Reporting live from the scene: enough to attract the 18-24 audience?

Author:Tuggle, C.A.
Position:Survey
 
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Being able to probive live coverage of breaking news events is one of the unparalleled strengths of television. The purpose of this study is to assess the opinions of 18-24 year olds about live television news reporting. Variables identified by respondents are characterized in one of three ways: awareness of live reporting; positive aspects of live reporting; and negative aspects of live reporting. From the more than 500 young adults surveyed, findings show most do not base their viewing habits on how often a news operation goes live or whether that operation happens to be first to hit the air with breaking news.

Respondents show strong agreement that live reporting gives the story a sense of immediacy, leading the positive attributes of live reporting. However, leading the list of negative attributes is the criticism that there are times when a live report is meaningless. There were differences in resoonses based on the market in which the respondents reside.

"We begin with breaking news" is how many local newscast producers are opening their shows in the early 21st century. That breaking news might include live helicopter footage of a car crash on the freeway or an apartment roof on fire in the suburbs--stories that indeed are live at that moment but impact relatively few viewers and are somewhat routine, especially in large metropolitan areas. As a result of this growing trend in producing local newscasts, the traditional definitions of newsworthiness--proximity, timeliness, impact, prominence, and conflict (Tuggle, Carr, & Huffman, 2004)--are increasingly taking a backseat to what some might call the overreach of producers looking to find a "live element" to open the newscast (Miller & Hatley-Major, 2005).

Grabe (1996, 2000) and Messaris (1997) studied the impact of the visual frame on individual processing of images in news stories and advertisements. In this research young viewers' general perceptions of live news reporting are studied, with a specific focus on viewers in the 18-to-24 demographic. Individuals in this age bracket not only influence purchases within their nuclear families, but they are also in the process of establishing their own viewing and buying habits and brand loyalties.

Traditional television news operations are currently engaged 24/7 in a fierce battle against cable, satellite, and Internet-delivered news to attract and hold the attention of increasingly time-pressed viewers. Many news managers believe live reporting is a way to attract and keep viewers, especially younger, demographically desirable ones. As a result, being first on the air with live coverage has become a major goal in newsrooms across the country (Westin, 2000). News consultants encourage live reporting, saying it will distinguish a station in its market if it is done well (Tuggle & Huffman, 1999). The downside is that the wide diffusion of live technology has created an imperative to focus on events because they are happening "now" rather than because of their importance (Koppel, 1999). News producers thus run the risk of alienating the very people they are trying to attract by trivializing or overdoing live breaking news.

Literature Review

In designing research to look at this trend, it is helpful to think of television coverage as a frame, a window on the world, through which individuals learn about themselves and others (Tuchman, 1978). Frames are important because they help shape "the pictures in our heads"the stereotypes on which our thinking is based (Lippmann, 1922, p. 59)--about what is worthy of time and attention. Edelman (1994) described the social world itself as "a kaleidoscope of potential realities, any of which can be readily evoked by altering the ways in which observations are framed and categorized" (p. 232).

Iyengar and Kinder (1987) wrote that the power of the media rests on commanding the public's attention. In reference to television news, then, the length of the story and its placement in the news leads viewers to assign more or less importance to the issue being covered. The authors argue that the presentation type (live news reporting) is also a factor and is one part of the television news frame.

According to Entman (1993) news workers incorporate framing when they "select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more [or less] salient in communicating a text" (p. 52). Framing is thus achieved through the process of selecting news events for coverage and then producing the coverage (Entman, 1993; Gitlin, 1980; Tuchman, 1978). The authors argue that framing includes the decision of whether or not to cover an event live and then dedicate the necessary news time, equipment, and personnel to do so.

It might be that live coverage "warps the frame" for these viewers when stories are covered live simply because they can be. It might be that live coverage also "embellishes the frame" and makes a story seem more important to viewers than it actually is. Failing then to deliver a truly important story because of the amount of time spent on a less important but "breaking" story might negatively impact audience perception of the story and of the news operation. This study assessed the opinions of 18- to 24-year-olds only, to determine whether they see a difference between the type of live coverage described as gratuitous, after-the-fact "black hole" live reporting and truly legitimate uses of the technology.

Reporting Live

Being able to provide live coverage of breaking news events is one of the unparalleled strengths of television. Live coverage can convey the emotions and experiences of an event in a way unmatched by any other medium and can attract an enormous audience. Consider the August 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of the Gulf Coast. Viewers watched in awe as the enormous storm approached the coast, made landfall, and caused record damage. Much of the coverage involved unedited, raw video of the unfolding event, and anchors and reporters were working live on the air without scripts.

When television was first introduced to the United States in the 1930s, it was thought that television's special appeal would be its sense of immediacy and presence. It was also thought that live coverage of breaking news events would be extremely rare, and therefore extraordinarily appealing ("1939, Television Year; Report," 1938). Now, more than 65 years later, the technology to cover events live has proliferated throughout the United States and the world. Live coverage has become so pervasive that researchers and practitioners suggest that the use of the technology itself, rather than news editorial judgment, is frequently what drives the news-gathering process in television (Greenwell, 1994; Rosenberg, 1993; "RTNDA Panel Advice," 1995; Tuggle & Huffman, 1999, 2001). Some news directors have long defended the practice, saying that newsworthiness, rather than technology, is what determines news coverage, but at the same time they concede that live technology affects the decision making of news managers (Cleland & Ostoff, 1988). Some reporters are troubled by a discrepancy between their own journalistic values and industry norms for using live technology (Smith & Becker, 1989). Others say they have no idea why they do most live reports to which they are assigned and do not know what their station's philosophy is toward live reporting. They say they get no real answers when they ask if it is necessary to go live for nearly every story (Greenwell, 1994). Some observers say live can be used to the...

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