Local TV News Project 2002
By Wally Dean
In television journalism, the terms "Investigative Reporting" and "Breaking News" were developed to alert the public that something important and unusual was coming.
In an era when "branding" has become both a buzzword and a corporate mandate, however, some local TV stations now regularly apply those labels to the everyday and even the trivial. In doing so, they undermine the credibility they are trying to build, and cheapen the meaning of investigative reporting and breaking news for everyone else.
The problem may be biggest in the area of breaking news. Amid 24-hour cable and the news crawl, stories journalists once labeled "Developing Story" are now "Breaking News." Indeed, the data show that stations more often give major "breaking news" treatment to events that are, in fact, commonplace.
In this year's study, when dealing with spontaneous news events - as opposed to "daybook" stories - reporters were almost three times more likely to be on-scene at an everyday incident (28 percent), like a car accident, as they were to be covering significant breaking events (10 percent), such as a sniper shooting.
And for all that breaking news has become a marketing brand for stations and a priority for their newsrooms, genuine breaking news - covering an unplanned event as it unfolds - accounts for a tiny percentage of news content, just 2 percent of stories. That amounts to one story a week.
A similar kind of hyperbole is evident, though less common, in investigative reporting.
While three quarters of news directors say they do investigative work, a significant number of newsrooms affix the label "investigative" to such pressing public dangers as mold and dog food.
A look at station Web sites reveals that one newsroom dispatched its I-Team to report on "The cold, hard, facts about soft serve yogurt," and "A camera that can see through clothes." At another station, a five-person I-Team churned out stories on "Spray-on Makeup," "Hair Cloning," and "Tongue Piercing."
Sometimes, the "investigative" label was applied to spot news simply because a station sent a reporter from its investigative unit to cover it. One station's Web site, for instance, boasts how its "Investigative Reporter" revealed "Twelve arrested at 'Swingers Bar'" and "Pitbull bites boy's diaper, kills his dog."
This is branding lite.
The research team felt that the mislabeling of the term "investigative" is the significant exception in local TV news rather than the rule. A review of the investigative work described by news directors in the survey data and a review of those stations' Web sites suggest that serious investigative work outweighed the faux by better than two to one.
But even the best journalists are affected by the false branding efforts of a few.
Real breaking news refers to something important happening right now. Genuine investigative journalism adds a dimension beyond disclosure; it engages the public to come to judgment about something that the news organization feels may be wrong, or at least important and needing scrutiny.
Various research studies confirm over and over that viewers don't like being misled and manipulated. Raising alarms in the name of the commonplace makes local TV the boy who cried wolf. Sooner, rather than later, people stop watching.
Wally Dean is director of broadcast training for the Committee of Concerned Journalists.