Stories we shouldn't cover, or should cover better

June 14, 2017 01:30

By Christopher Jones-Cruise, RTDNA Contributor

For journalists who have for years been dealing with an ever-increasing demand for stories while newsroom headcounts shrink, hearing "do more with less" is demoralizing and disheartening. It's worse when they’re sent out to cover stories that have little journalistic value. It's appropriate to ask why we are reporting such stories, because for too long we’ve been covering certain stories just because we always have. Reporters and news managers have to stand up and demonstrate the guts to demand that we stop reporting these meaningless and frivolous events, especially in an era of reduced resources.

Here’s my list. Let me know what stories should be added to it, or deleted from it:
 
  • Cost of the 12 Days of Christmas: This strikes me as the height of irrelevance and stupidity; its filler at its worst and makes me cringe every time I read it or hear it.
  • National Retail Federation estimates and Black Friday sales volumes: What do these numbers really mean? And how accurate can these estimates be?
  • Punxsutawney Phil: So we’re taking weather predictions from a rodent now? I cringe at the thought of how many millions of dollars are spent covering this story.
  • National (fill in the blank) Day: These are almost always creations of businesses. Are we in the business of reporting news or giving free advertising?
  • Hurricane season predictions: What are we supposed to do with this information? This strikes me as something NOAA feels forced to do.
  • Old Farmer’s Almanac predictions: Again, what should we do with this information? And how accurate has it proven to be?

For every story I choose in every newscast I anchor, I ask myself if the story serves the audience or if I could choose another story that would resonate more and be more relevant to the news consumer. I do use light stories. I do write and broadcast kickers. But I work under the premise that the only newscast a person will hear that day is mine and I work hard to fill every minute with something that is worthy of their attention.

Not everyone agrees with me on not covering certain stories (which always surprises me!). I ran a draft of this column by a former news director and by news writing guru Merv Block and got these responses:
 
Former news director
I don’t think the stories you have identified are always meaningless or of zero value, and I’m not convinced they do much harm. Perhaps you should argue that, rather than stop reporting certain stories, reporters should work harder at demonstrating something more meaningful. Then point out that reporters often take the easy way out and scratch the surface. You should argue that some of these stories don’t really serve the audience unless reporters take the time to dig deeper. That way, you’ll be making a positive point about the value of more in-depth reporting that can inform viewers and listeners.

Firstly, many of these things are developed by other sources and don’t require much work in a newsroom with reduced resources. AP develops the 12 days price list and you can pretty much always find visuals on the feed without having to go out and get them. That can actually be useful when resources are limited, because the anchors or producers can write the story, giving reporters more time to do other things. The ‘news’ part of that story is whether it costs more or less than last year and why. Most frequently, the changes are in drummers drumming and ladies dancing due to labor costs, and French hens and partridges due to changes in grocery prices. Would it be better if reporters expanded on the story by discussing costs in their market? Definitely. They should use the basic story as a jumping-off point and make it into something better. If they make it local and relevant it works.

Same with the retail sales and Black Friday numbers. They’re lightweight on their own but they can be used to delve deeper into a reporter’s own market using local retailers as subjects. Do I think we need live shots for Black Friday? Not really, but if there’s nothing else going on, morning shows gravitate toward what people are talking about. It’s probably a losing battle to suggest we avoid it.

I don’t mind the hurricane season projections because they’re coming from experts at the National Hurricane Center, and it’s what they do for a living. It’s more important to do the forecast stories when they’re more immediate potential danger, but a seasonal outlook is interesting to me. Maybe it’s because I’m a weather geek. On the other hand, I do agree that the Farmer’s Almanac stuff is pretty worthless. It’s trying to spin climate averages into practical forecasts, which is impossible. We tended to ignore this particular story at stations where I worked.

As to Punxatawney Phil, I’m of two minds on this. It’s true, whether he sees his shadow or not doesn't mean anything science-wise. According to the calendar, there's always six more weeks of winter to come, no matter what Phil says. On the other hand, it’s a small bit of Americana that reminds us of our agricultural past and can cheer us up with a funny visual of an oversized rodent near the end of the winter.

Sorry to take the steam out of a potentially good rant, but I think it comes down to the ingenuity that newsrooms put into it. If a reporter can expand the story behind the hook of the cliché then I don’t mind using the cliché to get me into the tent.

