Rethinking TV news, Part III: First, kill the stand-up

I was about to launch into writing a post about the most irritating habits of local TV news — starting with the most objectionable: the stand-up — when I got a surprising email from a producer at Fox Channel 5 News in New York: “We are working on a story about the most annoying things about local news,” he wrote. “Yes, we are really doing this. And it is for tonight.” I got a similar call from another network; more on that in a minute. So I spoke to the Channel 5 reporter for 10 minutes over Skype and they used one soundbite (which is another annoying thing TV news does, but I’m not complaining):

New York News

Points to Fox’ Joel Waldman for doing a stand-up ridiculing stand-ups.

Here’s why I hate the convention: The stand-up has zero journalistic value. It wastes time. It wastes precious reportorial resource. It turns the world into a mere backdrop for entertainment. It’s a fake. Take, for example, all the stand-ups we see these days at the George Washington Bridge because of the Christie scandal. Local TV news does it:

standup local 2

National TV news does it:

standup national

There is *no* reporting to be done at the bridge. None. There are no officials there. There are no sources to be found. The victims are long gone. So TV news wastes a reporter’s time and a crew’s time and the use of expensive equipment going to the bridge, standing there for an hour or more, where there is *nothing* happening, *nothing* to report. Why? Because TV thinks it must have video, style over substance, image über alles.

Think of how TV news covers, say, the ongoing deliberations of a jury in a trial. The anchor tells us what they’ve told us and what they’re going to tell us. The anchor throws to a reporter doing a stand-up in front of a courthouse where, of course, the jury is sequestered and there is nothing to learn and thus nothing to say. The reporter gives us a bit more background and tells us the jury is still out. The reporter throws back to the anchor. The anchor says they’ll be sure to tell us when something happens. All that hoo-ha could be replaced with the anchor reading one sentence: “The so-and-so jury is still out.” Bonus points if the anchor adds: “For background, see our web site.”

And on the web site, the TV station could have a standing piece explaining the background on the trial for anyone who has missed it. They’d waste less of their airtime and be able to give us, the audience, the public, more stories and/or more substance — wasting less of our time. More importantly, they’d free up the reporter to, well, *report* something rather than just regurgitating what we already know and nothing new: journalistic dry heaves.

I have taken to shouting at my TV when I see stand-ups in front of crime scenes where nothing has happened in at least 12 hours. Or when I hear anchors, particularly on network news, wasting precious seconds with empty transitions after reports: “Still much to learn” (no shit). Or when I see faked b-roll of someone walking down a hall or typing or talking on a phone to create images and easier edits — except this isn’t reality, it is staged, faked for us (how journalistic is that?). Or when I see team coverage of weather sticking rulers in snow or breaking eggs to fry (or now freeze) or demonstrating that ice is slick or that wind blows. Or when I see someone being interviewed and looking off-camera when they really should be talking to us (Hello? We’re over here!). And that is just a list of the silly orthodoxies of presentation on TV news, to say nothing of the quality, depth, originality, utility, wisdom, and incisiveness of the content itself.

I shouted at my TV and it didn’t listen … until now. Not only did I get that email from Fox 5 New York, but when I was in Davos, I spoke to a crew from Fusion, the new partnership of Univison and ABC, and couldn’t resist poking fun at the form, turning from the producer asking questions off-camera and staring instead directly into the camera to beg them to give up this silly, stilted convention. They didn’t air it. [CORRECTION: Turns out, they did air it, starting at :35.] Instead, they called me into the studio for a conversation with anchor Jorge Ramos.

We talked about the conventions of TV news:

And then Ramos asked me for my advice to Fusion:

I said in my first post on reinventing TV news that I wouldn’t dwell on the negative — preferring in a second post to concentrate on new opportunities — yet here I have focused on the bad, the silly, the wasteful. For we do need to get rid of the idea that real television news, professional television news must have stand-ups and establishing shots and staged b-roll and frothy transitions. We need to clean away that ancient filigree to free up resources and time to make TV news better, because it can be.

* * *

Here is the complete, 11-minute Fusion conversation:

Jeff Jarvis on AMERICA with Jorge Ramos from Fusion America on Vimeo.

  • DKS

    Here’s mine. Stop censoring video clips that are available on the Internet. It just makes viewers stop watching TV and go online to see the uncut version. If it’s sensational enough your kids already saw it 100 times by now anyway so blurring it out or cutting it off doesn’t protect anyone, it just makes you even more irrelevant.

