Why “knowing what the news is” isn’t everything
Do you know what the news is? If you are a journalist doing your job, you’re trying to find out everything you can about the big stories of the day – climate change, the pandemic, poverty, crime, terrorism, corporate corruption, pollution, stress, violence, the family, education, the ups and downs to the stock market, and so on.
It’s all so overwhelming, sometimes it seems it can’t be explained in any understandable way, particularly in a minute-thirty or two minutes. But we try the best we can to understand, and under time pressure, throw statistics and graphics and sound bites at our viewers and hope they will understand, too.
We know what the story means, or at least think we do. We are the ones who research, make the contacts, visit the scene, and do the interviews. We have made ourselves at least partially “expert” in these subjects, if we are doing our jobs properly. And because we know the news, on the big stories we have the ability to compare new developments with what has come before, with what the consequences might be, and decide if they are news or not.
Based on all those experiences, we make our editorial decision. So we know what the news is, or think we do. At least we try. But let’s look at it from the viewers’ point of view. Do they “know what the news is” too? Naturally not. It’s not their job first of all, it’s our job. But it goes further. The viewers don’t care much about what we know at all.
Your viewers work in a bank, or in a factory, or are self employed, they drive a cab or sell shoes or are doctors or lawyers or teachers or welders or architects. Their day to day life isn’t spent asking each other “do you know what the news is.” Frankly, they don’t care. They’ve got other problems. And more than a few see TV News as something that has less and less relevance in their own lives.
That’s because the constant emphasis on stories that cause a sensation, stories that are strictly ratings-driven, aren’t fooling the audience. People know when they are being sold something. Even worse are the stories that try but fail to explain big issues clearly, and end up only confusing the viewers, or leaving them with unanswered questions.
The audience wants relevant stories, well told. That means, relevant to their lives, not to the lives of the people producing and reporting the stories. The viewers want something that means something to them, personally, and they could care less that a journalist worked hard on it.
For the viewer, it’s the result that counts. That’s all. They don’t have the time or the inclination to find out as much about a news story as they can. They just want to know if they need to know. Does it affect them? If it doesn’t then they don’t care very much.
So how do we do stories on complex issues, that affect our viewers directly? Larry Brinton, of WSMV Nashville, one of the very best reporters I ever worked with, was always demanding “Do you know what the news is?” What he usually meant by that was he knew more about the subject than me. But he also meant something else: “do you know what the story is?”
The way Larry looked at it, it wasn’t about the news at all. It was all about the story. And the story was about people and the trouble people were in. His stories always began with the people who were affected by “the news.” He told how the big issues were hurting one person or a few people. Then the “news”: the statistics, the graphics, the factual information about the big issue. And at the end, he would always come back to the beginning, to his real person, the person affected by “the news.”
He didn’t start with an issue and then tell how people were affected. He always explained a big issue by telling it through the eyes of an ordinary person affected by it.
The viewers appreciated Larry’s work, and no wonder. His stories were about them, not about “the news.” Knowing “what the news is” isn’t everything. The news is about the people affected by it. Tell your stories that way, and your viewers will watch. Just remember, they don’t care about all that hard work you put into it. They only care what they see on the TV screen.