Same Source Reporting?
It is worse than I thought. Yeah, I know it is truly the “dog days of summer” when the weather forecast is the same every day, and it is entirely possible that the news is the same on every medium every day. Wednesday, August 19, 2009 was as glaring as the afternoon sun: Everyone had the same stories, just in a different order.
When each newscast is alike, I have said, it is a busy news day. When each newscast is different, there is no real news. I am amending that pronouncement: When each newscast is alike, it could be a busy news day or it could be that stations are getting their “news” from the same sources or possibly from one source.
Conspiracy theorists often complain that media are in cahoots with the government. The government, they whisper, tells the networks what to do and the networks dictate to local stations. Well, that is garbage. What seems to be happening in Austin media—perhaps not on a daily basis—is that the media are in a kind of covert collusion without even realizing it.
All media are signed up to competitors email alerts for breaking news and weather (if we ever have it again.) If station X has a story that station Y wishes it had, station Y may decide to develop it too, hoping for a slightly different twist. I am signed up to the alerts too; I see the results. More, however, on a slow news day with no alerts, news managers will troll competitor’s web sites looking to hook something that looks, tastes, smells, and feels like news. Before the Internet, news managers were simply paranoid. Reporters were exhorted to get on the phone or get on the street and find some news. Now, however, it is easier. Just browse competitors’ sites.
One site in particular seems to be the source for many stories: statesman.com. Face it. Even with the staff reductions and whatever you may think of the Austin American-Statesman’s product in print and online, the Statesman still has the biggest newsroom in town. True, there may be a dearth of enterprise stories generated by that staff too, but simply by shear numbers, they’re going to find more stories.
So, it seems that local media may look to statesman.com for story ideas more often than not. It’s easier than thinking. The second-most used method is the news release. Yes, news releases may be a valid starting point for a good news story, but they should not be copied and pasted into print or scripts. That is what I sensed was happening Wednesday—Everyone was writing from the same news release or the same source. Why? Some of the syntax was the same from medium to medium. You see, I did a content analysis of Wednesday’s coverage and then I checked around for verification of my conclusions.
The Update on the Baby in the Car —Woman saw baby alive – Apparent Source-Statesman Web on KLBJ AM, KXAN TV, KLBJ AM, and Fox 7
Sanders Shooting Case will have Private Review – Apparent Source-Statesman web site on KLBJ AM, KXAN TV, KVUE TV, and News 8.
Guaranty Bank Take-Over by Spanish Bank – Apparent Source-Statesman Web on KXAN TV and KLBJ AM.
Firefighters Union Upset about new Driving Policy – Source unknown but it was on statesman.com and KEYE TV.
Capital Metro Status – Source - News Release on KXAN TV, KVUE TV, and in the American-Statesman
Home Invasion Suspect Drawing – Source - News Release on News 8 and the Austin American-Statesman
Hammer Attack – Source - News Release on KEYE TV and in the Austin American-Statesman
Tax Free Weekend – News Release announcing a news conference in Houston which generated coverage here on KXAN TV and KVUE.
Property Taxes won’t be as high because of New Revenue – Apparent Source – News Release on KVUE TV and in the Austin American-Statesman
I may have missed some because I am watching several TVs at once and double-checking on media web sites. News managers may protest saying, we dug-up that story too. KEYE TV and most other media always verify information independently. But as mentioned above, the stories are often almost identical as though they were written from the same source.
Certainly, each medium had other stories too. I was excited to see what looked like a local story on health care reform on KVUE TV. Unfortunately, it was the work of a Houston reporter working for the Belo station there. It does, however, prove that it is possible to do a local story about health care reform, the subject on most minds right now.
Be warned. Expect the same sort of sameness tonight and tomorrow on the air, online, and in print. There was a fatal drive-by shooting and a fatality wreck with a driver going the wrong way. The common source for those stories is a pager creating a direct link between the police and the media. Of course, all stations also cover breaking news the old fashioned way after hearing things on the scanner radios, monitoring traffic from police, fire, EMS, sheriff and others.
No one in the media wants to “miss a story”, and all strive to cover “the news of the day” with their sometimes limited resources. The root cause may be the lack of reporters and photographers. The stress of covering so-called run-of-the-mill stories led several stations to pool video. Obviously, that may lead to seeing the same stories on all TV stations. Notably, News 8 opted out of that collusion.
It just makes me sad that we see so few “enterprise” stories any more, stories generated by creative and driven reporters like Matt Flener at KXAN. Nanci Wilson at KXAN TV now will always have stories no one else has. Her old station, KEYE strives for strong content. News 8 will also mine for gold. KVUE is steady as she goes, and still #1.
The audience—the users, consumers, viewers, listeners, and readers of information—should do a little of what I did with yesterday’s news. Watch one channel at 5 p.m. and a different one at 6 O’clock. Check out News 8 during the day. Surf their sites. See who is delivering. Those who are not delivering should get a message through ratings or direct feedback.
© Jim McNabb, 2009