When journalists hate journalism…

Living in Los Angeles, I’ve discovered that the biggest movie fans anywhere are the people who work in the film industry. (Okay, I’ve also heard many times the easy joke about them having plenty of time to see movies, ’cause so many of them are usually out of work.) But you can find the same affinity in many fields. My wife is a professional violinist, and her music industry friends have the largest CD and MP3 collections I’ve ever seen – and not just classical, but rock, pop, jazz, blues, funk and show tunes, too.

So you’d think that journalists would be the biggest news hounds around. For the most part, you’d be right. I was talking with some of my Annenberg colleagues at a journalism conference last month, and one asked how many hours a day we each spent reading and watching the news, whether in print, online or on TV. The consensus? About four to five hours a day.

But there is one exception to this potential rule: Many journalists despise TV news. They hate watching it, they hate producing it, and, given the opportunity, they turn it off and ignore it.

My journalism students this semester went off on this topic in class one day, raging about the rigid format, the simplistic reporting and cynicism that they found in TV news reports.

I had assigned my students to produce a multisource, multimedia feature story on a topic of their choice. Several incorporated video segments, and the influence on these students’ video storytelling was clear. So I asked them about it.

It wasn’t the evening news. It wasn’t cable TV.

“Daily Show,” one said.

“Colbert Report,” added another.

“The Onion,” one said, as heads nodded around the room.

Just as I suspected. Why not local and cable TV news, I asked?

My students complained about the titillation – fear-mongering crime reports, salacious coverage of the entertainment industries, reporters and anchor people glammed up to look like models. And when TV reports covered more serious issues, including politics, they result as little more than propaganda – talking points served up from two sides, with no analysis testing the claims, beyond petty insults.

The broadcast majors among them expressed their revulsion at moving into an industry where “good television” meant insults, violence and conflict, rather than information, engagement and enlightenment.

Many also complained about the strict format that they were being instructed to follow in their broadcast classes, in order to make their reports appear more “professional,” i.e. like the TV news that many of them despised. But I found it interesting that, when given the freedom to do whatever they wanted with news video online (which, by the way, every member of the class said that they loved), most did cling to a standard formula in producing their spots.

It just wasn’t the six-o’-clock news formula, it was the sarcastic, tough-in-cheek formula of cable TV news satire. That’s to be expected, I suppose. In college, one of my English professors suggested that all literature writers start with satire, to learn to poke fun at and “undo” others’ conventions before developing and exploring their own.

I see another parallel in my students’ experience this semester – with community, grassroots and social media journalism online. The message that I heard from my students and from people I have met in dozens of online communities is similar – they are fed up with traditional journalism narratives and conventions, especially ones that emphasize conflict without resolution.

But, even as they reject those conventions, they still need some formula within which to express themselves. They either unable or unwilling yet to devote the effort to create a new convention for news communication. So they’re willing to follow others that get them closer to what they want to say.

For my students, it’s Jon Stewart, et al. – people who are willing to challenge sources aggressively, to use video evidence to point out when sources are lying (QuickTime clip) and, through satire, to try to reveal a truth, rather than leave two sides simply to shout at one another. As one student said, “I want my work to say something.”

Online, readers want easy-to-use discussion forums and communities where people can ask, and answer, questions, where leadership is present to keep discussions civil and informative, and where the tone is less “gotcha” and more “got your back.”

As the competition between online and offline news media intensifies, news producers would do well to remember that some of what’s driving the change in the news market is not simply a preference for one medium over another, it is a desire to reject the conventions behind news production as practiced in some “old” media.

Heck, if journalists can’t stand the stuff that some newsrooms are producing, how can we expect anyone else to want it?

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. A provocative, needed-to-be-written bit. Harder to digest when 1. the author of the commentary has no broadcast experience 2. there are no broadcasters in the story.

    As a former newspaperman turned TV reporter/producer, with an almost too-long deep involvement in online news and a long-time teacher at a Bay Area University journalism department I will add this:

    My students don’t watch TV news but hate it. (Easier to condemn than sifting through junk to find the quality.)They respect the image of newspapers but never read them. (When was the last time you read a double-truck you didn’t write?) They claim they are Internet savvy but can’t do more than post some poorly written, even more poorly produced video/audio on a blog or MySpace. They think commentary, such as the one prompting this note, or comedy, such as late night cable TV is “journalism.”

