Saturday, August 15, 2009

Sound Bite Reporting


“Sound bite reporting,” that’s what I call it. Some might also label it lazy reporting. Reporters go to an event, wait for somebody to say some inflammatory or provocative, scribble it down, and build a short story around it. It is superficial, but it helps to fill the news hole. Producers and editors are happy. Everyone is happy. Everyone goes home, only to return to the scene of the crime again the next day.

On MSNBC’s “Hard Ball” of all places, I listened while analysts and others beat themselves up about not doing a better job in reporting former governor and VP candidate John Edwards and his dalliance during the past presidential campaign. More details are now emerging. The reporters and analysts took the easy road then. I remember one network commentator blurting, “Could this be the ticket?” when Edwards withdrew and endorsed Barack Obama.

Well, national and , yes, local reporters and news managers might as well start the self-flagellation now for under coverage and sound-bite reporting of health insurance/health care reform.

In a recent post on the importance of beat reporting, I wrote that there is only one health reporter in Austin media. Mary Ann Roser covers the health beat for the Austin American-Statesman. I have not noticed any health reform stories she may have written. Seema Mathur was an award-winning health reporter at KEYE TV (CBS). She moved to Dallas but has returned to KEYE as a freelance general assignments reporter. KEYE is currently accepting reporter applications.

The point is this: There is only one person locally covering health as a beat in Austin traditional media. No Austin news manager seems to have seen the importance of the health insurance/health care debate and assign a reporter to sort out fact from fiction while Congress considers this huge story. Page A-4 of the Saturday August 15, 2009 American-Statesman contains coverage of President Obama’s Montana town hall, written by a New York Times reporter. The story is accompanied by helpful web sites for those genuinely seeking information. This town hall was civil in spite of the fact that the audience was unscreened. Attendees to these “town hall” meetings either bellow their slogans or sit silently awaiting answers to questions—questions that are answered again and again but are unheard or misunderstood because bellowing is drowning out the answers. The media constantly covers the bellowing.

Facebook states that one of its goals is to bring people together. Then, I see this poll on my wall:
"Are you in favor of a Government run healthcare system" along with 174909 other people.
Are you in favor of a Government run healthcare system-
Yes- No- Maybe

The poll is playing to the fears of a certain population. The question before Congress is not about a “Government run healthcare system”. It is about
health insurance for all citizens who may choose to keep their current private/commercial insurance and doctor if they wish. It is about eliminating waste and fraud and creating economy through competition. Some of that competition would come from a public alternative. The public or government alternative would help the uninsured, like those who cannot get commercial insurance because of a pre-existing condition.

An explanation like that is too long to fit in a poll. So, Facebook created a biased, edgy question bound to create controversy among its “friends”. Unfortunately, the resulting conversation is similar to what one might hear at a town hall meeting on the subject. Without some “friend” risking alienation and writing a comment, the misinformation and disinformation stand unchallenged. I contacted FB regarding the question, but have received no response.

It is obvious to me that citizens/readers/viewers/users/consumers of media want information. Even if they don’t want it, they need it. One man drove almost all of the way across Montana to get answers from President Obama this past week. All of the media focused on him, of course, in the pack mentality producing sound bite reporting. The president can answer with his goals and beliefs, but the heavy lifting must be done by Congress.

The bill in Congress bulges with amendments. More amendments will be added during debate. If it makes it to the Senate, it may be amended further, resulting in reconciliation in conference committee. The bill emerging from conference committee must then be passed again by both houses. It is impossible to say exactly what reform might look like by the end of the year.

Why not assign somebody to follow this huge and important legislation every step of the way in something more than sound bites? Why not bring the bill home to the small businesses? Why not find folks with pre-existing conditions and tell their stories? Why not talk to people on Medicare, asking them whether this “government-run” insurance works for them? Why not explain the way a bill becomes law, because apparently many do not understand? Why not do all of these things rather than waiting to see how it turns out and then muttering, we should have done a better job?

© Jim McNabb, 2009


WDYC said...

The first and firmest answer you will get is not enough manpower or resources, which is absurd.
You don't have to have a story every day, and more important news need not suffer.
However, if you had a reporter and/or producer/editor assigned to that topic, specifically assigned to keeping up with subject and whose jobs are on the line if they are beaten to an angle, you could have regular, informed and worthwhile reports. You even could turn to them when the latest manufactured event falls through or if it looks as though sports will go short (snicker).

Brent said...

Good points, Jim. Worth noting is the Statesman's Corrie MacLaggan, who covers health issues at the capitol. She, along with a Statesman photographer, covered the TMA/TCMS "House Call" discussion on health care in Austin Thursday evening, which more than 200 patients attended and more viewed online. This is one of a series, and was a reasoned discussion by people of many viewpoints.

Zack Isaacs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zack Isaacs said...

I'll try this one out.

Most reporters lack the true research skills that it takes to produce a cohesive story on health care.

It's just that simple.

I still don't know which side to choose because all of the news coverage has been confusing. All I hear is soundbites of folks criticizing the government, but no real reason why. I thought reporters were supposed to do that?

But what do I know? I'm just a (25 year-old) kid. ;)

[I deleted the first comment because of a grammatical error]

Anonymous said...

Your question: Why not assign somebody to follow this huge and important legislation every step of the way in something more than sound bites?

It would be an excellent use of manpower to have factual reporting of the national health insurance issue. However, since the Obama administration has now backed off a push for such a program, the focus will shift to other ideas on the table, such as creating nonprofit cooperatives.

Up to this point, what we're getting from media on the health issue is shallow reporting, with little effort to set the record straight on the various positive and negative claims about any national health initiative.

