ALTHOUGH I AM typically not much of a television watcher, because I live in Florida I spent a fair amount of last weekend glued to CNN. Like most everyone reading this, I was following Hurricane Irma’s path (which ultimately didn’t lead her close to my north-west portion of the state).
I came away reminded of the little girl with the little curl right in the middle of her forehead. You may recall from the nursery rhyme that when she was good, she was very very good. And when she was bad, she was horrid.
Such is the case with television news, as epitomized by CNN’s wall-to-wall Irma coverage.
First the good. I’m grateful for the many journalists and their crews who worked long hours in extremely difficult conditions to attempt to keep people informed—and safe. When it’s done well, television news has an immediacy and impact for good that is almost unparalleled.
But much of that work is done within a context which, to me, is simply fundamentally flawed—like trying to watch a sunset through tinted sunglasses. You’ll see, but not as it really is.
The problem was epitomized in CNN’s Irma coverage by the endless live shots of reporters standing in the middle of a gale, trying to make themselves heard above the wind and rain. It’s a time-worn tradition of television storm coverage, which prompted its own New York Times article this week.
Some defend the practice on the grounds that it’s demonstrating to others how dangerous it is to be out and about, and might encourage viewers to stay indoors. Maybe there’s some truth to that, but let’s not kid ourselves—mostly they’re out there because of the medium’s demand for an exciting image.
Why not have someone reporting from a safe and dry studio? (Where, incidentally, they likely have access to more information and so know more of what’s going on than someone standing on a street corner somewhere.) Because it doesn’t look as good.
As I’ve noted before, it’s no accident that television news producers call great footage “sexy,” regardless of its content. When visuals drive coverage you’ve got the lure of object over subject, and entertainment over education.
I’m not suggesting everyone stops watching television news—though it might not hurt to ration yourself next time there’s a breaking crisis. You can catch the important updates of what has developed by tuning in every couple of hours; all the stuff in between is filler, a lot of it more speculation than fact.
We do need to watch more actively though, rather than just letting it wash over us. Consider:
Size and sound: When you read a newspaper or online, you get an idea of how important something is considered to be by its placement: front- or top-of-the-page headlines or inside-back- or scroll-down-the-page footnote? On television, it’s all the same size and volume; everything gets “flattened out” to the same scale and (in)significance. There is no way to distinguish between what matters more and less.
Sequence and standpoint: Don’t think because you are seeing it with your own eyes it’s necessarily more trustworthy than something you just read. Typically a brief television news item contains less words (and information) than a standard newspaper report. The visual clips are short and come with no context; what happened before or afterwards? And don’t forget the angle of the shot shapes how you interpret it.
The camera can lie—as the classic episode of the storm reporter in a canoe reminds us.
As I have observed before, what you see is what you get, but just because you see it does not mean that you really get it.