    Where does their — and our — responsibility rest?

  2. Two things:

    First, I agree with your point, that this dislike is a symptom of a larger problem. However, the actual depth of dislike is probably made stronger by the fact that you are professionals. Experts in any field tend to judge their own field harshly: writers dislike mediocre or bad writing more deeply than non-writers, web developers dislike poor design more deeply, even professional comedians have a more difficult time watching other comedians. They know the craft as well as the content, and react accordingly.

    Yes, it’s hard to watch, but your visceral response is driven by more than the problem under discussion. *That* is why others are more able to watch it. You see more clearly, therefore you react more strongly.

    Second, there are ways of watching local TV news that make it worth watching. I recently had the opportunity to drive cross-country, taking four nights to do so, and at each stage of the trip I watched the late-night local news. While the programs all contained the tendencies that we know and loathe, the differences between them made for interesting viewing.

    Variations occurred in types of story, advertisements about the news show itself, types of news “personalities,” types of advertisements in general, subjective slanting (I know subjectivity is unavoidable, but *how* a reporter is subjective is fascinating), etc. This gave me enough to think about to make watching the train wreck that is local TV news actually kind of fun.

  3. says:

    “Online, readers want easy-to-use discussion forums and communities where people can ask, and answer, questions, where leadership is present to keep discussions civil and informative, and where the tone is less “gotcha” and more “got your back.””

    This is too rare. Discussions often deteriorate quickly and substantive arguments are often ignored in favor of attacking weak and personal arguments. Does anyone have examples of a forum that has a leadership structure the works well? I would also like to see some intersection between such discussions and the journalists who wrote the articles they are often linked from in regards to generating useful questions that might be addressed.

  4. Sigh.

    If all one is reading is undermanned newspaper discussion comment areas, yeah, discussions online look horrible. But, of the top of my head, here are several informative, well-behaved niche discussion forums I’ve looked at today:

  5. Apple Support Discussions
  6. Prius Chat
  7. Violinist.com [Disclaimer: I co-own this one.]
  8. Webmaster World

    Readers should feel welcome to add links to other discussion forums they like. And I would love to hear from newspaper journalists who are engaging in their papers’ discussion forums.

  • says:

    You should be telling your students to get out of the journalism business and into something else in which:
    1) they can have a 20-30-year future, and
    2) can make a living wage.

    Or, just tell them to read Romenesko every day on Poynter, and look at all the layoffs, buyouts and downsizings in the profession. The sharper ones will figure it out for themselves after a few days.

  • says:

    As a longtime journalist, I also dislike a lot of what I see on local and cable TV news. But remember, it’s produced for the masses, not other journalists. What you see is what viewers and advertisers want. Sadly, it means there’s a market for it.

  • says:

    I don’t think we neeed a new convention to tell a news story. Rather what we (professionals and professors, alike) need to do is use the different technologies to tell the story well. The work a photographer shoots can sequence more effectively in a slide-show format than a video. A well-edited video can be more compelling than text. Text can do a better job of explaining the back story if it’s thoughtful and well-written. But how many media outlets are making those kind of editorial decisions? So many use technology merely to automate traditional news gathering. The pressure appears to be focused on netting a higher ROI on equipment and salaries. (And I’m willing to bet tax laws make it so.)
    As an adjunct in media studies at Rutgers University-New Brunswick I tell my students that they are the generation of change. Mine, and I come out of the print tradition, lost its mission of public service in the face of conglomerization and the pursuit of profit.

    Helen Pike

  • says:

    Your students live and study in Los Angeles, which hardly offers an optimal broadcast news model. I hope you show them work from other markets to demonstrate a variety in styes, content, and potential.

    A major problem with our present broadcast model is that managers live in fear of the clicker. They’re trying to keep viewers from changing channels, particularly at known times when meters take readings. But, as distribution changes and viewers stack their own content on-line, so will the tone of what we do.
    Hopefully, we will do journalism in lure of the clicker (or mouse), instead.

    Meantime, let’s hope your students learn the basics that so many others of their generation seem to have missed. Let’s hear good grammar and crisp writing in a narrative form. Let’s see stories that flow, feature relevant people, and post intelligent questions.