Lisa Glass said...

I've been anxiously awaiting a really good article/segment that would explain where we are with health care/insurance reform, instead of all the yelling "good TV" pieces. I saw my first one on CBS Sunday Morning:

Anonymous said...

Please, give me a break.

It IS a manpower/resources issue. Tell me who you're going to pull to track and pull together healthcare stories of any real significance when you have a finite amount of reporters and producers, and news directors are allocating them to the typical child molester / house fire / drowning / type stories?

Who's going to sift through mounds of legislation and research these very complex issues on deadline? Can a local news operation handle that? I doubt it.

Add to this that in a town like Austin your typical TV news reporter is an inexperienced 20-something, and commercial radio news is in 30-second packages. Due to either incompatible format or frankly incompetent reporters, you can't realistically expect an issue this complicated to get any degree of decent coverage locally.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Comment:

Hey Anonymous ...

Sorry. Your priorities and understanding of news are flawed. Period.

Forget the spot news. VO or VO/Bite them unless then have wide-spread implications.

Anonymous, content is what matters. What people are talking about now (A definition of news) is health care reform.
True, the bottom-line, short-sighted stations cut loose their experienced reporters, but the young ones are bright. They must grow up fast.

Even if the issue of the day isn't health care/health insurance, these new and largely young reporters are going to have to grasp these stories at their heart. If they don't we're all hosed.

Give them freedom to use creativity and the resources and cover these stories with depth, not the usual cop car lights at night.

If the user/consumer/audience/reader sees the information they want, they will watch.

I'm sorry Anonymous, you're wrong. I've been a reporter and a manager. I've seen success.

Resources or money=reporters=content=audience=money (AKA revenue).

Look at the comments before yours if you think I'm wrong. I'm not wrong.

Love, Jim

Anonymous said...

From the first anonymous who commented on this topic:


I agree with you that Austin TV stations should shy away from spot news unless it has broad implications or unless it's horrific. But from all your years of experience in TV, you know that no Austin TV news department is going to forget spot news. They all use it; it's a handy crutch, quick video, quick package, no enterprising necessary.

I've worked with many young and experienced reporters, and I can tell you first hand that many of them are not capable of producing factual in-depth reporting on complex, local issues, much less the national health initiative.

Don't get me wrong. I don't write off young, green reporters. Young reporters need to be challenged and given opportunities to learn from their mistakes. Experience can make a world of difference for them, while the experienced reporters need to be prodded to expand their skills and knowledge and not be happy with simply looking good on TV. Experienced reporters can be the most difficult to work with at times, because some of them think they know it all, when in fact they don't. The learning curve never ends. All reporters can learn new tricks.

Frankly, no Austin TV station has the manpower to dedicate a reporter and photographer to the full-time task of covering the national health story. They each have from 7-10 reporters, with 2-3 assigned to dayside. With that kind of lean staffing, it's impossible to tie up one reporter on this important issue.

Detailed, factual-based reporting on the national health issue is one that really has to be left to networks and newspapers, which have more resources that thinly-staffed stations in Austin.

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's Note:

Agreed. These are lean times. I think I should clarify something: No, I don't think that Austin has the luxury of letting a reporter daily research health insurance and health reform.

There are days when that person should cover other news of the day.

However, some of those shories, enterprise stories, can rise from a health beat. I listed several possible ways a local reporter can find ways to cover aspects of the issue. I didn't mention others such as the VA Clinic and its use. I think, in fact, the VA is building another clinic because of the exiting clinic's popularity.

Again, I believe in a beat system, because that is where and how a good reporter can find the memorable, compelling stories of the day, but that doesn't mean that the beat reporter can't cover something else, if needed.


Anonymous said...


I share you belief that reporters should have beats, as a means of developing sources that can produce exclusives and other meaty stories.

Most TV reporters cover general assignments, creating no news expertise on any one particular beat. Even within that environment, I believe reporters can make calls to newsmakers on an assigned beat while working on a general assignment story. There's plenty of lost time while a reporter is working on a general assignment story. That lost time can be put to use. The reporter can use a cell phone to make and receive calls from newsmakers on a beat.

Some reporters will say this type of multi-tasking is not possible, but I know it is. They simply have to make efficient use of their time and maintain a list of issues they need to be checking on for developments.

I've trained reporters in multi-tasking. Every reporter who has embraced the system has become been highly successful in producing exclusives and other stories that matter to the community.

NewsMcNabb said...

Another Editor's Note:
These comments also apply to reporters regardless of their medium.

Anonymous said...


Some TV reporters forget they are supposed to be giving us news, not just personalizing their packages and throwing in some b-roll.

Let me give you an example.

Capital Metro on Wednesday released an update on its MetroRail System. The news in the update is that the rail will not run the complete route in some cases, creating a host of possible problems for some patrons depending on where they need to go.

Capital Metro report:

The Statesman’s Ben Wear understood what the “news” was and his story reflects that:

On the other hand, KXAN’s story on the Capital Metro rail update said agency officials had no start date for the rail, but failed to include the most important new development -- the rail will not run the complete route in some cases.

There are numerous people in the chain of command in a newsroom who are supposed to make sure each story covers whatever it is that's new, whatever warranted the story in the first place.

In this case, KXAN’s chain of command didn’t catch the oversight.
I have no bone to pick with KXAN. Other stations in Austin have also had the same problem with stories they have aired. However, this particular KXAN story underscores the need for news directors, assistant news directors, executive producers and line producers at all TV stations to ask this question before they put a story on the air: Are we covering what’s new in this story?

This issue may be worth a column on your part, as part of your blog.