The news coverage of the ongoing crisis in Japan reminds me of one of the better items of advice I’ve heard given to online journalists:
“Report what you do best, and link to the rest.”
I’ve found some insightful, thoughtful coverage of the disasters online, from stunning photo graphics to an engaging first-person account of trying to land a plane immediately after the quake.
Unfortunately, on TV, I’ve watched a lot of garbage, too.
Tim Goodman last week, in that previous link, tore apart the U.S. cable channels for their simplistic questioning and sensationalistic reporting in covering the Japan disasters, noting that they’ve fallen short of their international competition:
“Covering this trilogy of terror in Japan really underscores how much better prepared reporters and anchors need to be. The incessantly simplistic and embarrassing questions need to stop. Someone needs to tamp down runaway speculation. Also, the attention on the Middle East in past years has dulled producers’ sense of keeping experts from Asia on the source list.
“It’s a shame that going online to watch videos from NHK, BBC and Al Jazeera English was far and away the best option for Americans.”
While I agree with Goodman’s harsh assessment of the U.S. cable channels, I disagree that “it’s a shame” that Americans have to turn to other nations’ reporters for better international coverage.
I’m just glad that those options are out there, and thanks to the Internet, American audiences now can access them. If there’s a shame here, it’s that we have to go online to find this coverage, and that our cable channels are not bringing it to us, instead. I wish that American journalists, facing limitations in logistics, training and background, would recognize that other reporters on the scene are doing a better job and instead refer us to their work, rather than wasting scarce newsroom resources trying to duplicate something that they cannot.
This isn’t to say that U.S. news organizations can’t cover foreign news. As Goodman even pointed out, CNN’s Tokyo reporter, Kyung Lah, has done an admirable job bringing perspective to her network’s coverage. But that’s because she’s based in Japan, knows the culture, understands the ongoing narratives and has sources in the region.
If U.S. news organizations are willing to make those commitments by maintaining well-staffed foreign bureaus, then they should expect to meet or exceed coverage from others. I’d love to see the U.S.-based cable and broadcast news channels staffing more bureaus around the world. But I’m not so naive as to believe that CNN, MSNBC and especially Fox are about to drop more money on international coverage, unless it involves temporary spending to cover a fresh new war. And the days are over when news organizations could expect to parachute reporters into a situation and have them deliver better coverage than their readers can find elsewhere.
It’s past time for broadcast journalists to end the days to of parachute journalism and instead learn a lesson from online news: Report what you do best and start linking more to the rest.
Of course, a hyperlink – in the literal sense – as of this point is not yet possible on traditional cable and broadcast television. But as video on demand becomes more popular, I anticipate the rise of video hyperlinking. All one would need would be a network address upon which a particular piece of video resides, and to employ existing technology for on-screen linking.
Perhaps this will happen first on a service such as Netflix’s. Imagine watching an old TV sitcom, then clicking or tapping an onscreen prompt to jump to the movie that sitcom was parodying. Video hyperlinking might make it possible for future generations to understand why we thought ‘The Simpsons’ was funny.
And it could allow TV journalists the power of sourcing and referencing documentation and additional reporting that their online colleagues now enjoy.
But what about lost traffic? What about advertising eyeballs? I can hear the complaints now. But we heard these same complaints from print journalists transitioning to online a decade ago, and they learned the value of becoming a curator as well as a reporter of the news. There’s money in being the initial source to which people turn in a crisis. Broadcast journalists, given time and technology, will learn those lessons, too.
Until that technology arrives, broadcast journalists would better serve their viewers by choosing not to deploy their own reporters to every far-flung story, but instead to identify and run on their channels superior coverage from local sources, whether they be from native news organizations or other organizations’ local bureaus. This already happens in the initial moments of breaking news stories; I’m suggesting that the relationship should continue for the story’s duration.
To keep down the costs of acquiring this additional video, news networks should more fully develop video-sharing alliances with other national and global news broadcasters. Such alliances might also create a need for some of our domestic broadcast newsrooms to raise their game, to begin providing coverage of domestic news that meets the standard of international journalists, so that they will agree to video swaps in the future. (Don’t forget the first half of the advice: “Report what you do best.”)
Ultimately, as with many lessons about journalism in the Internet era, it all comes down to building community. By building a stronger global community of broadcast journalists, we can bring the best possible coverage to the individual communities that each network serves.