The television news bulletin has morphed from the traditional sit-behind-desk affair into the hybrid love child of a soap opera, a chat show and lowest common denominator current affairs, its news content needlessly hyped up, dumbed down, sensationalized, personalized, dramatized, emotionalized, serialized and hypothesized.
But news is just news. It’s stuff that happens and then it’s done. Sometimes, stuff that happens is more dramatic or sad or horrifying or beautiful than other stuff that happens and when that’s the case, believe it or not, viewers work it out for themselves. The drama, sadness, horror or beauty of the news doesn’t need to be augmented by tones, looks or words, but that’s increasingly how both commercial networks and public broadcasters seem to like it delivered.
There’s a raft of things I’ve come to dislike about TV news presentation over recent years. This – in no particular order – is the stuff I absolutely loathe with a passion.
1. Standing up.
Just sit down! Preferably behind a desk. How can I trust a newsreader who isn’t sitting behind a desk? The only people who need to stand up are reporters and the weather presenter. I don’t need a newsreader to stand in front of the world’s largest plasma monitor showing a stock image and a dumbed-down caption to help me understand what they’re talking about – I’m happy to rely on the words they use for that. But I’ll only take them seriously if they say those words from behind a big desk. The desk must be big – preferably shiny – and have at least a mouse on it, if not a keyboard, laptop or tablet.. There has to be a bunch of A4 pages in front of the newsreader, which they pick up at the end of each bulletin and straighten them all up by tapping them three times on the desk. And they must have a pen in one hand, with which to occasionally scribble something indecipherable on the top page. But most importantly, they cannot be standing up. What they sit on is largely unimportant, just as long as they’re not standing up.
2. Live crosses.
A few years back I read that the way of the future for news reporting was the live cross. It’s a very North American thing that’s been rightly parodied for decades. Apparently the live cross makes for a more “engaging” bulletin. Thankfully every commercial network in Australia has expanded its main nightly news bulletin to at least an hour, so we have so many more opportunities to appreciate this more “engaging” style of news journalism, just in case we missed it during the early morning, mid-morning, midday, mid-afternoon or late-afternoon bulletins, or during any of the regular news updates throughout the day. A word to the wise: live crosses are almost always rubbish, particularly if nothing’s actually happening at the time. Live crosses used to allow viewers to witness something significant as it happened. The rest of the day’s events were adequately handled by the newsreader behind the desk or via pre-recorded segments created by a reporter and a cameraman earlier in the day. The folks behind our TV news said that live crosses eliminated the need for reporters to bring stories back to the studio for post-production, but these days most of them also include pre-recorded material anyway, so it seems the live cross has become just another set piece in the ever more contrived world of TV news.
3. Unscripted reporting.
One of the more grating aspects of the live cross is unscripted reporting or, at the very least, reporting without an autocue. In the olden days, most reporters could speak eloquently and confidently during a live cross about whatever issue they were there to report on and could answer any question thrown at them by the newsreader in the studio. These days, it seems no amount of rehearsed studio enquiries or obvious leading questions can make it easier for live reporters, who frequently lose their way, forget the rules of basic spoken grammar and use more filler words like “umm”, “aah”, “of course” and “as you know” than they do actually saying anything meaningful. It would be far kinder on both reporters and viewers if this hackneyed reporting style was permanently abandoned.
4. Satellite delays.
Another of the more tedious elements of the live cross is the stupid delay between the presenter firing the leading questions at the reporter and the reporter finally hearing each of the words we’ve already heard and being able to respond. In the olden days live crosses were often via satellite to reporters or interviewees overseas, so the delay was expected. These days the studio can cross to a reporter standing right outside and the delay is greater than it was for a cross to “the London bureau” in 1985.
And on the topic of delays, given everyone seems aware of them when crossing to someone not in the studio can they not just forego all the inane pleasantries at the end of each cross and go to the next story? Once the studio’s done with them, just move on. Their returned closing civilities add no value to what’s often a fairly pointless live cross anyway, so keeping them on air until they’ve said them benefits no one.
5. Headline-style story preview.
Headlines are for print. They don’t need to be spoken. I’m already watching the news, so premising the summary of an up-coming story with a two-word tabloid-style spoken headline doesn’t actually grab any more of my attention than they already had or were ever going to get, had they just told me the facts of what happened. They’re going to briefly summarise the main stories at the top and tail of the bulletin anyway and when the newsreader gets to the story itself there’ll inevitably be a caption on the monitor behind them as well – save the headline for then.
6. Weather as news.
You want a newsflash? How about this one: weather isn’t news! It’s like time – it just happens and it’s gone. Sometimes weather gets a bit extreme but it’s the results of that extreme weather that are somewhat newsworthy, more so than the weather itself. As a day-to-day proposition, weather just isn’t news. Everyone knows the weather report comes at the end of the bulletin. It’s not the highlight of the program, even though for some it’s the only reason they watch at all. But the weather doesn’t need its own headline-style teaser at the head of the bulletin; it doesn’t need a “coming up” preview halfway through the bulletin either; and weather presenters certainly don’t need to be prompted for each detail by the newsreader. Today’s weather presenters have their maps, their clickers and their pointers and most of them actually seem pretty clued up on all things meteorological, so information doesn’t need to be extracted from them via a back-and-forth conversational tête-à-tête with the newsreader, which just sounds forced, fake and silly. Weather is weather. It has a forecast, it happens and it’s done, just like most of what makes the news. Only, it’s not news – it’s just weather, so stop trying to make it news.
