Weathering a Blizzard of News Media Bravado

by WALTER BRASCH

Ginger Zee is an ABC News weather person. She’s 32 years old, has a B.S. in meteorology, and says even in high school she wanted to be a TV network weatherperson. Not a scientist in a lab studying and analyzing weather, but a TV weather person. For more than a decade, she worked local and regional markets, mostly in Michigan and Chicago.

Her other qualifications are that she is photogenic, has a somewhat bubbly personality, wears a size 4 dress, weighs 125 pounds, and was her high school homecoming queen. If she wasn’t on TV, she says she’d have loved to be a bartender.

It’s entirely possible she’s competent. But, it’s also possible that TV execs bypassed thousands of other competent meteorologists to find someone who knows weather-and looks good on camera. For meeting those qualifications, ABC-TV gives her significant air time. She is the weather person for the weekend editions of “Good Morning America.” If there’s a snow storm, blizzard, or heavy rain, you can see her-or any of a few dozen other TV personalities-male and female-on air, under an umbrella or in a parka, trying not to freeze any of their six-figure salary assets. It’s a good visual, as they say in TV.

It’s also bad journalism.

There is absolutely no need to put someone onto a deserted street with a hill of snow and wind to tell us there is a hill of snow and wind, and to stay off the roads.

First, it’s just not the weather person who may be in danger. On local news, there’s usually an all-purpose staff person who combines driving the SUV or van with responsibilities as a sound and video technician and who endures the same conditions as the weather person. On network TV, there may be a mini-crew of four others to get the picture on air. We don’t see them, and none make anywhere close to the salaries of the on-air talent. But they’re the ones driving, setting up the equipment, coordinating with the studio, and making sure the live performance during a blizzard appears to be not only as dangerous as it looks, but that the weather person also looks good.

Second, technology has given us the ability to station remote cameras. The weather person could stay indoors, among computers, telephones, charts, and maps and tell us the same thing-without being the only ones dumb enough to be blown into a snow bank.

We understand why local news gives us this visual, and leads off almost every non-prime time newscast with a weather report and usually erroneous predictions. But, now network TV not only gives us the same thing, it also leads off the evening news with same information we get from local news. Last weekend, Ginger Zee and weather people from the news networks were bundled up somewhere in New England, facing the cameras and wind gusts of 75 miles per hour. Some weather people were in Times Square showing us that the “crossroads of the world” was pedestrian free because of the blizzard. They had the easier job-there was less snow, less wind, and Times Square was a limousine ride from the network studios.

Newspapers aren’t immune from the “bravado syndrome.” Editors sitting in windowless offices have no hesitation in sending out eager photographers, salivating at getting that one great weather shot, even if it’s of their company car being stuck in a snow bank after sliding off an icy road.

To “humanize” the story-high-paid news consultants like to throw around the concept of “humanizing a story”-some of the reporters had to find people stuck in the snow. There were many to choose from. But, the questions asked were along the lines of, “So, how did you get into this situation?” “How do you feel about this storm?” and “What do you plan to do?”

There wasn’t much reporting in New Jersey. The “Garden State” was snowed under, but didn’t get hit as bad as New England, which saw two feet of snow and 75 miles an hours wind gusts. But, there were stories there, which didn’t receive heavy coverage and didn’t threaten the news crews’ physical safety. New Jersey has begun to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Could someone have checked to see what the blizzard did to the people and their properties in those shore areas that were once flooded, and now snowed-in and likely to endure even more water damage if temperatures increased and the snow melted before it could be shoveled and trucked from residential and commercial areas?

Getting “the story” is good journalism. Risking your safety and health, and possibly putting others at risk for a weather story, isn’t.

[Walter Brasch has been a journalist more than three decades. He acknowledges while much younger, he thought nothing about rushing into danger. Now that he’s matured, he looks back and thinks that some of his bravado was just plain dumb. Dr. Brasch’s latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth analysis of the health and environmental problems associated with natural gas drilling, and an investigation of the relationship between the energy industry and politicians. It’s available through amazon.com or www.greeleyandstone.com, and local bookstores.]

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Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D.

The Fluff Factor: Today’s Journalism

by WALTER BRASCH

Will someone please buy gags for Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford?

It makes no difference what the color is.

Plain or polka-dotted.

Painted or sequined.

Scented silk, Egyptian cotton, or an auto mechanic’s oil-soaked rag.

Just as long as it can be stuffed into their mouths.

When their mouths are open, the personality-drenched hosts of NBC’s fourth hour of “Today” are swilling cocktails, blathering about themselves, or interrupting their guests.