    • Christopher Francis

      DKS, often those clips are censored because of FCC regulations against indecent material during certain times of the day. Broadcast stations don’t have a choice. Cable networks do, but they often follow FCC guidelines anyway because they’re part of a basic package of channels lumped in with the broadcast ones.

  • steve

    hey jeff,
    you forgot the anchor desk made of ice- it/they have been making the rounds this winter.
    that custerfluck of faces above and the ice desks are what pass as “innovation” in many of the trade pubs.
    the ‘news’ seems to be more about “them” than the actual news itself.

  • RvD

    Can’t believe you didn’t mention ‘The Drone’. As in: the way that all news readers recite the news with the same cadence, intonation, and inflection all around the country. Mind-numbing.

  • Barry Catlett

    I could not disagree more. Done well, a standup adds information which may not have visual support. It’s also an important branding tool – make our reporters familiar faces to the audience. The typical “human mic stand” standup should be long dead. But there are plenty of ways that creative, active standups can add meaning and clarity to a story.

    • Adds information? For those people who don’t know what the George Washington Bridge looks like? (And even if they don’t, what does that have to do with the real story?) For people who don’t know that ice is slippery?

      Stand ups don’t add information – they _fill time when there is none_. When I tune in for an update on an ongoing story a standup is the best indicator I have it’s safe to change the channel and/or go check the web.

      Instead of treading water where the story happened hours, days, or months ago, how about they go find another story? And when they find it, we’d be happy to see their familiar faces. We may even start to appreciate them when it becomes associated with useful information instead of their ability to withstand the Windy Palisades.

      • Kevin Burden

        There’s surely a difference, which Jeff doesn’t draw here, between giving information to camera that the reporter has just gathered at that same scene in previous minutes, and returning to that scene hours or days later to impart information that is old or has been gathered by someone else in another place. Doing the latter provides a visual clue to the viewer (which, as Jeff points out, could be far more readily and cheaply given in inset or overlay images) but also dubiously claims the authority of the ‘on the scene’ reporter. The images are real, but the authority is bogus.

        • Being on the scene to report new information found at or near the scene would obviously add credibility. How often does that happen vs. the people standing out at the GWB the past few weeks reading to us about what happened in Trenton that day or hilariously enough, what one of the figures in the story said on another network?

          I don’t think Jeff is calling for an end to reporting on the scene. I think the point is that standing in front of a landmark and reciting copy is not reporting.

    • Lucas

      Barry got it right, as a field producer I want to brand my reporters on camera. Of course not as human mic stands, but i.e. walking next to the main people portrayed in the story. Why should the anchors get all the fame…?

    • Since I could stand in front of a green screen with the George Washington Bridge on it, that is just as valuable as actually going there.

      Although the element that the reporter might actually get hit by a truck, perhaps ups the excitement.

  • Kevin Burden

    News networks have lost all sense of what’s important when they favour bragging about presentation over bragging about newsgathering: see ‘the revolutionary news deck’ at Fox:

  • Pingback: Interesting thoughts on rethinking TV news. Not mentioned: the delivery voice.

  • Boyink

    Please…stop reading Tweets or Facebook posts on the air.

    • Unless they have context, but yes, I agree that they read Tweets as filler. Because there’s not really any news!

  • JustAnAubie

    I had to laugh when I read this. Having done 20+ years in TV news as a photog and an assignment editor I became very jaded and realized something. If we vanished off the face of the earth tomorrow would anybody miss us? Probably not. But, if I may, I can clarify some things you may not be aware of. Many times we would have a great story but be video impaired for whatever reason. Usually the reporter would shoot a stand up or bridge to fill in some fact or tidbit because we didn’t have any video. But, in all honesty, TV news has little value anymore. I used to call us video Cliff’s Notes because that’s all we were. We might lead with some boring ass story about a zoning ordinance in a suburb. Complete with dog-lick live shot. A shooting in a bad neighborhood might be sexy but beyond a few people directly involved nobody cares. TV news boils down to who likes which anchor. There is little journalism anymore. If it helps it’s a dying profession. The internet has all but put a stake through its heart. Anybody can be a “reporter” now. Edward R Murrow is dead and he ain’t coming back.

