News literacy: What gets covered on TV?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017
The morning after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March on Washington drew a historically large crowd to the Washington Mall: By one scientific estimate, 470,000 people—about three times as many as turned out for the inauguration itself.

Photo: Mobilus In Mobili.
In other cities across the world, too, women turned out in historic numbers. What the Chicago march’s organizers had expected in the days leading up to that Saturday might be a crowd of 50,000 … then 75,000 … then 150,000 … turned out to be an estimated 250,000—a huge turnout that swamped downtown. It was so large that what had been planned as a march was officially demoted for logistical reasons to just a stationary rally.

The events were supposed to climax in the half-hour before noon.

I, among others, awoke that morning hoping follow the proceedings through extensive TV coverage. But I was disappointed.

Chicago TV didn’t have much—certainly compared to the near-nonstop coverage just a couple of months earlier of the parade and rally for the world-champion Chicago Cubs. The TV reports I saw were rare and brief. And then they mostly involved individual reporters simply talking about what was happening or interviewing demonstrators talking about what they’d done.

At least while the protest was on, broadcast TV did little to show the actual demonstrations.

“Biggest march on Chicago in a long time and none of the city’s broadcast or cable TV channels are covering it live. What am I missing?”

And at 12:04 p.m., just as the protest had been scheduled to reach its climax, I posted this account of my channel-surfing experience:
On Chicago TV at noon:
WBBM-Ch. 2: Vanderbilt at Florida
WMAQ-Ch. 5: English Premier League Soccer
WLS-Ch. 7: “Rock the Park: Gates of the Arctic National Park”
WGN-Ch. 9: “Country Heat Dance Workout!” (infomercial)
WTTW-Ch. 11: “Cook’s County: Badger State Favorites”
WFLD-Ch. 32: “Criminal Minds”
CLTV: Live coverage of the women’s rally in Chicago (just began)
UPDATE: At 12:12 p.m., CLTV returned to “Wonderama: Skateboards, Cartoons and Kidz Bop.”

Those two posts triggered an outpouring of close to 140 comments from fellow journalists and from friends—some of them part of the protest, some of them watching (or trying to watch) at home. (I’ve omitted their names and edited their remarks lightly for clarity.)

Some of my friends suggested I was old-fashioned to expect coverage over the air instead of online, where livestreamed coverage—including nonstop aerial camera shots—were available:

  • “Dude, everyone has it live on the damn internet.”
  • “Watching online!”
  • “Do people still watch the box? I thought ABC was a website that just did some stuff on the TV box. LOL. I dunno. Above my pay grade. But there was tons of [online] coverage that wasn’t hard to find.”
  • “There are plenty of news outlets and video streams available to the world. And, all outlets are reporting on it during regular newscasts.”
  • “This is literally the first (and I hope only) time I went to facebook for news updates & live video.”
  • “I have to say I woke up this morning looking forward to checking FB and Twitter for what the people I know on the scenes were posting. Loved it. Never turned on the tv for validation.”

Some suggested I was unrealistic to expect TV stations would sacrifice ad revenue or spend extra money on weekend staff:

  • “Channel 7’s team is in Washington covering the inauguration and also the women’s march there. Apparently, there’s no one here in town capable of doing that.”
  • “Don’t cost nuttin’ to stream it online. To break into programming? Overtime pay at union scale for producers, reporters, anchors, photographers, live truck ops, directors, floor directors, audio techs ... makegoods on any and all ads (and paid programming) that don’t run during the live coverage ... My guess? This was a purely financial decision.”
  • “Marginal ratings bump and spending money to staff a newsroom a lil more? Or take the free infomercial money and push to the web? That’s the real question suits ask on days like this.”
  • “[After a week of Inauguration coverage] I can see them saying to themselves that there is not enough reward to offset the losses.”
  • “My bet is that the local affiliates were not willing to pay overtime to bring in extra staff and reporters on the weekend for their typical skeleton crew. From a planning perspective on Friday, I don’t think anyone thought 250,000 people would show up today in January in Chicago to march. Simply remarkable.”
  • “Viewership on a Saturday morning vs the cost of such coverage does not justify it. Doesn’t make it right.”

Others said the one-sided political nature of the rally made it inappropriate for broadcast coverage, or worried that covering one rally would set a precedent stations couldn’t follow:

  • “Cover it live? Seriously? I’ve been to many left-wing protests. Often there are obscene chants … and signs such as … ‘F*ck Trump.’”
  • “There’s the issue of bias. … What happens when Black Lives Matter leads a march through downtown? What about the March for Life? How do you choose one over another?”

But some noted a contrast between the way TV news covers, for instance, bad weather and the way it covered the women’s march:

  • “When we have extreme weather, they are live ad nauseum.”
  • “So many “breaking news” stories when we get a foot of snow, but not when a quarter of a million people stage a peaceful protest? I really think if it was NOT peaceful it would have been breaking news. And that is sad.”
  • “Peaceful human rights parades aren’t news if a window’s not being busted, right? Today the people are making the news, even if media ignores so as to not offend sports and game watchers.”

And some perceived a broader business strategy in the failure to give airtime to a massive demonstration against the president:
  • “It’s not what their corporate owners want them to show.”

But several agreed with me that broadcast television was wrong to concede over-the-air audience to online media:

  • “They already have a big problem attracting younger [viewers], and they are training me (not so young any more) to not rely on them for breaking news coverage on TV. Isn’t that where the big ad $ are? Not sure how this is a good strategy for them.”
  • “Signing their own death warrant. If they don’t cover the news they will wither and die.”
  • “This is how news outlets make themselves irrelevant. All people had to do was look at their phones or talk to their friends to see a major event was being ignored.”
  • “Basically: here is my real life: One television. Antenna for local. Sling for some channels. One old PC. A broken iPhone so back to using my son’s iphone4 for short social media use/emergency. Because there is zero volume control on it. I literally cannot stream this thing. And I wanted to be able to show my kid protest in action. These are real life scenarios. They matter. This much protest globally should be on television. Period.”
  • “I’m taking care of much-needed household chores and was hoping to have this broadcasting while I was moving out and about different rooms. It is getting harder and harder to keep loving our local news organizations.”

A friend working inside one TV newsroom that day wrote to me privately, sharing an insider’s perspective:
“Off the record I think everyone underestimated how huge it would be.”

Whatever the factors in the decision-making, I left TV a dissatisfied customer that day. But I spent hours afterward combing Facebook for firsthand accounts from friends and reporters who were there.
[Originally prepared for the Center for News Literacy at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, February 2017.]

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