7. “Of course”.
“Of course”… yuk! It’s the TV news equivalent of a corporate ‘weasel word’! It’s an overused gap-filler that conveys a meaning that’s utterly contrary to why it’s actually being used. It’s most frequently employed by reporters on live crosses or the presenters speaking with them, or by presenters when ad-libbing to camera. Breakfast TV presenters are the worst offenders, throwing “of course” about with gay abandon! Perhaps when they’re still half asleep “of course” seems more professional than “umm” when they can’t get their brain into gear? Either way, it’s annoying. “Of course” suggests that something is obvious or somehow expected – so if it’s all so obvious, why say it at all? Yeah I know, it slows you down and gives you time to think of the next few words. There are ways of doing that which don’t involve repeatedly invoking “of course”. Why not try simply making a statement of fact and leaving “of course” out of it? At very least try mixing it up a bit by substituting “of course” with “obviously”, “naturally”, “needless to say”, “clearly”, “as you know” – anything but “of course”.
8. Overly emotive descriptions of the facts.
Something that actually happened isn’t made any more dramatic or sad just because the newsreader engages emotive terms and a sombre tone. Whether they’re telling us about a terrorist atrocity, a mass murder, a plane crash, a building collapse, the events of 9/11, the impending execution of drug smugglers in Indonesia or a massive tsunami across the south-east Asian coastline, the facts speak for themselves. It’s the news and they’re there to read it. They don’t need to tell us that something was a “horrendous act of violence”, that something resulted in “a devastating loss of life”, involved “terrifying final moments” or conveyed “a chilling message of destruction” for us to understand that any or all of those things was more than likely the case. Histrionics aren’t necessary to conveying the facts and, without them, audiences will still understand what happened and will make up their own minds about how chilling, horrendous, devastating or terrifying it must have been.
9. Rolling live coverage of “breaking news”.
Seriously, it has to stop! It’s too much to take in and, in most cases, it’s all based on not much more than speculation or, worse still, drawn from social media – hardly the last bastion of journalistic integrity. More importantly, it hasn’t even had a chance to become proper news before it’s reported! And then, as if not enough wasn’t already enough, they make a live cross of it! To talk about what, exactly? Case in point: the recent shooting of a civilian by police in the NSW Southern Highlands town of Bowral ten days ago. The presenter crosses to the reporter, who appears to be standing right in the middle of the road, with a McDonald’s over her right shoulder. Here’s what went through my head as I attempted to follow the reporter’s seemingly endless list of unsubstantiated details:
That’s apparently where the shooting occurred. Or at least the man who was shot had been there… doing something. I think. He might’ve been armed…. or he might not have been. There were reports of him possibly acting erratically… it’s ‘reported’ that he may have been violent towards staff and/or patrons… he may have drawn a weapon on them… or something. So, someone possibly did something then, it seems. Maybe there. Or somewhere else. There might’ve been a showdown between the police and the deceased in the restaurant… or in the car park… or on the street outside… where the deceased became violent…. or acted erratically… or drew a weapon. It’s apparent that someone was shot, possibly. There may have been sounds of gunfire, residents report hearing something… it may have been a backfiring car. One resident who lives directly opposite the car park said they didn’t hear anything at all, that they weren’t aware of anything happening in the early hours. The deceased was known to local police …. so far we don’t know how or why or over what period of time the deceased may have possibly been known to local police. There’s no confirmation of exactly what happened…. we don’t know if this was a domestic situation… we don’t know if there were others involved or if there have been any other injuries sustained by anyone else. We don’t know why the police opened fire. Nobody knows if he was ill or had taken drugs or if something else happened…
Five minutes later, even after all those words and footage and interviews with so-called witnesses and even with all that on-the-spot reporting by the live reporter, ever-ready and ever-roving, I still had no idea what the hell had happened… or didn’t happen… or might’ve happened… or can’t be confirmed. I didn’t know who shot who or how many people have been shot, injured or killed, or why. By that stage I would’ve been lucky to even remember where it was that they claimed this thing that might’ve happened actually happened! So thank you, roving reporter, for breaking that news to me. It was possibly the least useful live cross I’ve ever watched.
10. Sad music for news items.
No! No! No! No! No! It’s just wrong! If a news story’s about something sad, it’s about something sad. Sad is sad. News is news. Sad news is news about something real that actually happened and was sad. It’s not a soap opera or a TV drama. It doesn’t need a soppy soundtrack to make it seem sad. Sad music playing under a news item is the equivalent of canned laughter on a sitcom – it’s fake and utterly redundant. It’s like admitting that you’re only running the story for the tears it might generate, while at the same time acknowledging that it probably isn’t as much of a tear-jerker as it could be, so let’s add some melodramatic music to get it right up there with the death scenes in ET, Beaches and Titanic. It’s so awful that it’s offensive. Please don’t ever do it again.