Evolution on the Airwaves
by Chris Morrill '81
The PBS NewsHour moves into a new era this week, dropping Jim Lehrer from the name-in-title spot and making a commitment to integrate broadcast and online content.
It’s an admirable adjustment in this era of constant struggle for longstanding news organizations. Lehrer promises that their mission won’t change and the show producers are committed to continuing “a deeper daily dive into the ‘why’ of a story, not just the ‘what happened’.”
In the show last Friday, the well-respected anchor shared guidelines for the show’s type of journalism, which include:
- Do nothing I cannot defend.
- Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
- Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
- Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
These are all good rules to follow at a time when the American public believes the accuracy of the press is at a 25-year low. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only 29% of us believe that news organizations generally get the story right, while 63% say news stories are often inaccurate.
Should we blame the growing credibility gap for the struggle that newspapers find themselves in now? It certainly doesn’t help, but I’m more inclined to focus on the “no time to read” factor and the way the web is changing our definition of what news is, when we can get it, and how it can be delivered.
The Pew report, released in September, also highlights television’s leadership as the dominant source of both national and local news for Americans. Some 71% of Americans count on TV for national news, while 42% turn to the Internet and only 33% to newspapers. More surprisingly, when asked, “Who does the most to uncover local news stories?” 44% say TV stations and only 25% say newspapers.
These numbers leave newspaper veterans shaking their heads. They know how many TV stories are gathered and reported using the local paper as a primary source.
Whether you’re a TV-news fan or a newspaper junkie, the sad fact remains that there are fewer and fewer professional reporters gathering important stories about national affairs, not to mention the states and towns we all live in. PBS news leaders certainly have high standards and have earned the respect of their audience; let’s hope they succeed as they evolve.
Chris Morrill, Colby '81, an editor and executive at The Hartford Courant for many years, is a Connecticut-based digital media consultant.