Is there a significant disconnect between TV and print journalism...

Especially when it comes to community activism?

I admit up front, this may be more of a small-town vs. big city phenomenon than a difference between the two media, but maybe not. That’s what I’m trying to explore here.

The question is spurred by a morning news broadcast which included a plea to call the Red Cross and donate money to a fund helping to clean up from a recent flood. This wasn’t merely reporting the flood and a way to help, but specifically, “We’re asking our viewers all day to call the Red Cross…” Being primarily exposed to the workings of print, this mixing of a specific editorial call to action and supposed journalistic reporting I’ve taken to be a no-no. The anchor just said, “Hopefully we can raise a few funds for those folks who desperately need it.”

I’ve noticed this in other stories as well, not to mention sports. A lot of times, it’ll even be a throwaway comment at the end of a story, “Well, we certainly hope they’re all doing ok now…” or even, “Boy, that looks like fun.” It’s not just with this station, of course…I’ve noticed similar things on most local TV news broadcasts.

Is this an actual difference in journalistic ethics? Is it just an adaptation of the newspaper’s editorial page into a different medium?

Is it really a difference in media at all? A lot of small-town newspapers are often…let’s say more lax in journalistic standards, and do some of the same things I mentioned I saw my TV station doing. It does appear to me that of a comparable size, newspapers set a higher standard than news stations – this TV station and a newspaper I often read are in the same town and serve similar areas (the TV station covers a bit wider area), and the newspaper seems to do a better job.

So, do others recognize this as well, or is it a pro-newspaper bias on my part? Is it an actual difference in the media or not? And, most importantly – if it exists, does it matter?

In the UK it’s slightly different: the publically-funded TV media are supposed to be dispassionate (the BBC charter specifically aims for this), though the satellite news isn’t so bound, while even our mainstream broadsheet papers tend to jump on causes. That said, one can never vouch for the behaviour of the individual newsreaders.

I am reminded of the time when a buddy of mine, J______, a newsreader (now a senior anchor on a satellite channel in the UK, so I won’t identify him), ended up saying something really weird, live on TV.

It was that time where someone had put a hidden camera behind a two-way mirror in a gym, and sold pictures of Princess Di working out in her leotard, to the tabloids.

As I watched the report, it switched back to the studio, and my friend looked into the camera and said: “Well, looks like it’s back to the Ten Commandments, then!” and the news ended.

I called him a few days later and said “what the fuck was that all about?” (not only is he an atheist, but I don’t recall a specific commandment about not taking sneak photos of princesses spreading their legs).

He told me that the program had been running thirty seconds short, so as the VT ran, the producer explained this to the anchors, and the female anchor said “I’ll fill in!” When the VT finished, she smiled at the camera, turned to my buddy, and said “J______” - so they cut to him, and he, totally unprepared, blurted out the first thing that came into his head. Great on-air revenge.

Your argument is fatally flawed in that you’re assuming there is a “pure” standard of journalism, always has been, and that it is the sole provenance of print media.

If you remember your journalism history class, the concepts of objectivity and the newspaper as defender of truth are less than a century old. Before that, yellow journalism was common, and some papers resorted to outright smears of people and groups they considered enemies. Last year, I sat in on a presentation of a study of Chinese railroad workers in northern California. The results weren’t pretty; the local paper resorted to outright xenophobia in its descriptions of local Chinese that they didn’t use with whites who were doing essentially the same things.

On the other hand, broadcasting has had the same high standards you ascribe solely to print. Listen to some old news broadcasts sometime. They’re just as high-quality as anything a newspaper printed, and there are plenty of TV and radio stations that take their journalistic mission seriously; the anchors may be “bubbleheaded bleach-blondes” but their reporters are usually pretty good.

Local media (this includes all but the biggest papers and national networks, BTW) are expected to be civic boosters; part of the traditional role of media is to serve the community. Newspapers are just as guilty of the same behavior you ascribe to TV, it’s just that TV seems different because the anchor puts everything into “I” statements. Radio and TV are, by definition, personal media; it would be unnatural for an anchor or reporter to use anything but first-person language.

Experiment: In your local paper, look for the sidebars “informing” readers about the fund set up for Susie May Johnson’s care after that tragic accident. The paper may not say “We urge you to donate,” but the appearance of that information would be sufficient endorsement, don’t you think?