    We don’t need more John Stewart wanna-be’s or puppets. We do need students who can take that attidude as a starting point, and move on. Journalism schools are filled with students who just want to be ‘on tv’. The business needs independent, critical-thinkers who do this job for the benefit of their viewers.

    Before they knock the medium, they should master it.

  • says:

    As a journalist who spent more than a decade in TV news I disagree that broadcast journalists don’t like their industry. I know many people who still love it…the potential to inform instantly through many senses is still embraced by many. The responsibility of trying diligently to get and give information as news breaks is not taken lightly. For more investigative or feature opportunities, the desire to tell a story that hasn’t been told is still a very powerful motivator.

    Where does the cynicism come in? TV outlets have office politics, just like any other business. They are just more public because TV people like to talk. There is always the fear of job security, across the board in journalism today. Sometimes it’s hard to do the job well when you’re not sure you’re going to have one tomorrow–and that decision will have nothing to do with merit, but with a bottom line. And speaking of bottom line, the majority of TV journalists barely make a living wage, if you break it down hourly. Journalists (TV or otherwise) don’t work 9-5. So when you give so much of your life to it, there is sometimes a love-hate relationship. (Notice, I didn’t say hate-love)

    Oh, and I didn’t leave TV news because I didn’t love it. I sure did. I still do. I just wanted work-life balance. Most journalists will tell you that’s hard to find in our chosen field. It has nothing to do with love for the craft.

  • says:

    From MediaLife

    Among the young,
    TV news ranks first

    Study: Under-30s find television more credible

    By Heidi Dawley
    Jun 5, 2008

    We’re told each breathing day that the internet and the young are as one, joined at the hip, the web being the place where under-30s connect, make friends, find their music and spend great hours roaming.

    That all may be true, certainly to a degree, but in one very important area, news, young people turn to a traditional medium, and it’s not the newspaper. It’s television.

    A new study reports that 15- to 29-year-olds first turn to TV for the news and that generally they regard TV news as the most credible source of news, more even than newspapers.

  • says:

    Full disclosure – I left a 15 year career in television news because my job as an anchor and reporter no longer reflected my view of the world. There are still some great stories on TV, but they

  • says:

    That is disappointing that the students can’t see the bigger picture that news outlets provide information for the readers/viewers to reach their own conclusions. As a journalist, I do NOT appreciate people like Jon Stewart or the Colbert Report drawing their conclusions for me regarding the news. I would rather it be handed to me – tell me both sides and let me decide what I think about it.

    I weep for our future.

  • Sudarshan Borpatragohain says:

    I work in Pune, India, as a sub-editor for a newspaper called THE INDIAN EXPRESS.
    I think the traditional 5 w’s and 1H of journalism are very well covered in televison news reports. Where the problem starts,is when television tries to move beyond them. The inherent superficiality of the medium gets exposed.
    Even Joseph Leyveld, when he was in India, recently said that “…television is sort of over. It

  • says:

    As a professor of journalism, I realize the importance of showing students the realities of the job market. As a former daily newspaper reporter, I reject the notion that there is something wrong with conventional journalism, so we need to trash it for a brave new multimedia world. Old media fuel the Internet’s best stories. There are still important, quite traditional skills students need to learn to identify stories and figure out the best way to present them.

    The inverted pyramid is still absolutely essential to the gathering of news. It’s not a dead form, but it’s a way of thinking about what’s most critical, a triage system if you will. TV and radio need it. The Internet needs it. Jon Stewart is great, but I prefer Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times. Lichtblau (who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 has employed traditional journalistic values and done the nation proud. I wll always urge students to read, read, read.

    Only the headlines make it to TV oftentimes.

    Best regards,

    Sara-Ellen Amster, Ph.D.
    Lead faculty for journalism program
    National University

  • says:

    I wuit watching television news about two years ago. I refuse to watch that tripe. What viewers want? Please. It is what is forced upon us. As for advertisers, most people mute or else Tivo shows to skip ads. Advertising and television news as formatted is the past.

    My kids get all their news online or from the Daily Show or Colbert.

