The Anatomy of a TV Newscast
What’s in there — and what’s not
by Al Diamon
If there’s one thing that makes the print media in Maine look good, it’s comparing them to local TV news. The state’s daily and weekly newspapers, even the feeblest of them, are filled with enterprise stories and coverage that at least makes an attempt at getting beyond the superficial. To be sure, there are gaps in many articles and plenty of fluff, but when sized up against what passes for news on the tube, the dead-tree crew comes out ahead nearly every time.
Oh wait, maybe that’s just a cliché. After all, a majority of adults (mostly aging baby boomers) rely on the tube as their main source of information.
Newspapers finish in the single digits, well behind broadcasting and the Internet. That wouldn’t be happening if TV news was as awful as I think it is.
To find out, I decided to watch a full 90 minutes of television news and compare it to the print competition. I chose the Sept. 10 evening news block on Portland station WCSH for my experiment, because it’s the market’s top-rated station for news and because it has a long-standing reputation for avoiding the sleazier aspects of the ratings race. If there was quality to be found on the airwaves, surely it would turn up on Channel 6.
Let’s get the compliments out of the way first. If I wanted to know about the weather, WCSH did a fine job. Regular meteorologist Joe Cupo was off the night I conducted my viewing binge, but fill-in Kelly LaBrecque managed the task in a more than adequate fashion. It might have been more convenient to get the forecast online. I could quibble about the time wasted on what had already happened. But TV weather is way better than the often-outdated reports newspapers still insist on printing.
Other positives: The writing throughout this newscast was clear and understandable. Some of the ad-libs and live reports contained twisted syntax and tired phrasing, but the scripted segments were simple and direct. The video was well edited, and the pace was quick and clean.
So much for the good stuff. On to the bulk of the material.
Co-anchors Pat Callaghan and Cindy Williams could have led off the 5 p.m. newscast with a report from the conference held that day about Maine’s aging population and the disastrous implications this trend holds for the economy.
But that’s a complicated story not easily reduced to soundbites. It requires context and insight. WCSH gave it a pass.
There was also a public hearing that day on a proposal by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to ease the state’s rules for emissions that contribute to smog.
Again, this was a complex matter that demands an understanding of those rules and the differing opinions about the impact the proposed change would have. Apparently, Channel 6 didn’t feel up to the task.
WCSH also ignored a report in that morning’s Portland Press Herald that enrollment at the University of Southern Maine was down significantly. It skipped the paper’s story about a proposed buffer zone to limit anti-abortion protesters around a Portland clinic.
And the Associated Press story that Bath Iron Works was under consideration to build ships for the U.S. Coast Guard, something that could help stabilize employment at one of Maine’s largest industrial employers, slid by without a mention.
What WCSH chose to lead with was the story of two South Portland teenagers who posted a video online that showed them putting a kitten in a microwave and turning it on.
This information had been online the previous day and in that morning’s newspapers.
Channel 6 reporter Chris Rose did come up with some fresh material – that the kids who allegedly performed this heinous act had received threats from outraged animal lovers, that offers to adopt the kitten had come in from across the country and from other nations and that the new owners might be chosen by lottery – but essentially this was a lot of video of a cute kitty recovering at a shelter. There’s nothing like warm and fuzzy to boost viewership.
Next up, reporter Caroline Cornish had some actual news. The mother of Ayla Reynolds, a toddler who disappeared from her father’s Waterville home more than a year ago, revealed that police had discovered blood on the dad’s shoes and in his SUV that matched the child’s. The mom said this evidence was sufficient to indict the father for murder.
Cornish got a no-comment from the State Police and the father declined to be interviewed. And with that, she called it quits. It might have been illuminating if she’d asked a legal expert whether the new information was sufficient to merit an indictment, but print reporters covering the same story the next day didn’t bother to do that either. So, although this report could hardly be classified as solid journalism, it was no worse than that offered by the competition.
The anchors then informed us that warning signs had been posted at a pier in Roque Bluffs, where two women had drowned after their car went off it and into the water. The Bangor Daily News had the scoop on that more than 24 hours before.
And there was some video from a contentious public hearing at Portland City Hall over a plan to sell a small city park in Congress Square. The hearing took place the previous evening.
After the weather, it was time for the obligatory live report from someplace. On this night, it was reporter Tim Goff in Castine, covering something called Bike Maine, a 400-mile trek by 250 cyclists through some of the state’s more scenic venues.
Goff didn’t explain what Bike Maine is. Until I checked its website, I thought it must be a charitable event to raise money for some worthy cause. But it turns out it’s just a tourism promotion, something that should have been mentioned so viewers would realize they were being subjected to advertising.
In his lengthy piece (longer than anything else in the entire 90 minutes), Goff treats Castine as if it were an exotic foreign country, marveling that there’s only one road in. He interviewed a longtime resident (“she was just a hoot”) and watched freshman being forced to run across the Maine Maritime Academy campus (also “a hoot”).
Sports director Lee Goldberg covered the announcement that Steve Abbott was leaving his post as athletic director at the University of Maine to return to the staff of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Goldberg never mentioned the political implications or the unfinished business Abbott was dumping in his successor’s lap. Instead, he featured reaction from one unidentified guy (the UMaine hockey coach, maybe).
Goldberg also managed a brief but reasonably accurate piece on new documents filed in the lawsuit by the Portland Pirates hockey team against the Cumberland County Civic Center.
The 5:30 newscast, hosted by Williams and Rob Caldwell, had lots of national news (a preview of President Obama’s speech on Syria) and international news (bush fires in Australia), as well as a rehash of a story from the morning papers about an anonymous donor giving Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain’s medal of honor to a Maine museum. There was also more from Goff on Bike Maine (“I rode a tandem bike for the first time”).
The 6 p.m. cast was pretty much like 5 p.m., except the Ayla Reynolds story got top billing and the microwaved kitty went second. Goff was again full of blather (“today was rough”).
Other than the weather forecast, I didn’t learn much that was useful. There was little that was fresh. A lot that was current was missing. And there was no sign of journalistic intensity. Mostly, there was just Tim Goff on a bike (“We were clippin’”) and a kitten.
If you want actual news, go old school. Cancel the cable and subscribe to a daily paper.
In addition to serving as The Bollard’s media critic, Al Diamon writes a weekly political column that runs in the Portland Phoenix, the Downeast Coastal Press, the Daily Bulldog, some Mainely Media weeklies and some Current Publishing papers. He also writes columns for a couple of Current’s magazines. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. For links to articles mentioned above, go to thebollard.com.