Longing for a Simpler Kind of News with less Filler

This past weekend I saw Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which oddly enough is the sequel to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

In both movies Will Ferrell helms a cast of characters in a television newsroom where various hijinks ensue.

While the jokes in the movie are easy to see, what may be missed by the casual viewer are the kernels of truth that show the steady decline from the evening news being a source of information to it becoming merely a source of entertainment and low calorie news.

To be fair the golden age of journalism had already come and gone by the time I started Journalism school.

That is not to say that there are not still many fine journalists working today but merely to point out that the days of all journalists being held in high regard and only reporting well vetted factual stories has passed.

Television news should always be taken with a grain of salt with fewer journalists trying to do more with less. Photo R. Anderson

Television news should always be taken with a grain of salt with fewer journalists trying to do more with less.
Photo R. Anderson

With the advent of the 24-hour news cycle journalists had transitioned from people reporting the news to in many cases being larger than life and part of the news themselves.

Of course one need only read the story of Icarus to know what happens when one flies too close to the sun.

This past year several high profile journalists from national news outlets were suspended when it was learned that some of their stories were not as factual as they were led to believe.

One of the higher profile incidents of this involved a reporter for 60 Minutes which in many ways started the television news magazine format.

It would be easy to blame the increase in journalists taking shortcuts on the internet and the 24-hour news channels.

One could argue that with more pressure to be the first with a story shortcuts are often taken but the fact remains there are no shortcuts to good reporting.

A news story is only as good as the facts that are contained within it and the writer who brings so facts to light in a way that the reader or viewer can understand and act upon.

While it is true that pictures and infographics can enhance a story they are not substitutes for the facts.

When USA Today was first published there were those in the media at the time that thought that a national newspaper filled with shorter stories and more charts and graphs than the rest of the papers on the market would be a flash in the pan and fizzle out.

Instead USA Today , once deemed the “McPaper” is still going strong some three decades later and many of the features that were scoffed at by the traditional media at the time and even called “McNuggets” are now being used by nearly every news outlet in the world.

I happen to like USA Today and used many of the layout styles that they pioneered back when I did newspaper layout.

There was a crispness to their modular design of self-contained squares and rectangles that made designing pages easier and helped control the eye flow of the reader.

Of course the world of television news followed the visual trend and soon graphics and scrolling ribbons appeared to give the viewers more “information” than they had ever had before.

Unfortunately the quality of the information suffered and technology allowed for more to be done with fewer people.

Of course fewer people meant that shortcuts had to be taken on story generation as there was still the same amount of space to fill regardless of the size of the staff.

Another change was sponsored content where advertisers would place a story with a positive spin on their business in the paper or television program that they had spent their advertising dollars on.

This further blurred the lines of news since reporters were often faced with the choice of reporting news about a company that basically was paying their salaries.

During my time working as a reporter at a small weekly paper right after college I was asked several times to go do a human interest story on a business that also happened to be an advertiser.

Each time this occurred I would get on my soapbox and say that as a trained journalist I was appalled at the idea of people paying for a story.

Of course, I always lost the argument and would go do the fluff piece on the advertiser. Each time I did that though I felt my opinion of the news business tarnish a little more.

Journalists have the responsibility to look out for the public interest and not cave into share holder demands or big business.

This issue is addressed in Anchorman 2 and is something that people should be cautious of as more and more industries merge and competition is erased.

A company that makes jet engines should not be in the business of owning the stations that report on the stock prices of those engines or the safety of said product.

Sooner or later something will happen with the parent company’s products in this scenario and journalists will be placed in the cross hairs having to choose between their integrity in reporting the story or perhaps keeping their job and feeding their family.

This is the world that the fictional Ron Burgundy rallied against but it is also a world that is all too real today.

The days of cigarette smoking newsman such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite telling you what you need to know with an authoritative voice and a glint in their eye is over. Today the line between what is news and what is filler is forever blurred.

So be critical of the news that you read and consider the source of the information before taking everything as you see it.

We truly live in an information age where the world is at our fingertips. That can be a good thing but it also carries with it a great responsibility for members of the media to be stewards of that power.

Sadly more times than not that power is not harnessed in the way that it should be.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some biographies of old school journalists to read.

Copyright 2014 R. Anderson