience watching it - a sense that the news isn't capable of standing on its own merit and must be gussied up to make it more appealing. But to borrow the nightly sign-off line of the legendary American newsreader Walter Cronkite, that's the way it is.