In honor of Media Mogul Oprah’s Birthday I figured I’d demystify some half truths that consistently get perpetuated about News. Here’s a link to my blog about the top three questions people always ask me about TV.
There are MANY misconceptions about News. As most of you know I worked in TV News for about 10 years, both behind the scenes and on camera. I’ve never stopped being a journalist but I left local TV News in 2014. So, here are answers to the top 3 questions I ALWAYS get about TV and like Wendy Williams I’ve got my receipts! Before I get into the answers there’s one basic concept you’ll need to understand. News is a BUSINESS. While it’s nice to see volunteers feeding the needy TV News is NOT a free public service. It’s a business and the first rule in business is, if you aren’t making money your business won’t survive. Here’s why the concept of News being a business gets muddy for viewers. Your local station is likely an affiliate of a larger news organization (ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX). Affiliate stations are owned by separate entities (Comcast, Nextstar, etc). That entity pays to carry the content of that affiliation. It’s kind of like NBC is McDonalds, Nexstar owns multiple McDonalds franchise locations and “The Today Show” is the content, i.e. everything you need to be a McDonalds. To keep this from getting too complicated we’ll save the conversation about syndicated TV shows like Dr. Phil, and Wendy, for another discussion. Each city or community is assigned a DMA. There are 210 DMAs in the United States. For example the Los Angeles metro area is DMA 2 while my hometown of Milwaukee is DMA 35. Now that we’ve cleared up ownership, affiliates and DMAs lets get to those answers. http://www.tvjobs.com/cgi-bin/markets/market2.cgi
3) Why do local news stations focus on bad news? The concept that news stations push bad news for money and ratings is not entirely true. The truth is going to be a hard pill for most of you to swallow, but the answer is YOU the viewer, are the reason you see more negative or bad news than good. While there is a degree of manipulation involved in how news is disseminated to the public— some companies, Nexstar for example own about 140 TV Stations— that makes it easier to control what you’re seeing. But YOU the viewer are complicity in your own manipulation. We all get an adrenaline rush when something is urgent. This is why news station often label stories that happened hours ago as Breaking News— to create a sense of urgency. Volunteers feeding hundreds of homeless people won’t grab your attention like, NBA Legend Kobe Bryant being killed in a helicopter crash. A school shooting, a car chase, or a massive fire will usually come with spectacular visuals that add to the story’s shock value. The concept of “if it bleeds, it leads” speaks to our primal human nature. It’s like seeing a car accident on the freeway, you stare at the wreckage until your brain has processed it. TV stations make money from commercials and online ads, NOT the stories in the newscast. Depending on when and where that commercial airs the rates are different. An ad that airs at 3am on Saturday morning is significantly cheaper than one that airs during the evening newscast. If that same station has more viewers than their competition, then an ad during their newscast will likely cost more than their competitor. On a global scale, this is why a 30 second ad during the Super Bowl (the most watched sporting event of the year) costs 50 times as much as airing that same ad at the same time on a random Sunday.
The best way to illustrate this point is by looking at websites. When you as a viewer/ reader engage with a story posted online it tells the News AND Sales departments what stories and/or headlines caught your attention. Engagement is liking, sharing or commenting on a post. Ads on a website that gets thousands of clicks is going to cost that business more than placing an ad on a website with virtually no traffic. Companies don’t hide their ad rates and viewer demographics but you do have to pay for accessing that information. The Shade Room for example charges about $2500 for an ad on their website.
Remember, high ratings dictate higher ad prices, i.e. the Super Bowl vs a random Sunday. News stations usually set their ad rates twice a year (May and November) this period is called Sweeps. This is why you tend to see more in-depth reporting and commercials urging viewers to tune in to watch the news during those time periods. Those rates are largely influenced by Nielsen Ratings. It’s a private company that surveys a sampling of households in a DMA to estimate how many people are watching a particular station or program. Nielsen Ratings are flawed but remains the gold standard for measuring viewership. It’s kind of like how the US Census counts the population. Yes, stations receive ratings data daily. However, stations don’t make more money because of wall to wall coverage of a tragic event. They may see an increase in viewers but businesses buy ads in bulk, each quarter. So while that tragic story may increase their visibility in that DMA, stations aren’t cashing in on it immediately like that. The bottom line is in the words of Jay-z men lie, women lie, numbers don’t. So next time you get a phone call asking you to take part in a Nielsen survey please, SAY YES.