  • says:

    This professor should spend more time teaching his students that there are reasons for some of those crusty, old, uncool, unhip, formulaic traditions in journalism… THE FIRST ONE BEING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REPORTING NEWS AND EDITORIALIZING.

    It sounds like his students don’t know the difference and don’t care; all they rail about is content and delivery… so now they’re supposed to be the new wave, the romantic Gen Nexter geniuses because they want to be cool and do the Daily Show? These young hucksters–actually the ones before them–are the reason that broadcast news is in the state it’s in. They don’t have an ingrained journalistic compass TO TRY AND KEEP THEIR OWN BIASES OUT OF THE STORY AND TO GO THE EXTRA MILE FOR ACCURACY AND SOURCED INFORMATION.

    This professor should be pounding into his students that the Daily Show is NOT NEWS, it is ENTERTAINMENT and they shouldn’t be pretending it is news because it’s fun hip and cool. NEWS is that unvarnished, boring communication of facts that inform the public. THIS IS A RESPONSIBILITY AS MUCH AS IT IS A JOB AND (FOR THESE KIDS AT LEAST) SOME KIND OF COOL FRAT GAME.

  • Eric Mankin says:

    I don’t think it’s mysterious why even professinal journalists don’t want to spend a lot of time watching tv news: it’s too slow, and it’s a total prisoner of needing images, and it has great difficulty with complicated stories that don’t have obvious visual aids.

    I keep thinking that some hot young tv reporter is going to get a copy of PowerPoint and think – you know, I could do something with this that would actually have some weight – it would have visuals, but it would tell the story. And then I hear the hack editor tell her to cover the 5-car pileup at the bridge.

  • says:

    I agree with the post that said a journalist’s job is to report both sides, present a complete picture, and let the reader decide what to think.

    Too often, I fear, we presume that the public needs to be told how to think. We don’t give them enough credit for being able to think for themselves.

    I believe that this practice of drawing conclusions has added to the distrust of the media because those conclusions aren’t always accurate. Why open yourself up to that possibility instead of sticking to your job? The public doesn’t ask us for our opinion, only the truth of both sides.

  • says:

    As a reporter on the street for nearly 20 years – and a small town news director for the last ten years – I have a different take, one which I pass on to my youngsters.

    TV news is a restrictive form – it’s like a sonata, haiku, comic strip in the paper or, closest to my heart, like a blues song.

    A reporter goes out and ‘plays’ the same handful of tunes each night – a murder, a government meeting, a story about gas prices.

    The trick that separates the good from the not-so-good is what you do within the form, how you find the new detail, what part of the story gets your attention, what the words are and how you say them, the look on someone’s face when you ask a question on camera, the dozens of little ways one report is distinguished from another.

    It’s not, as a rule, how you re-invent it.

    And because you’re like a blues or jazz musician, and you’re out playing every night, (I know there’s a certain mythologizing at work here), you can expect to suck on occasion, be brilliant once in a blue moon and be fighting it to a draw most of the time.

    Which also means that what counts is the long haul, and that people both want the story and the story-teller, if you’re doing your job right.

    I hope the above doesn’t sound silly, but it really is how I view the work and what I try to pass on. We could do with a little less of “it’s bankrupt” and a little more of “how do we make it sing?”


    Scott Atkinson
    News Director
    Watertown NY

  • Eric Mankin says:

    Oh, please.

    >I agree with the post that said a journalist’s job is to report both sides, present a complete picture, and let the reader decide what to think.

    Except take a situation you have two sides. One side is clearly, obviously lying. But both sides say the other is lying. The evidence provided by one side is clearly a lie; not allegedly a lie. So you just say “both sides say the other is lying?” Or do you do an independent investigation of the claims?

    Or take a situation now in the news. The expert specialists who have spent their lives studying planetary atmospheric science say that human activity is changing the climate, with potentially catastrophic results. A Danish business school adjunct professor says this is wrong. Equal emphasis to both sides?

  • says:


    As a young journalist, I found this post really spoke to me, but when reading the comments, many of them seemed rather defensive.

    I’ll be honest, I don’t watch much broadcast news, and the broadcast news I do catch is national (CNN, Fox News — not usually by choice). I just don’t find it very trustworthy, and I question the kind of news judgment that gets Obama’s pastor talked about for weeks and little focus on real issues in this election like education or the national debt.