Research shows many television news directors, reporters believe high-tech 'toys' shaping reports

August 16, 2000

Little that's not experienced first-hand in life grips people more strongly than watching live news reports on television, whether it's coverage of events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Senate Watergate hearings, the Challenger explosion or the Gulf War.

And little is less enthralling than watching a local television news hound at 11 p.m. report "live" outside a dark municipal building hours after the city council has gone home. People in the business call such a live story "black hole" reporting.

"Some of this is just goofy," said Dr. C. A. Tuggle, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Live coverage, which is a good thing if it's done the right way, can be overused to the point that it becomes useless."

For more than two decades, Tuggle has been interested in how the proliferation of microwave technology, satellite trucks and other technology increasingly shapes broadcast news. That interest spurred a three-part study and comes naturally. He spent 16 years as a reporter and producer, including 11 years at local station WFLA in Tampa before earning a Ph.D. at the University of Alabama.

In the study's first part, published last fall in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, the UNC-CH scholar surveyed U.S. television reporters and news directors in the 211 U.S. media markets. He wanted to know, among other things, whether they felt stations' desire to use expensive equipment sometimes outweighed good news judgment. Responses came from 220 news workers.

Significant percentages of reporters and news directors believed that available technology often led to coverage beyond stories' real worth, Tuggle found. Many thought the prevailing attitude was "a live truck shall not gather dust" and that trucks remained at news scenes too long after reporters relayed what little news there was.

Others felt the high cost of technical equipment came at the expense of personnel and good reporting. Still others said covering stories live sometimes hindered their ability to check facts, increased the likelihood that they would repeat rumors.

Differences in opinion between people holding the two jobs likely came from reporters' better sense of an event's news value, Tuggle said. News directors typically are closer to management and care more about promotion, audience size and the bottom line than reporters do.

The second part of the study, not yet published, shows live reporting now has become more common in many markets than standard "packages" -- stories taped and edited for airing later.

"Breaking news is the best use of live reporting, and the second best use is covering an event that's happening right then," Tuggle said. "But on a scale of zero to four that we devised for the second study, we found 85 percent of live reporting rated a zero."

The scale was based on comments made by news directors and reporters who responded to the initial survey. Viewers also think little about meaningless live reporting, according to preliminary results from the third part of the research project, Tuggle said.

"Even a substantial percentage of news directors thought that 'black hole' live shots are goofy, but many of them feel pressure to do it -- like they're between a rock and a hard place," he said. "It's actually a bigger problem in large television markets because they don't have to justify use of one or two live trucks, they have to justify having eight live trucks, a helicopter and two satellite trucks."

Television news operations would do a better job and save money, and the public would be better served if live reporting were only done when it was clearly appropriate, Tuggle said. Instead of doing five or six weak live stories for the six o'clock news, "why not do two really good ones and put the others on tape?"

"My opinion, based on these studies and my own experience in TV news, is that technology is driving broadcast journalism, and it shouldn't be that way," he said.
-end-
By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC-CH News Services


Note: Tuggle can be reached at 919-962-5694 or via email at catuggle@email.unc.edu.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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