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How To Watch TV News

by John on 04/06/2012

From my previous posts on liberal media bias and conservative media bias in cable TV news, you would think I am going to tell you to stop watching TV news.

Surprise. I am not.

In fact, you still need to watch the so-called news on the boob-Tube. But you need to watch in a time-saving manner that protects you.

TV news has one major responsibility: warning you.

And frankly, most TV stations — especially local stations — are very good, if not great, warning systems. Think of the first reports of the attacks of 9-11. How about the weather forecast that tells you tornadoes are imminent? To a lesser extent, but just as vital, are a station’s morning traffic reports.

You need to use this.

First, turn on your local morning news. Don’t watch it, though. Listen to it. If you’re like most Americans, you’re getting ready for work or getting the kids to school. TV stations know this. The good ones write for your ear and avoid phrases like “take a look a this video.”

Second, sign up for a TV news stations email news alerts that will go to your phone and computer. Most good TV news stations want you to sign up for their website so they can get more eyeballs. Keeping you informed — even if you are not in front of the TV — is another task they are willing to tackle.

Third, follow a TV news station on Twitter. Many times, a station’s assignment desk will blast this, not to just warn you, but to see if you have any information or eyewitness account to a story. That’s fine with me — as long as they are warning you at the same time.

Fourth, here is a tip not many of you will hear. Sign up on Twitter for a TV news station’s Assignment Manager or Assignment Editor. These people are the brain center for a newsroom. They will get the info first: they’re constantly calling local officials for updates; and their sources are feeding them. Remember, though, there are different Assignment personnel on at different times. There could be a different crew in the morning compared to the evening.

However, here’s a warning about TV news that I wrote about in my book which still is true.

[T]elevision’s immediacy also can be faulty. Reporters in the flurry of a breaking story sometimes don’t have all the facts. Remember the major networks’ embarrassment on election night 2000?

The twenty-four-hour news cycle also creates chaos with the truth. Irish journalist Mark Little (now with Storyful) described our media perfectly in his book Zulu Time: “Yet, at the crossroads in history, the storytellers (the news media) seem to be losing their capacity to present the world in a way that makes objective sense. It is not for want of trying, but objectivity can be hard to maintain when everything is live and personal, intimate and shocking. As for the audience, the perpetual drip-feed of instant news has delivered so much pain and suffering that our senses have been dulled. The more detached we become, the more the storytellers are forced to act like a classroom of hysterical children, competing for a moment of attention.”

In my book, I detail the many biases local TV news contains. There’s the entertainment bias. Trust me, if I had to report on Lindsay Lohan and her legal and drug battles one more time, I might have lapsed into sarcasm on air. There is also the sponsor bias. Stations will cater news to a company that is paying big bucks to be mentioned in a segment. The sports bias is getting bigger as TV news tries to out-perform ESPN on a local level. And then there is the woman bias, producing stories for the female audience that makes the economic decisions in a household.  One bias local TV news can’t be accused of is the left-right bias; they either don’t cover politics closely or they make sure all candidates get their time on air.

I am not knocking them. This is the reality of making money in the media world.

As a result of this, TV news is lousy at delivering complex news. Nuance is not a word mentioned on TV. It’s usually black and white; bad versus evil; liberal versus conservative. It’s easier. Trying to explain the reasons for the financial crisis is not going to be TV news’ forte.

The only national news show that, I think, does it well is the PBS News Hour.

I can hear the groans now. Some of you will say it is a liberal government run operation. Nonsense. There are qualified journalists there. And, as I have told you before, use your personal filter of the news as you watch it or any newscast.

Others will say it is boring. Getting to the heart of an issue with in-depth interviews might be tedious for some of us. Here’s what I do. I record the News Hour each day and buzz through what I don’t need to see.

Please note: If you want to watch cable TV news, it’s your choice. But to be fully informed, you need to watch two hours — one of Fox News and one of MSNBC — to get a grasp of reality or truth. I am giving you a more efficient way of watching TV news — that will also make you a safer citizen.

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