Style but no substance

Television and newspaper reporters share a profession but their actual occupations are very different and growing more so.

The relationship between broadcast and print journalism is a fraught one – the two media cannibalise each other constantly, yet often seem to hold one another in contempt.

It’s a huge generalisation, but TV news people regard print news people as ruthless spinners of a yarn, willing to bend facts and invade privacy for a good headline – especially at the tabloid end of the business.

In response most newspaper journalists I know regard their TV equivalents as over-paid “performers” who only know it’s a story when they see it on the front page of a newspaper.

On the ground, these two tribes work side by side covering national events on a daily basis – where there’s a national newspaper hack hovering about there’s nearly always a network news reporter, too. In fact, they’re happy to co-operate when it suits them both.

Newspaper reporters often get their best (or only) quotes by eavesdropping on a TV interview – and generally without attribution.

Television reporters go straight to the newspaper cuttings when they want some deep or even shallow background – again no attribution asked for or offered.

Newspapers are full of stories about TV and television news is full of stories that first appeared in newspapers.

The two media may not like one another’s general approach, but they sort of need each other too.

I have often been asked by friends working on newspapers about the life of their television equivalents. The truth is that a great deal of a TV reporter’s life is nothing to do with journalism per se – it’s aboutlogistics –
getting to the story, getting the pictures and commentary back to the newsroom, editing a report and meeting a deadline.

Unlike the newspaper equivalent, television reporting is a collective endeavour; a reporter is the face and guiding intellect, but he or she is just part of a team of individuals – most of them technical rather than editorial – who make TV news happen.

Bell: “He was like an oldfashioned newspaper reporter, but on television”

There are exceptions. A few investigative TV journalists work on their own, finding, investigating, filming and writing about a story they have developed themselves.

There are also specialists with excellent contacts and a track record of original journalism, but in my experience most TV reporters are – in effect – on-screen producers. On a typical day they will be asked to produce and present a 90second assembly of known facts and available pictures, which are delivered electronically to the newsroom.

The images and the basic information are all there sitting on the desktop PC. They don’t need to leave the building; sometimes they don’t even need to make a phone call.

Many factors discourage classic location reporting and inquiry (the fashion for studio-based expositions using graphics and videowalls is one), but the biggest factor of all is cost.

Only 10 years ago it was not uncommon to assign four or five people to cover a single location-based story.

Camera, sound, reporter, producer and maybe an editor.

Today assignments typically involve just two individuals – the reporter and someone to film him or her reporting and edit the “package”.

Cost also determines the actual number of reporters on a television news service and their weekly “hit rate”. The more “on-the-day” stories they are required to do, the less time they have for research, digging and contact building.

A newspaper like The Times has about 100 reporters – 60 of them specialists with expert knowledge. The Sun has about 200 reporters.

Compare this with, say, ITV News, which has about 25 reporters, including specialists, and Five News, which has fewer than a dozen. Given these figures, the lack of scoops on TV news programmes is unsurprising.

Most TV reporters do their best under stressful working conditions and extremely tight deadlines, but too often their journalism is dictated not by the story but by the available pictures and archive.

Newsnight and Channel 4 News still devote significant resources to specialist journalism and consequently tend to get more exclusives and new angles than news programmes on the other terrestrial channels.

But this is not just about manpower and resources – I think there’s also a failure of imagination and daring. I’d argue that much television journalism is predictable and unsurprising because it doesn’t often involve much actual journalistic enquiry.

Someone recently described to me the working practices of Martin Bell – the former BBC and sometime Five News correspondent. A cameraman who worked with him said it was an absolute nightmare keeping up with him on location because he was continually wandering off and approaching people with questions about this, that and the other.

The cameraman was expected to follow Bell around recording his enquiries and the answers on tape.

These questions – together with pictures of the scene and perhaps a piece to camera – would form the basis of his location report.

In effect, Bell was conducting himself like an old-fashioned newspaper reporter, but doing it on TV. The end results were always very distinctive – it’s not just the white suit that marked him out from the crowd.

News editors must also take their share of the blame. It’s really very odd the way the agendas of our main news programmes are broadly the same on any given day. It takes a brave editor to ignore the electronic news consensus, but I’m surprised that more don’t.

As the amount of available news grows exponentially (not just digital news channels but also the internet and interactive services such as BBCi), surely it’s easier for individual news programmes to break away from the pack and go with their own stories and journalism? We’ve seen it happen in newspapers, with The Independent and Mirror increasingly ploughing their own news furrows – albeit with differing degrees of success – but the trend in television news has been for greater consensus and less editorial daring.

In the past decade television news has undoubtedly become more stylish and well produced but, arguably, the quality and variety of the content have declined.

It’s partly because of money and resources, but it’s also about the will to redress the balance that currently favours production style over journalistic content. Perhaps the tide is set to turn. 

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks.

Next week: Alison Hastings

by Chris Shaw

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