It’s no secret TV news is “finding itself” right now. There’s a lot of experimentation. A lot of questioning and a lot of talk of “speaking at the key demo’s level.” We see this play out in the clip that’s gone viral from WTOL, that was meant for school kids only. 

Outlets across the nation, initially took this as either a real newscast clip hor a web piece for a general audience. Then they started backtracking and letting people know it was not for a general audience in any way. Just check out the updated mentions at the end of most articles. You can see where they changed their copy to say it was not actually broadcast for news viewers. Heck, I even shook my head and wondered for a minute. Why did any of the journalists that reported on this actually believe it could have aired in a regular morning time slot at all? 

Well, there is a news set. There are also news anchors and news graphics. All of that is evidence of TV news production. But a great many of the journalists who initially covered it did not stop and think of context. They did not, I believe, because TV news has lost context for the majority of people, especially fellow journalists. It just seemed like the latest wacky attempt to try and get younger viewers to watch.

In actuality, it was a video WTOL’s morning team produced to give kids a boost during standardized testing. That was the intended audience. Kids. Not a general TV news audience. Kids who needed a pep talk. It was never meant to be widely viewed outside of that one, small, specific group.

There is another reason this was widely considered to be an actual news clip: You could click and watch the video and it was published on Facebook Live like a lot of actual “news content.” Yes, the station put this up on it’s Facebook page. A place where you can get news for the general public. This gets into some very deep questions for journalists today. What does it take for a clip to be “real news.” Some critics are standing behind their stance that this really was a ridiculous stunt which will impact the anchors credibility long term. That’s because you can easily watch it any time. It was published in a place where actual content meant to be considered news coverage is placed as well. Once something can be easily accessed, the insinuation these days is that this is “real journalism.” To the masses this became an actual news clip, even though it never was on the air. For many a digital element, combined with video, equates to truth. And watching is the only context they need. Intention apparently means nothing.

Intention means understanding the point. It means understanding facts revealed in the clip. It means understanding why certain words were used, why this was put together in the first place. Understanding intention and context means stopping, considering facts and if anything seems off, asking why? And, at that point, it also means getting clarification and doing some fact checking.

WTOL had to publish its own explanation of why in defense of critical articles. hA lot of journalists rushed to judgement and worked to get an article up on how ridiculous this was as fast as they could do it. Consider that for a moment. This was a story about fellow journalists and journalism. That is the very thing the writers of many of the articles do every day. Journalists should truly understand techniques well enough to quickly determine this had to be for something other than general news, even if it was on Facebook. If they do not, how can we expect the audience to understand it? And the station should have sent the clip to the district in a way that ensured only the schools would have access. This incident further shows that stations are unclear what the purpose of their digital imprint can be to credibility. Frankly it impacts more than your daily on air product. The simple reason why? We can keep watching this clip a week/month/year later.

Too harsh you say? How is audience retention going at your station? 

The fact this clip went viral and the reasons why must be addressed in the TV news industry. This must be addressed in journalism programs. And these harsh realities must be realized and fixed now.
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  1. Showcasing that gets so out of hand, it alienates and frankly insults viewers
  2. Stations talk at the viewer instead of with the viewer
  3. Facts which appear as afterthoughts to many viewers

I have a front row view of how broadcasting groups nationwide are attempting to retain audience and get those highly desired digital customers. I hear all about it, constantly.  Media groups’ plans all have one thing in common: Emphasizing the packaging more than the substance. Hey, I love showcasing. I love the bells and whistles. But showcasing needs to have a point. If you wrap a day old, smelly, sandwich in pretty paper and tie a bow on it, it still is a day old, smelly, sandwich! And viewers have a much keener sense of smell than you think. They do not appreciate you thinking they are dumb enough to fall for your packaging alone. They want you to actually do the hard work. They want you to dig up the information. They want you to check the truth in those statements, list the facts and keep it fresh with legitimately new information.

Speaking with viewers means showing the respect to provide substance and not parroting back catch phrases or lingo you think makes you seem cool. Appearances are not enough. You have to actually be in the know. And viewers, even middle schoolers who love the word “yeet”, are smart enough to understand if you are talking at them and not with them. Getting “real” means being vulnerable. And in news that means knowing enough about the story you are presenting, that you can truly boil it down then be brave enough to take questions and provide answers. In real time.

The dream audience that seems so unattainable to so many has an easy request for you: Give me real facts. Give me real substance. Trust me enough to show you believe I can understand your stories without dumbing it down and putting pretty banners and animations all over it. Have cool vids to share? By all means, put it up on the B.A.M. and talk about it. Viewers appreciate that. But follow up with the harder information. Why did this happen? How did this happen? What’s next? Those answers usually involve understanding the community, having sources and being able to look for patterns and clues.

Enough focusing almost solely on the cute clothes and pretty new sets, B.A.M.’s and new text lingo graphics. Show off your brains more than your braun. Get real. Really real! Ask the tough questions. List facts. Talk about how they are verified. And speaking of verifying: Fact check more than the latest cheesy trending topic. If you want to really be groundbreaking in the industry then hire researchers to help your MMJ’s look up information, fill out FOI requests and dig up real ground breaking stories.

And next time you want to talk with kids who are burned out on testing, to help a district get real with the students, speak with the kids. Not at them. Do something like this: “Another big test day coming up. You might be getting nervous. But you have a right to prove what you know and show what you still need to learn. This is a way your teachers and the community can see how to best support you. So be brave and go for it. We believe in you and want you to have everything you need.”

Sure beats showing you can use the word “yeet!” Maybe then fellow journalists can more easily discern the intention of the piece. Because it will make sense. It has clear context. And it shows respect to the viewers. This is something a lot of seasoned journalists seem convinced just doesn’t happen much anymore.

Expect more than gimmicks. Expect old school fact checking. Believe in Journalism instead of lingo and flashy graphics. Then clips like the WTOL school test will clearly be for something other than “real news.” 

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