"Editor: a person employed by a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed."
- Edith Hubbard
It was rather grim at 6:03 p.m. Sunday night as my sister and I watched the Channel 3 dinnertime news. The lead story about a collision was followed by two more collision stories, including a sailboat accident in Vancouver. Flipping to the CBC, I caught a story about the homeless sit-in at a Toronto park (whose organizers Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman called "thugs," but that's another piece). My sister and I looked at each other, silent, until she said, "This is really depressing."
But you know what? I'll take it.
I will gratefully take car accidents and protests and higher taxes and looming teachers' strikes over the alternative: the insufferable human interest stories news programmers seem to think constitute real news nowadays. News item: the millennium is not hard news. Neither is anything involving animals. Solar eclipse? Quasi-news. Gulf War? Yes. President Clinton's new dog? No.
One evening, I saw a Calgary 7 news update-essentially a trailer for the 11:00 p.m. news. It turned out that Lucy, a golden retriever puppy, got stuck down a sewer, and her "dramatic rescue" was considered important enough to report and televise. The update was repeated every half-hour, and as the evening progressed, I became increasingly upset.
A dog rescue is not real news. It's gossip. It's something my next door neighbor would tell me if it was the good old days and people still gossiped with their neighbors over the fence. There are no global, national, or even civic repercussions to these types of stories. I will not be more informed or in a better position to make a decision after watching them. It does not broaden my knowledge or understanding of the world. To watch would be a complete waste of time. Yet why do news programmers insist on putting them in the first ten minutes of news?
Do programmers want to hook people with fluff so they'll watch the other, real news? It won't work; people who watch fluff will most likely click back to Biography when the story's over. Why would someone interested in a dog rescue want to hear about the Premiers' conference in Québec?
Or do programmers aim for a broader audience to get higher ratings? In larger markets like Toronto and Vancouver, ratings are monitored by the minute (so every click of the remote registers) but in Calgary, which is a smaller marker, a diary system is used. Viewers record which channel they watched the most after an evening of viewing. So even if they watched two channels equally, they write down they one that first comes to mind, the one they remember the most.
So would human interest stories lead to more memorable and therefore higher ratings? Well, I must admit that it worked for me. A year later, I still remember Lucy, though not for reasons Calgary 7 may appreciate.
There is also the demographics argument. According to the friendly news programmer I spoke to, people 48 years old or older watch the six o'clock news five to seven times a week. They comprise the majority of the audience, and expect some "good news" stories. People 2534 watch two to three times a week, and 18 to 25 year olds only watch once or twice a week. Obviously, I do not fall into the dominant demographic, which may be why I get so miffed when I watch the news.
Still, appealing to the demographic is not an excuse for Lucy the dog. As morbid as it may sound, one day, that 48+ demographic will no longer be watching the news, and all that's left will be a viewership notorious for the cynicism that pervaded its younger years. I'm sure they'd love to watch a story about the heroic firefighter who rescued Mrs. Parker's cat from the tree. But of course, by the time the above scenario is conceivable, we'll all be watching virtual anchors report the news from our computer screen anyway. (And I'll be complaining about the virtual fluff. Does the rescue of a robotic dog from acid rain really constitute real news?)
Stop the fluff. Please. Shorten the newscasts to half an hour, if you must, but stop broadcasting stories that make me ashamed to be a journalist. Or if you won't, at least separate the fluff from the real news, and broadcast them separately.
Tonight, on the six o'clock news: fluff.
Followed by real news at 6:30