Live News Makes Everyone Dumber

My father’s a huge fan of the Weather Channel, something I’ve never really gotten into. I did watch a bunch of its hurricane coverage on Sunday, though, trying to figure out how my travel was going to be affected. Thus, I got to see a really fabulous exchange as the studio anchor tossed to a field reporter on a boardwalk in New York City after learning that the storm had been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm. Paraphrasing from memory:

ANCHOR: [Reporter], we’ve just learned that Irene has been downgraded to a tropical storm. Has that changed anything where you are?

REPORTER: [buffeted by high winds and rain] Well, [Anchor], it’s still raining pretty hard here, and the winds are getting stronger…

Between the rain gear and the weather, it was sort of hard to see her, but really, I think it’s a miracle she didn’t end that sentence with “… you asshole.” The categorization of storms is almost completely arbitrary, applying numerical thresholds to continuous variables. It’s not a magic spell that makes the wind and rain slack off instantly.

Hand-wringing articles about how television is making us all dumber are such a staple of cultural commentary that they’ve become cliche. The vast majority of them are talking about the effect on the audience though, and miss out on this sort of effect, which I think is actually fairly significant: the need to constantly fill time talking about Stuff produces this kind of breathtaking inanity on the part of tv anchors and reporters on a regular basis. This one was particularly stupid, but almost every time I watch live tv news (which, admittedly, is not that often), I hear this sort of thing– a breathtakingly dumb remark arising from the need to keep blathering on about whatever’s happening, even though there’s nothing really happening.

This is a large part of why I no longer watch much tv news, even though it’s kind of addictive– on those occasions when I do need some news of the sort you get on tv, I always end up watching long past the point where I’ve acquired whatever facts I needed, and it’s become clear that the talking heads are just talking to fill time and trying not to repeat themselves.

You see a lot of the same thing happening in other media, particularly involving slower-moving events like elections. It’s what makes so many partisan political blogs and Twitter feeds basically unreadable– the exact details of what happens right now are vastly unlikely to affect the 2012 elections more than a year from now, but both professional media types and “citizen journalists” need to fill space. So, we get vast amounts of blather, often leading to things that are nearly as dumb as asking a field reporter in the path of a storm whether the change in classification has somehow stilled the wind and waves.

I’m not sure it actually has much effect on the audience, but more and more it seems to me that the people writing about television making people dumber have the right idea, but are talking about the wrong side of the camera.

Comments

  1. #1 Vince whirlwind
    August 30, 2011

    The abject stupidity in the media gets more brazen by the day.

    Disheartened TV viewers may take some comfort, however, in the following recent event in Australia:

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-08-25/reporters-sacked-over-fake-chopper-crosses/2856172

    “Channel Nine’s director of news in Brisbane has resigned and three journalists have been sacked for faking reports about the search for Daniel Morcombe’s remains.

    On separate days, two reporters filed fake crosses from the station’s helicopter, saying they were near Beerwah, over the site of the search for the remains of the murdered Queensland teenager.

    In one incident, the chopper was actually hovering near the station’s Mt Coot-tha studios and in the other, it remained on the Channel Nine helipad – and was filmed there by a rival network as the live cross went to air.

    Earlier this week Channel Nine admitted the crosses had been faked, citing time restraints and poor weather.”

    Brilliant.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    August 30, 2011

    Between the rain gear and the weather, it was sort of hard to see her, but really, I think it’s a miracle she didn’t end that sentence with “… you asshole.” The categorization of storms is almost completely arbitrary, applying numerical thresholds to continuous variables. It’s not a magic spell that makes the wind and rain slack off instantly.

    Absolutely. Judging from the news reports I have seen from Vermont, I wouldn’t blame any Vermonter who chose to punch the lights out of any pundit who claims Irene was no big deal just because it wasn’t a hurricane in New York City.

    I have seen people argue, seriously, that hurricane activity has been low the past few years because there was such a long gap between the previous US landfalling hurricane and Irene. They ignore the significant amount of activity elsewhere in the North Atlantic. Last year saw multiple hurricanes striking Mexico and the worst hurricane in living memory striking Newfoundland (destroying a bridge on the Trans-Canada Highway, which is the only road connecting eastern and western Newfoundland). As of this morning there is a Tropical Storm Katia in the eastern Atlantic, which is currently forecast to become a hurricane by Thursday and a major hurricane by Sunday (we are using the same name list as 2005, so this would have been Katrina had the latter name not been retired last time around). We are on a pace to see Greek-letter storms this year, which has happened only once before, in (you guessed it) 2005.

  3. #3 NJ
    August 30, 2011

    I am reminded of an analogous occurrence during Olympic coverage. A downhill skier was able to take several of the turns exceptionally well so that mid-run they were ahead of the pace of the previous leader as shown on the clever electronic clock gismos broadcast on the TV screen.

    After the run, when the skier had the best time of the whole field, an interviewer asked the skier at what point in the run he/she realized they had taken over first place.

    The skier replied “At the end when I looked at my time”, the interviewer apparently being unaware that the clever electronic clock gismos broadcast on the TV screen were not visible to the athletes mid-event.

    There aren’t enough palms or faces for that level of fail.

  4. #4 LionDancer
    August 30, 2011

    My favorite is when a Detroit news anchor stated that someone was “murdered to death.” She subsequently became a big local Faux News celebrity until she lost her job for corruption.

  5. #5 Jesse
    August 30, 2011

    Working reporter here. I can tell you right quick why this happens: no money.

    Really. Reporting real news is expensive. Getting someone to Iraq, finding a fixer, all that ancillary stuff is pricey.

    Sending poor Jane or Joe Reporter to the beach to get hit by a storm? Cheap. Easy TV. Don’t even need to book an interviewee.

    The costs of sending people places, of hiring people who know what they are doing, and the demands of advertising just don’t match up. So you get dumber TV and pundits talking. It’s just plain cheaper to do.

    Technology doesn’t help here. Yes, it’s easier to upload video (provided you have a sat connection or the local Internet works). But that doesn’t do anything by itself; when you see the reporter in a war zone talking with people, there are actually three other (paid, if badly) people involved. You think the translator works for free, or the guy who found that man on the street in Cairo does?

    To give you an idea, BTW, most local TV people are not paid all that well and they are the ones you usually see, even on national feeds. The people who make real money are the national desk people at the big outfits — your Wolf Blitzers. The guy at the local station who they use? Not so much. Like I said, the TV stations do what is cheap and easy.

    (This is true of media generally, too. When you listen to the traffic reports on the radio, for instance, the different stations in your market are likely using the same person who just uses a different intro — the person works for several outlets and is “shared.”).

    The results aren’t hard to figure out.

  6. #6 CCPhysicist
    August 30, 2011

    Oh, it happens when there is plenty of money. In that case the explanation is ego.

    My favorite was when CNN had A.C. doing a very long standup in NYC in a light rain, acting as an anchor doing all of the hand-offs to other reporters in more interesting locations. Except he didn’t have a monitor so he couldn’t see what they were showing and thus couldn’t even provide an stupid comment about what was on air.

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