Local television news will show a lot, but tell you little about a tornado

Do ever feel like you know less about what’s happening in your community after watching television for a few minutes. That happened to me when I was watching the local news stations, WWLP, WGGB, and CBS3, about the tornado that ripped through Western Massachusetts.

It’s often true, we do know less, or at least no more, after watching much of television news. The exceptions are rare, when television news reporters give relevant, useful information to the local community in the aftermath of natural disaster. After the tornado in Springfield and surrounding towns, 90% of the television news was pure bullshit.

This happens because images — photos or video — often can’t tell us what we need to know (I didn’t say what we want to know), like: how my neighbors and neighborhood is, who’s hurt, where are people gathering in the aftermath, or who do I contact if I’m hurt. An image can’t give you any of that information. A person does. Of course a person can talk over images (called a “voice-over”), and the Springfield news stations did a lot of that, to useless effect. Mostly. There’s a problem with voice-overs: if you don’t have information to tell your viewers, the segment turns into “oh, look at that roof! Look at that tree! Oh, that car was flipped over!” It’s kind of like watching auto racing for the car crashes.

The difference maker

There was one exception to the typical television news coverage in Springfield, a report done by Bill Shields on WSBK TV-38 during their 9pm news. It was an exceptional report for a number of reasons. He was on the phone without video speaking to the news anchor back in the Boston studio. Shields was reporting, using only his voice, on things he experienced. The segment lasted about 5 minutes, which is long. Most local news segments don’t stretch longer than 90 seconds. His reporting was gripping: he described both details and the big picture, he was personal, and he put his witness into a context of 30 years of news reporting in New England. Thirty years?! How come Bill Shields hasn’t been laid off yet?

What’s to be done about our crappy news?

Not to be a pessimist, but not much can be done. There are too many obstacles to making change, most of them economic. For local television stations the number one profit center is their news broadcast. They’ll never take a chance on improving the news product if it means possibly disturbing the bottom line. In fact, despite the well meaning and sometimes dedicated news folks, the television news has turned into entertainment. Mostly, it’s the amusement hour.

If you’re interested in a aftermath video, here’s a good 3 minutes a guy shot on the way to work.

Photo by Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection and republished here under a Creative Commons license.