A history that still poisons TV News
This is part of an ongoing series of Master Classes on the craft of Broadcast Journalism. Tim Knight was formerly head of the training department at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
The form in which information is presented will dramatically alter the perception of that information. It will also change the very nature of the information itself.
Richard Saul Wurman
- Information Anxiety
TV started out in the Western world nearly 70 years ago as a huge, miraculous new stage for singers, dancers, comics, priests and dog acts.
But very soon, a steady diet of singers, dancers, comics, priests and dog acts on the little black and white screen in the living room got boring. So the pioneers of this new medium decided to add some news.
Who to do it? Journalists came to mind. Journalists worked on newspapers. So the TV bosses went to the newspapers to hire some.
Few of the good newspaper journalists of the time, of course, were interested. Real journalists were newspapermen! (“Stop the presses”. “Get me re-write, shweetheart!”). And anyway, everyone knew news would never amount to a hill of beans on TV.
This upstart new medium was ok for singers, dancers, comics, priests and dog acts. But it was no place for real journalists.
Even so, some of the newspapermen weren’t going to make it in newspapers. They didn’t fit. Or they weren’t good enough. Or they were too old. So they held their noses and sidled off to start TV newsrooms.
All of which is how a bunch of third-rate newspapermen invented TV news and set its methods, standards and culture for the unforeseeable future.
And how their thinking still poisons TV news.
These third-rate newspapermen were all middle-class, middle-aged, white, Western men (MAMCWWM for short).
They shared the same values. The same class. The same colour. The same sex. They believed in the same things.
The world they knew was a MAMCWWM world, seen entirely through MAMCWWM eyes.
“Objective” meant seeing things the way the MAMCWWM saw things.
There was only one truth.
The MAMCWWM truth.
They had nothing to learn. They were the founding fathers, present at the creation.
So naturally, they brought their newspaper ideas, methods and practices with them. Including the dreaded inverted pyramid.
And naturally, the anchors and reporters simply read the newspaper stories, more or less unchanged.
If it was good enough for newspapers, it was certainly good enough for this upstart TV.
TV news was exactly like newspaper news except that someone had to read its words aloud and the pictures moved instead of staying still.
What the pioneers never understood was that while the newspaper they left was a factual, record-keeping medium — the TV they joined was an emotional, storytelling medium.
The men who ran the TV newsrooms passed on their methods, knowledge, values and standards to the next generation of TV journalists.
And the generation after that. And the one after that.
They were newspaper methods, knowledge, values and standards.
They were the truth. They were the light.
Like starting stories with the climax and throwing in facts (in no particular order) until the allotted time was up.
Like using written instead of spoken language. The language of bureaucrats and politicians instead of the language of the people.
Like hiring smooth-looking, smooth-reading anchors and reporters who never stumbled over words and never understood what they were reading.
This was the way it was. There was no alternative. Not if you wanted to succeed. Not if you wanted to keep working in TV news.
Storytelling — the ancient, hugely efficient, hugely effective method of passing on information through stories that touched the human condition and, as a consequence, the human heart — was ignored.
Storytelling was for priests and little children at bedtime.
Instead, the paradigm, the prototype, the viewpoint, the perspective, the culture indeed the soul of TV news — soon to be the most powerful communications tool the world had ever known — had been set.
We’re still paying the price.
It wasn’t always easy to keep TV journalism MAMCWWM. The MAMCWWMs had to work at it.
Women, people of colour, native people, people with disabilities, homosexual people and other such powerless folk wanted in. It was their world, too, they argued. They had just as much right to explain it.
The MAMCWWMs kept women, people of colour, native people, people with disabilities and homosexual people out of newsrooms for as long as they possibly could (“I’m on your side, of course, but the time isn’t quite right yet …”).
News was MAMCWWM business. In the genes, you know.
People of colour, native people, people with disabilities and homosexual people never really had a chance.
But women couldn’t be kept out forever. After all, most of the MAMCWWMs had mothers and shared beds with women, so were forced to listen when the women complained.
The pressures were just too great. It got embarrassing.
So, very slowly, very reluctantly, women — and even the occasional person of colour, particularly if female — were grudgingly allowed into the TV newsrooms.
And they were taught MAMCWWM methods, knowledge, values, standards and the MAMCWWM way of seeing and explaining the world.
Catching on very fast, women and the occasional person of colour now learned to see the world through MAMCWWM eyes. To think and behave like MAMCWWMs.
Before long, their stories looked, sounded and felt exactly like MAMCWWM stories.
And the MAMCWWM bosses were very proud.
All of which, I hope, explains some of how TV journalism came to be the poorly-designed, badly-done MAMCWWM conspiracy it is today. In South Africa and pretty much everywhere else in the world.
Why seventy years after it all started, we still use ridiculous, out-dated, newspaper methods to do TV news.
Why so much of our TV journalism is so consistently third rate.
Why we endure night after night of worthless, pointless, aimless, newspaper journalism on our TV.
And why we live, according to TV, in a world of endless political bafflegab, crime, violence, disasters and celebrities.
A world with almost no people. Almost no meaning. Almost no hope.
Of course, there’s a great danger in TV journalism portraying our world this way. It re-enforces the status quo. It legitimises existing power structures. It supports the establishment and its god-given supremacy.
TV news today isn’t the real world. It’s not a world I even recognise.
It doesn’t exist. It never existed. It never could exist.
I hope it’s not your world.
This is the ninth instalment in Tim Knight’s Master Classes on the craft of broadcast journalism for The Journalist. Earlier columns were The Business of Social Journalism, How to Interview (parts 1 and 2), The Unknown SABC Story (parts 1, 2 and 3), Storytelling Is Magic, and Screw The Inverted Pyramid.
This column is adapted from Knight’s book, Storytelling and the Anima Factor, now in its second edition on Amazon and lulu.com
Next week in this master class series, Knight explains how to write TV news so the viewer actually retains some of the information broadcast.BACK TO TOP