It’s an average day in Hampton Roads. At our schools, teachers overcome all kinds of challenges to help our children succeed. Local businesses are developing innovative plans to boost their bottom line and create job opportunities.
Healthcare professionals are working on technology’s leading edge in prevention and treatment. Non-profits, faith-based groups, social service agencies, and public safety professionals keep us safe and help lift people out of joblessness, poverty, and despair. Our military continues to strengthen our community while protecting our country, and our universities and colleges build upon their culture of achievement. Also, let’s not forget the uncertain number of local politicians who are thinking about legal and ethical ways to serve the citizens’ interests.
It’s a day in Hampton Roads when our friends, neighbors, and colleagues achieve great things with pride, commitment, hard work, and even heroism. In our own backyard there are countless untold stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Our communities would be stronger if we knew more about them.
Also on this or any other average day, we can easily imagine that newsrooms at 13 News Now, NewsChannel 3, and 10 On Your Side get a tip about a disruptive man at a local park. He’s an Elvis impersonator juggling three lobsters and singing “God Bless America” while dressed in a wedding gown. It’s unusual. It’s compelling. It’s patriotic. It’s great visuals, and it’s happening right now in Hampton Roads. The news crews are en route. It’s irrational. It’s irrelevant. It’s perfect. It’s Breaking News! Let’s hope the ever alert and discerning news directors at all three stations don’t let us down on this multidimensional story with LGBT, animal cruelty and mental health issues. Give us Team Coverage, please!
But truth is often stranger than fiction. In mid-January, WVEC 13 News Now received a tip about something going down in Portsmouth. The result was exclusive on-scene coverage of the Portsmouth Sheriff urgently pursuing the city’s mayor with lights flashing. The offense was an expired inspection sticker.
The whole episode was a convergence of unfortunate circumstances among Portsmouth city officials and questionable judgement in the WVEC-TV 13 newsroom. The news crew went to the scene, placed a wireless microphone on the Sheriff, and captured his every word and every move as the pursuit unfolded. This was most likely made possible by the Sheriff waiting for the crew to arrive before he pursued the Mayor. Our Governor called the incident “insane.” That WVEC was willingly “played” is one matter. Of greater consequence was that a local news operation “played” us. It was not news. It was theater.
What followed was far more unfortunate. It was not just ‘scripted’ drama brought to us on a newscast. The station also gave our community and its reputation a sorry part in their Theater of the Absurd. Within days of the of the Portsmouth pursuit, the station was broadcasting, with apparent pride, that their exclusive coverage of a local sheriff pursuing his mayor for an offense normally handled with a citation from a meter maid was being seen around the world. (See coverage in the New York Daily News, which includes a photo of the WVEC video and an online article in the British Daily Mail .) It was another black eye for Hampton Roads on the heels of Norfolk Treasurer Anthony Burfoot’s eight-count Federal Indictment on corruption and perjury charges, which was picked up and widely distributed by the Associated Press.
We might hear WVEC defending this as a “public need to know” regarding actions of our elected officials. That’s nonsense. Shameful news about our political leadership is routine here lately, but touting worldwide attention for your self-manufactured TV news story featuring inappropriate and inconsequential behavior by local officials is twisted.
When our local TV meteorologists predict a clear, sunny day, we first have to overcome the dark clouds over Hampton Roads created by the news directors, anchors and reporters with breaking news of disasters, crime, scandals and other mayhem. Why do those stories most often appear at the top of the broadcast as if they were the most critical news items we need to know?
Of course criminal activity and other tragedies happen frequently throughout Hampton Roads and some deserve our attention as they address public safety issues, but overall, why has most of our local TV news become a chronicle of what’s gone wrong, when so much in our community is going right?
We should think of news as timely information that is honest, relevant, and, above all, empowers us with information and insights that help us make sound decisions about our lives, our families, our community, our government, our planet, and everything beyond. Following that, we’ll describe Journalism as the process of gathering and presenting news.
Journalism is a serious responsibility to the community, and with responsibility comes accountability. If journalism is presenting news that is relevant and empowers us, we should constantly question whether the newsrooms of WTKR, WAVY and WVEC measure up to their responsibilities as journalists.
Journalism, however, is just part of the picture. Local news is also a numbers game. Our local news operations are businesses with budgets for salaries, equipment, operations, etc. After those costs, they have to show profits for their parent companies’ shareholders. Year after year they’ll push to show even bigger profits. If the profits are not high enough, costs are cut and people in the news operations often lose their jobs and relevant local news coverage could suffer as a result. The question then becomes how can newsrooms fill newscasts at the lowest possible cost? One answer is to broadcast stories that make relatively small demands on the news staff. Local disasters such as fires and accidents as well as crime and criminal justice stories often fit that need while providing the requisite visuals and drama. Public safety or criminal justice agencies provide most of the stories’ details, mostly through news releases, but reporters don’t have time to provide us with much, if any, needed background and context.
Because funding of local TV news comes from ads, the stations are basically selling our eyes and ears to advertisers. Getting the best ratings in our local market is intense competition between our three stations. The more viewers, the more they can charge for commercial spots. While they do many things well and devote a small percentage of stories to positive, relevant and empowering local issues, significantly more is devoted to drama, grief and disorder here and around the world to capture and hold the attention of the most viewers possible.
All this doesn’t necessarily work for viewers who, at the end of a newscast, have many reasons to feel anxious and depressed. They might feel the need for a shower to wash away the gloom and grime presented as ‘news.’ And now is the time to stock up on soap. Virginia is a battleground state in upcoming elections. You’ll need lots of suds to wash away dirt and slime from the endless insulting campaign ads when they go negative.
Where do the loyalties of our local news operations lie? Is their primary allegiance to their advertisers and shareholders or to the citizens of Hampton Roads? If journalism is their cause, it should be the latter. We should be open to that and give them the benefit of the doubt, but they make it very difficult. Advertisers fund the big expenses of producing their broadcasts, but how much is invested in respectable journalism is another matter. I’ve always wondered how local advertisers would respond if confronted with the fact that they fund the delivery of so much bad news about their communities. Their dollars support the newsrooms’ alternate reality which centers on the drama of misfortune. No doubt adversity and misery are part of our reality, but they are far outnumbered by our virtues and achievements.
Whether they pit news vs. sensationalism, or journalism vs. profit, beyond their broadcast news operations, WTKR, WAVY and WVEC are committed to the welfare and success of our communities. I know that first-hand. I worked with all of them on numerous news stories during 15+ years of local PR work. Their management, producers, staff and on-air talent make Hampton Roads their home and they care deeply about it.
They are just good people who need to do better. They want to be respected, but based on their body of work, I wish they could do more to earn it. Producers and reporters want to practice real journalism, but it’s a formidable challenge as the culture and values imposed by news directors and their corporate managers are not always in sync with who we are and what we need from the news.
Unless they start treating us as citizens who deserve consistently responsible journalism, more of us will come to the conclusion that their newscasts are substantially irrelevant. Until then, don’t let them define Hampton Roads for you. We’re better than the stories they tell about us.