We’re devoting the next few interviews to a subject we rarely discuss, TV news, still the way most people get their information. Veteran TV reporter Dave Marash observed in the latest Columbia Journalism Review that quote, “For the first time in history, mankind is developing universal language, video. People now communicate with video on two billion computers and more than one and a half billion TV sets. And by 2013 you can add another one billion video-capable people regularly accessing the Web from their cell phones.”
“But while the world increasingly speaks video, says Marash, “American TV news is capping its lens, relying less and less on reported pieces from the field called video packages.”
What has replaced the video package is the live two-way, Basically this means that you send a reporter and crew, they find a good location that is both safe and scenic, and then they spend most of their working day attached to it, so that at any given hour they can talk with an anchor in New York or Washington or Atlanta, but they don't actually look at the country.
Live now to the town of Urchess…
Here in Cairo the government in this area has imposed a curfew...
Well, they’ve been out here in occupied San Francisco. They've had a couple of eviction notices that there's been a couple of close calls...
Now, CNN's former chief, Jonathan Klein, told you that, quote, “A well done live report has the advantage of energy and immediacy over a package. Sanjay Gupta, reporting live from the medical center in Haiti, was by far the most powerful story to emerge from the Haiti earthquake last year, and that was a live shot. No tape package, he said, could have captured the drama of the situation as it unfolded.
It was a dramatic moment, and moments are important to stories. But moments are not stories. And when news directors start to confuse great moments with great stories, they get a lot more comfortable with these live moments that can't really pretend, even in a metaphoric way, to tell the whole story.
So what is cable news is generally filling up all that time with, that used to be filled with video packages?
Talk. When the video package share of CNN dropped by 28 percent, the chat portion, the conversation and interview portion, went up by 26 percent. And so, what America's news channels have become is not channels of news but channels of talk about news.
And what you get is today’s yammer fests, tests which have little to do with revealing what's going on.
Okay, you cite sobering statistics for cable news, but the situation isn't nearly as stark for network news.
The situation and the changes at the networks are a little bit different and yes, less dramatic than at CNN. But again, at the networks, having talked to many experienced overseas correspondents, they will tell you that they are going to the scene of the story less and that they are packaging video whose provenance they cannot exactly vouch for. And this is, you know, especially true of Internet video, but it's also true if Reuters is really passing along state television or opposition television.
On the other hand, in places where American journalists can't go, as in much of the coverage of the Arab Spring, that video was absolutely essential, the video that came through the Internet, the video that came through Twitter. And, and I remember listening to tape from the BBC, where they said, look, we can't vouch for this but this is what we have. Keep that in mind when you listen to it.
In some places the only kind of coverage available was coverage from ordinary people who were there onsite.
The new world of near-universal video is creating a much more transparent universe. It's creating a much more informed universe. But, as I said, the one thing you never know is who shot it and what interest did they have in the story, and has that affected the point of view of the video that they’re presenting?
And the best antidote, and even this is only a partial cure to this simultaneous blessing and curse, is to have reporters who are actually on the scene, who can say, Videos A, D and R focused on this, but our sources tell us if they had panned 12 degrees right, they would have seen something they didn't want to show you.
The video reporting from the field, these packages, they take so much time to edit and craft. Do you think we understand the news less well when it is explained, not by a talking head, but by a reporter who knows his or her stuff?
There's a reason why video has captivated so many people around the world. It's incredibly information dense. And when it is married to a well-written narration that underscores for the viewer the logic of the connections between the pieces of video that he is seeing, there’s a tremendous amount of real information that can be disposed.
All three networks still do video packages. But the number of them and the quality of them is declining, and I don't think you'll find anybody in the major television newsrooms who will try and tell you different.
Dave, thank you very much.
Thanks, Brooke. It’s been a pleasure.
Dave Marash has been a broadcast journalist for half a century.