Where in the world is she? Or does it matter?
A station loses by “hooking” viewers with taped reports that are not clearly labeled.
By Mark Lombard
Mark Lombard is research and development officer for Catholic News Service in Washington, D.C. He formerly was executive editor of The Catholic Observer, a bi-weekly published in Springfield, MA.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 8 (November 1989), p. 4.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
How far should a television station go to make its news coverage lively and entertaining?
WWLP-TV in Springfield, Mass., went to Israel, but then it didn’t take steps to make clear to viewers when it had made the trip.
As a newspaper editor who was in Israel in early 1989 when the NBC affiliate’s crew was there, I was curious about how the station would handle its coverage from one of the world’s hottest spots.
It was laudable that a news outlet in a small market provided its viewers with reports from a part of the world with which they may not be familiar. But I was shocked to discover that the tape shot on location in January was presented as live during Holy Week in late March.
Despite a silent, five-second disclaimer, at the end of the news program, that “Israel segments were pre-recorded,” the station did much to suggest that its reports were indeed live from the Middle East.
Co-anchor Beth Carroll was absent from the studio’s set when the 10-part series ran. But she figured prominently at the beginning of each day’s broadcast, being shown reporting from Israel and adding to the perception that Channel 22 was offering its viewers live film and reports.
To ensure that the audience did not miss that point, the station planned hand-offs between the anchors, with the Middle East as a backdrop. For example, Carroll takes the viewer to an ostrich farm. She throws it back to the anchor desk, saying, “I think that this would make a great pet for your sons, Dave. You would be the only one in your neighborhood.”
Co-anchor Dave Madsen laughs, almost uncontrollably, at the joke that was planned and delivered more than two months before.
Later, Carroll is reporting on the quality of wine from the Holy Land. This time she banters with Madsen and weatherman Steve Caporizzo, while complaining about a cold she has caught: “So when I lift my glass tonight for medicinal purposes, I’ll drink a toast to you.”
She never tells the viewer whether that was wine from Israel that she drank in January or that she was drinking in western Massachusetts in March.
Unless one is willing to grant Carroll the possibility that she knew she was going to become ill 10 weeks after taping the film, it is difficult to draw any other conclusion than that the station was attempting to mislead the public.
Yet, in an interview with me for this article, WWLP-TV news director Keith Silver said the technique of producing taped reports that seem to be live allows for “a greater involvement on the part of the personality, for one thing, by putting the local personality in a foreign area.”
Noting that the station has used this technique in reports it has done from Turkey and Canada, Silver said the cost of airing live from Israel was prohibitive. He termed the production “a hell of an endeavor for a small station like this.”
The ethics surrounding the use of taped material as live, Silver said, should concern only content. “If I changed the content of the story, that would be unethical. But nowhere was the content ever changed, and I think that is the bottom line,” he said.
“You’ve got to give the public pictures at the same time so that they can relate to the words . . . that you are using. And if you can do that, then the flavor is there and you can hook your audience so that they’ll enjoy it,” he added.
But what was the cost of spicing up “the flavor” of the series? What would have been lost if the station had played it straight and had Carroll at the anchor desk or let the viewer know during the broadcasts that the segments were taped two months earlier and had been saved specifically for Holy Week?
The content of the feature stories would not have changed and the station would have been honest with all of its visual and verbal clues. As an example of an inaccuracy into which WWLP-TV fell, music heard during the report from a Catholic chapel, which was appropriate when sung in January, was inappropriate and never would have been sung during Holy Week.
As well, by holding the series, the station lost an opportunity to provide timely, on-site coverage of the political and social situation that had embroiled the region. While the station reported from Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, viewers heard only the briefest of comments about the Arab uprising then 15 months old.
In this case, the technique of using taped material as live crippled a news station’s coverage, shaping what was seen and heard and what was not.