  • John Fox

    It’s even worse. The new media is calling out the dinosaurs of the old media on their bias over, and lack of coverage of, inconvenient truths. Hundreds of thousands of YOUNG! people can march in Washington in spite of freezing temperatures … and ABC + NBC gave it about 45 seconds. Yet those same stations fall over themselves to give six times the coverage to the debut of a panda cub at a zoo. Read about it (with supporting video) here:

    BTW, LifeSiteNews is already a huge web site and has a growth rate of 45% (page views) and 60% (visitors) for 2013, and this is not out of line with previous years. Surely a growth rate like this is worth changing for?

  • RobertW

    “Live from the Hurricane” is another of the ridiculous news reporting techniques. Do we need to see a reported get blown away from the boardwalk after officials have told residents to shelter in place or even to evacuate?

  • I hosted a panel here in Chicago with reporters from the Big 4 networks here. I was told that if I wanted a reporter to cover a particular story, that we should “follow her on Facebook.” She said this in front of real human beings.

    “Be friends with your local reporters,” she said. Again- in front of real people. Everyone in the room was kind of appalled. Is that journalism? Is journalism about petting reporter’s egos, so that reporting on your story is a favor, as opposed to being relevant?

    This is all just a game we’re playing.

  • john axelson

    you’re confusing stand ups with live shots. as a news photographer and later as a producer… i shot millions of them (it felt like millions). Stand ups are part of the connective tissue of a story when you don’t have the visual to tell the story. The open or the bridge can be very important to telling a visual story with no visuals to edit with. Now… a “live shot” has rarely if ever been “journalism”. It’s show biz and it’s always “it’s going to happen, or it just happened or my favorite, “it happened some place just like the place i’m standing”. THAT part of news story telling never had any place in news and … it has to go.

  • Cyndy Green

    1976, Sacramento, California, KXTV. The cameramen walk in and find their 16mm film cameras gone, replaced by a short training session on “video tape” cameras. And then the fun began. “We can make up our own terms for this stuff…” And the reality. “They’re just gonna create stupid live shots for the heck of it.” To today. The live shot is just another venue…another camera to sex up the show.

  • Glenn Etchison

    Jeff J. I am with you on this one. If you want to keep me interested in the 6 o’clock news, give me something actionable. Let me know that the home and garden show is in town tomorrow, not that it closes in an hour. Or give me the executive summary with where I can go to find out more about the astroid that is going to pass only 237 thousand miles from earth (if I care.) Or finally, give me breaking news. Who doesn’t love a scoop. I mean breaking news, not something I read on twitter 4 hours ago.

    Have it read by a pretty face if you want. Nobody is going to complain about great rapport and witty discourse between the on air personalities but please, please stop trying to generate an emotional response where there isn’t one. Please, Please quit wasting my time telling about the great time that I missed. And whatever you do, please, please don’t lie to me or tell me half truths because the facts don’t fit your agenda.

  • Then there’s this: “TV Reporter Falls In Creek While Doing Stand Up.”

    • PeterMcPumpkinPhD

      These pointless stand ups really are fairly pointless, Steve and Jeff. This reporter suffers a similar fate, but more fish.

  • Etre

    Hello Jeff

    We met eons ago at a Wemedia event in London. Obviously, no one needs a PhD to evaluate television’s grammar and observe some of its failings, but I am a sad Brit and decided to pursue one that also looks at a future of television. I’ll be speaking about related issues to the one you raise in Perugia at the International Journalism Festival .

    In the 60s when the news package was born, courtesy of some clever TV people e.g. NBC’s Frank Reuven et al., the stand-up or piece-to-camera (Brits) provided a stimulus for TV taking on Hollywood. TV too wanted its stars and performing live enabled them to flex their biceps. Mike Conway’s “The Origins of Television News in America: The Visualizers of CBS in the 1940s” is a good read here.

    In the UK, the reporter and piece-to-camera became an important tool to usurp the commentary voice in the studio who(m) possessed limited knowledge of the story shot by camera crews. That’s all in the past. Trouble is television news holds the package and piece-to-camera as the model for news story form. Its grammar is 60-odd-years-old.

    What was once relevant has become cliched and at worse, er, well your blog covers that. Grammar evolves, and since TV is a form of grammar, ergo it too should evolve. The question for television news practitioner’s is where does the language of TV news go. Shameless bit of self promotion ( very unbecoming) I play with these themes on before my talk. Tara.
    p.s We still haven’t done that transatlantic student-guest spot :)

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