It makes no difference who the guest is. Cookbook or romance author. Relationships or nutrition expert. A-list actors. No one gets more than a couple of seconds without cross-talk with one or both of the hosts. They may think it’s funny. Or, maybe, like authors who are sometimes paid by word, or doctors who are given bonuses for scheduling myriad lab tests, these babblers have to justify their seven-figure annual incomes by the jabber rate of words per minute. It may be time for NBC to move all four hours of the “Today” show from the news division into the entertainment division.

Almost as bad as the GabFest at 10 a.m. is what has happened to news shows. At one time, news anchors, assisted by newswriters and producers, went into the field, got the news, wrote it, edited it, and then broadcast it. They sat in anchor chairs because they were excellent journalists. But broadcast journalism-and those two words should seldom be put next to each other in the same sentence-with a few network and regional exemptions devolved into yet another mess of Reality TV.

The co-hosts, known as anchors, are usually a tandem of a wise middle-aged older man and his pretend trophy wife, both of whom spend more time in Make-up and Hair Dressing than they ever spent in journalism classes. Their reporters and correspondents may have studied journalism in college, but their interests were undoubtedly more focused upon voice quality, delivery, and personality than source building, probing, and fact checking.

On air, the anchors open with something serious. A fire. A mugging. A supermarket opening, reported by freshly-scrubbed 20-ish field reporters and recorded by videographers with digital cameras and almost no knowledge of what video is. In all fairness, it’s hard to know what videotape is when your best friend is an iPad.

If a story doesn’t have a “visual,” it probably won’t air. That’s one of the reasons why stories about the foolishness of state legislatures aren’t broadcast. The other reason may be that Public Affairs Journalism isn’t usually a required course for college students majoring in Broadcast Journalism. By the end of the first news block, the co-hosts lighten up. Coming back from commercials-there are eight minutes of them in a 30-minute news cast-the co-hosts may have more news or a script that directs them to “throw it to Weather.”

For four or five minutes, a college-educated meteorologist or a “weather girl”-on some stations it makes no difference-using the latest visual technology tells us the highs, lows, barometric pressure, storm fronts, and the history of weather.

One of the responsibilities of the weather people is to make sure they get names into the broadcast, probably because some overpriced media consultant told them to do so. A simple sentence like, “It was in the mid-80s throughout our region” is replaced by telling us it was 84 degrees in Snowshoe Falls, 85 degrees in Dry Gulf Junction, and 84 in East Swamphole. To make sure our bodies can tolerate the whimsies of Mother Nature, weathercasters predict what will happen a week away, usually with about the same success as a drunk with the Racing Form.

Time for more commercials.

At least twice, the anchors “tease” the viewers with some celebrity scandal they will tell us all about if we just keep watching until the end of the show.

Next up is about four or five minutes of Sports. The latest fad in sports reporting is to be a part of the story. So, we see sportscasters doing push-ups with the football team, learning how to shoot an arrow, or reporting from inside a race car. Apparently, they believe that gives them credibility, something they probably learned from anchors’ ride-along on fire trucks and Blue Angels flights.

By the end of the newscast, the co-hosts, weather people, sportscasters, and field reporters have turned the news into the Happy Time Half-Hour Aren’t We Wonderful Show. They wasted our time chatting informally among themselves, tossing one-liners they think are cute and might get them work in a Comedy Club-as a cook. Take away the Happy Talk, tighten up their reporting-how many times do we need to hear that a “community is in shock” about a fire, death, or that the fireman’s carnival had to be cancelled-and the 22 minute news show might be only 15.

At the National Conference for Media Reform four years ago, Dan Rather-who for more than a half-century has been everything a news journalist should be-explains what has contributed to the decline not just TV news but all journalism as well: “Media consolidation, the corporate news environment, ‘message discipline,’ media cowardice, news-for-profit, celebrity fluff, ‘so-called human interest stories,’ sensational trials, gossip, ‘news you can use,’ [and] partisan shouting matches.”  

There are a few journalistic highlights, like “60 Minutes” and Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” which he modestly calls fake news, but which makes far more sense than anything else permeating the airwaves. Nevertheless, most news operations-local, regional, broadcast or cable-have been compromised by exactly what Dan Rather said.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to join Hoda and Kathie Lee and drink our way through what passes as the news.

[Walter Brasch proudly calls himself a journalist, and has been for more than 40 years, in radio, TV, newspapers, and magazines. He was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Before the First Snow, which looks at the establishment and alternative media, as well as the public relations industry.]

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Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D.

Latest Book: Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution

(www.greeleyandstone.com)

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