Friday, May 20, 2005

TV’s Innate Bias

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a video worth? It’s negotiable, but you get a good one, it’s virtually priceless.

The only thing that TV news likes better than a good story is a good video. They kind of work like those goofy video websites you can visit if you have a lot of time, a short attention span, and nothing better to do than watch teenagers with bulletproof ambition, irresponsible friends, surprisingly dangerous props and a cheap camera.

TV is a visual medium, and as committed as a news room may be to reporting important news, if a story can be told with shocking video, the content of that story leapfrogs less fortunate (if considerably more pressing) news in the queue, in an effort to entertain. A bad story with great video is infinitely better than a good story without it. Leave the real news to print media and pounce on that medium's deficiencies. If they break a good story, tell it tomorrow, but make sure you can show it. Therein lies the innate bias of TV news.

Police brutality without video is an allegation. The victims, the evidence and the crime, are the same whether you see the video or not. What ultimately makes the investigation hot is the coverage, but without the video--and only if that video is given to the news organization—what’s the point in covering it? It’s a terrible reality that Rodney King’s (and subsequently Reginald Denny’s) stories were only worthy of coverage because they were blessed to have a third party capture their misfortune on video and spread it around. Had Rodney King taken his story to TV news without the video, would anyone have been entertained? If nobody was to be entertained, would anyone care?

What the news reports is what its viewers regard as important issues, and the manner in which they are reported, in terms of both time allotment and sequence, communicates the significance of the stories. However, if news teams pander to spectacle, they lead their audience to believe that the news they expect to be less entertaining is equally less important.

So forget about breaking news, let’s exploit this system! Let’s accept this insatiable need for video and work it to our advantage. Say someone’s moving into the White House--not a good story by anyone’s judgment, but it can't hurt the resident-- we can get it covered by calling in camera crews to view that person picking up a table and offering a sound byte to talk about it. Move over relevant local story, we’ve got video of someone important, doing something normal! Say American soldiers are at war, killing people and driving into makeshift explosives. We can mention it in passing, but if we can show the explosions, muzzle flair, and warn viewers about graphic content, now we’ve got something significant. Want to make a policy media friendly? Just do the whole package, have the publicist hire a reporter, cut your own video together and make something compelling to establish it as a news piece without the media even getting involved.

It’s sad when the power of stories reported don’t influence their place in the media’s agenda as effectively as available video footage that stroke the news team’s own desire to be flashy and entertaining.