2) Why do local news stations ALL have the exact same story? Unfortunately the answer isn’t nearly as sinister as skeptics of news may have you believe. Before a news story goes on air, the information has to be verified as accurate. Otherwise a station could be sued and held liable for slander. News stories are mainly sourced or gathered and verified in three ways. First, a reporter gets a tip/lead and they chase down interviews to get the information confirmed. Getting it straight from the horses mouth is the preferred method for verifying accuracy. The second way is when story came from a wire service. Almost all news organizations use wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters. Wire services are news organizations that have their own reporters and photographers. No matter how many reporters or photographers work at a station no one can be everywhere. It takes a lot of content to fill a 30 minute newscast— technically it’s about 22 minutes when you subtract the commercials. Each department in the newsroom uses stories or content from the wire service and other stations to fill out their section of the newscast.
The Meteorologist gets data from nearby cities to help estimate your local weather forecast. The Sports Anchor get scores from other cities as well as stories that may be relevant to the local audience. Newscast Producers (the people who write the stories Anchors read on air) use wire services to get stories from other cities and even other countries. Local news stations also contribute stories to wire services. For example an NBC affiliate in Nashville could air the EXACT same story as a CBS in Atlanta because they are both using AP Wires. It’s also common for stations owned by different companies to share stories with a fellow affiliate if they are NOT in the same DMA. Meaning the ABC station in Sacramento may share a story with the ABC affiliate in San Francisco. Finally, on a local level news stations having the exact same story usually means a company or city leader sent out a press release with that information. The decisions of what news stories are presented to the audience are usually made by an Assignment Editor, News Director, or Producer NOT the Reporter or Anchor you see on TV.
Finally, the number ONE question I get is how does TMZ know everything, how do they always seem to get information first? First TMZ is an entertainment company or a Tabloid and that’s VERY different from local/ national news. While some of the folks who work there are journalists, TMZ doesn’t always adhere to the same principles as traditional journalists. Most local stations won’t pay sources for news tips and leads. It’s considered unethical, a conflict of interest and is illegal. Paying sources is like paying radio DJs to play your record on the radio. Tabloids DO pay sources. It’s been well documented that TMZ PAYS for tips and sources. Having an airline employee call when a celebrity is flying… having a worker at a hotel shoot video of a surveillance camera from their phone… or having a law enforcement employee send copies of the pictures taken of a domestic violence victim for evidence… are all examples of tips or leads TMZ has paid for. Your local station doesn’t have the budget for that so in most cases they have to do it the old fashion way, making friends. Entertainment websites /gossip blogs or Tabloids use a different standard when trying to confirm a lead or tip. This is why they often use misleading headlines— click bait to grab your attention. Traditional news focuses on the facts to get your attention.
That’s not to say traditional news outlets don’t participate in variations of this practice. It’s not as blatant and again it likely is not happening at your local station. For example, “The Today Show” (NBC) will fly a guest out, put them in a hotel and treat them to dinner in New York City. Technically that guest didn’t get paid, but they did get free trip to NYC to give that exclusive interview.
Good Morning America recently got caught killing a story about alleged pedophile and rapist Jeffrey Epstein out of fear in losing access to interview members of the Royal Family.
Examples like this are the exception more so than the rule, and again they likely are NOT happening on a local level. Do people ask local news stations to kill a negative story about them, absolutely ALL the time. Journalists with integrity drown out that noise and push forward regardless of the potential backlash. Sometimes it’s not even about money. Office politics, racism, classism are other factors that can kill a story. But that’s a discussion for another time.
Hopefully this information makes you appreciate the hard working journalists at your local station fighting to preserve the integrity of the profession. Trust me it’s an actual fight, daily and these folks don’t do it for the money. Most TV Journalists don’t make a lot of money. They are literally fighting for OUR right to know the truth.