As far as stories not worth covering, here’s a few more possibilities for your list:
 
  • I would submit that unless it’s OJ in the car, I don’t need to see a car chase. It affects very few people, and the people watching it at home are at home. The only useful thing about these chases is if a traffic reporter can make note of it on the radio so people can avoid the area. Otherwise, it’s a glorified traffic stop and is pretty boring to me. Save your helicopter hours and fuel for something more important.
  • Also, the trend of sports being the lead story in the news is a bit concerning. Lots of big markets lead the entire newscast (not just the sports segment) with the local NFL team a few times a week during the season, and some newspapers will have the NFL team be the above-the-fold story 52 weeks a year. I get that football is interesting, just not that interesting.
  • Local news has also picked up the cable TV habit of dragging stories out for days, even when there are no developments.
  • I’m also not a fan of baseless fear headlines. “Your ____ could kill you,” etc. Report on a legitimate danger, sure, but don’t make it seem bigger than it is.
 
Merv Block
I don’t like those stories from the American Automobile Association telling us how many people are going home for Thanksgiving, or Christmas or any other holiday. How accurate can those predictions be? And who cares how many people are going home for whatever. Is that news?

And what about those stories about turkeys being pardoned by the president before Thanksgiving? Who gives a bleep?

I also don’t want to hear about the number of Thanksgiving or Christmas meals served to the hungry by the Salvation Army or some such outfit or the number of Thanksgiving meals served to soldiers at some firebase.

I also don’t like stories about how many shoppers showed up in stores on Black Friday; my guess is most such stories are far from accurate.

When I was a newspaper reporter in Chicago many years ago, I was assigned to do the annual story about Black Friday (although I think we called it something else back then). I walked over to State Street where all the big stores stood. The newspaper always talked about a million or a million and a half, whatever, shoppers that day. So I measured the width of the sidewalks and determined that if shoppers took up every inch of all the sidewalks between Van Buren Street and Lake Street, they couldn’t number more than a quarter million or something like that. So I wrote the story and quoted a police captain who said the same thing, more or less. And that’s the way I wrote it -- straight. I knew the State Street merchants would dislike it, but I deal only in facts. My city editor read it and exploded. But I stood my ground. He was furious. I told him: ‘You sent the wrong man.’ That made him even angrier. So he sent another reporter (who was known as a softie).
 
Thanks to the former news director and to Merv Block for their thoughts.

I asked some of my Facebook friends for their thoughts. One said “anything involving the Kardashians falls in that category.”

Another said he “could do without pretty much any story that begins with a celebrity saying something on social media, and stories about so-called innovations like Snapchat filters or new emojis. I may be in the minority but I would also suggest nude photo scandals are generally irresponsible reporting. They only hurt the person who was scandalized, and give a story oxygen when there’s no possibility of justice being done.”

Another wants us to stop reporting on people “complaining about the current president’s latest folly. By all means, report on the awful job he’s doing, but whining about it or threatening to move or commit terrorist acts is not news.”

Finally, another pet peeve:

In January in this space I wrote about the propensity of news writers to fall back on the terrible “Hollywood is mourning” cliché every time someone even remotely related to the entertainment business dies.

It appears not every news writer has read that column. Or if they have, they’ve been unable to resist reaching for the hoary phrase.

Actors Adam West, Powers Boothe and Roger Moore have died since that column appeared, as has studio executive Brad Gray. But the cliché lives on.

In May, the Los Angeles Times reported that “Hollywood is mourning the death of 59-year-old Grey…”

Also in May, KNSS Radio reported that “Hollywood is mourning the death of veteran character actor Powers Boothe who died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles” and the Boise Weekly reported that “Hollywood is mourning the passing of Powers Boothe, 68, who died Sunday.” People.com told its readers, awkwardly, that “Hollywood is mourning the loss of one of their own.”

In May, AceShowBiz.com headlined “Hollywood Mourns the Death of James Bond Star Roger Moore.” Startsat60.com told us that “Hollywood is mourning the loss of another great today with the sad news that Sir Roger Moore has died overnight at the age of 89.”

And in June, shortly after actor Adam West died, People.com told its readers that “Hollywood is mourning one of it's (sic) most recognizable faces.”

Do you have suggestions of stories we shouldn't cover, or should at least cover in a more meaningful way? Let us know in the comments below.


Christopher Jones-Cruise is a broadcaster at the Voice of America in Washington and an anchor on the Westwood One Radio Network. His views are his own.