Got a breaking story? Talk to Accounting

By Jeff Ryan

The legitimization of citizen journalists

How often do we hear the term “breaking news”? Constantly, right? The truth is… there is no real breaking news these days. Stories are sold to us as” breaking news” for the purpose of keeping us glued to the tube.

Ratings, ratings, ratings…it’s all about ratings. That’s no secret. But the extent of the dissolution of broadcast news is the dirty little secret the networks don’t want you to know. If you did, their ratings might slide. But the truth is today, the cost of delivering a story overrides even ratings value. I learned this while talking with a journalist from a major network’s Asia bureau. This journalist’s description of how a story makes it to broadcast was a little shocking, even to one who has witnessed the demise of print journalism.

How it was versus how it is…from the mouth of this reporter, who spoke to me only on the condition that I’d promise anonymity

This person has been with the network for over 20 years and has watched the Asia bureau shrink from a staff of over 60 in the 80’s to six today. When the student uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989 erupted, no less than eight crews with five people per crew per network filmed the events to make sure they “got” the story! It was cloak and dagger back then. Sending multiple crews to cover a story was the norm. Camera equipment was given its own plane seat and hotel room. Crews secretly filmed and smuggled tape to London to make the broadcast. Getting the story was everything, and cost of covering the story was not a consideration. It was the kind of stuff that would have made Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite proud.

Today Murrow and Cronkite must be cursing accounting from their graves. We are fed entertainment masquerading as “news”. An important international story like the Tiananmen Square story would likely go uncovered, and here’s why: Broadcast networks, no less than the major newspapers like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, have closed or consolidated foreign bureaus. But, that’s not the primary reason. Today journalists must “sell” the story to the network, and I don’t mean just selling the story to the managing producer. Today accounting is heavily involved in the process of which stories get reported.

For the purpose of preserving my sources’ anonymity, I will provide my own version of the process as it was described to me. The following scenario, I’ve been reassured, is true for all networks. But first, a little education how the inner workings of broadcast news organizations operate today:

These days a foreign correspondent must submit a minimum of three stories to cover the “one” story they really want to report, and they must pitch the stories to different shows on the network in hopes of their being bought. There’s no one budget for news. If NBC Nightly News, which has its own budget for news, doesn’t pick up the stories maybe the Today show, with its budget, will.

So let’s suppose you have an important breaking story that should be reported — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comment reported in the Wikileaks documents (“How am I supposed to put pressure on our banker (referring to China)?” To justify the cost of sending a crew, you need to pitch two other story ideas to the network –say, a story on China’s high-speed rail system and another on the aftermath of the earthquakes a couple of years ago. All three stories must be accepted to justify the cost of sending the crew to the region. But by the time the stories are pitched to the editors and scrutinized by accounting and actually bought by a show, the story is no longer “breaking”… it’s yesterday’s news.

That is the shocking reality of news reporting today. News stories are actually bought and sold to various shows within each network. Therefore, important breaking news just doesn’t get reported unless it’s convenient from an accounting point of view (i.e., the crew is already in place).

This explains the rise of the citizen journalist and blogger and their legitimization by the networks. It is through citizen journalists that the networks now get breaking news. The budget just isn’t there anymore to support a real news team.

3 Comment

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    10 Feb 2011 |

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