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Jan. 16 2010 - 12:14 pm | 846 views | 1 recommendation | 14 comments

Compassion, Self-Congratulation and Cynicism: Haiti and Broadcast News

The New York Times is running an interesting piece, critiquing the broadcast coverage of the Haiti disaster, commenting in part on the tendency of broadcasters to reach for a good-news-bad-news paradox, and more importantly – the careful balance anchors try to achieve between “compassion and self-congratulation.”

The piece is by Alessandra Stanley. Please read it.

I understand the natural instinct to push for the good news.  The purest definition of news I’ve ever heard?  News is the aberration of normality.  Amid all that tragedy, doing a story on a kid being pulled out of the rubble isn’t some over-produced moment intended to pull on the heart-strings. It’s an aberration.

Stanley goes on to observe:

The line between compassion and self-congratulation is thin on television; in a calamity this vast and acute, many viewers flinch at any sign of reportorial showboating.

She cites some examples along that thin line:

  • CBS’s Katie Couric holding the hand of an injured child who was being treated by a doctor.
  • Brian Williams, who acknowledged that he and his crew were the only ones with food and water, but that the purpose of NBC coverage was to galvanize viewers to get involved.
  • CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, a medical doctor,  walked past injured in a hospital,  while CNN repeatedly showed a different sequence of him administering to one injured child.

I’m torn. As a freelance journalist who spent 17 years overseas, the US broadcast teams were by far the most egregious “parachute” journalists – dropping into a situation they knew virtually nothing about, covering it with the thinnest veneer of journalism, while relying on teams of local fixers and producers who do the actual legwork of journalism, before flying out again.  (CNN is the exception in some – but not all – cases.)

That doesn’t appear to be in the case in Haiti. In disasters, reporting is a veritable “embarrassment of riches” – stories abound.  It doesn’t require much investigation.

In the cases Stanley lists, would you rather Katie Couric didn’t hold the kid’s hand? We don’t actually know if the producers said, “Let’s go do a story about Katie and a suffering kid,” or if they were focusing on a kid and Couric just happened to step in.  (I imagine she, and every journalist there, have had to walk by a lot of suffering kids this week.)

And I actually appreciate Brian Williams’ guilty admission that NBC isn’t all that hard up on the ground in Haiti – I’m sure they flew in a charter flight of their own camping supplies.  And he’s right:  the purpose of journalism is to inform.

Sanjay Gupta…He’s there as a journalist, not a doctor, so no – I don’t expect him to be treat every injured person he comes across.  And I can believe that he takes a little time out to help when he can. And the apparent repetition of that segment isn’t coming from Sanjay Gupta, it’s coming from CNN producers in a control room somewhere in the US.

But at the same time, in the celebrity-soaked US culture, I think there’s far too much focus on the anchor-as-a-personality.

During the Hurricane Katrina disaster, for example, my broadcast journalist friends and I widely mocked CNN’s Anderson Cooper for his infamous crying stand-up.  At one point, shooting a piece-to-camera amid the devastation, Cooper got teary.

Why did we mock him? Because it wasn’t live.  Cooper had the opportunity to re-shoot that piece-to-camera – without crying – but the calculated, cynical decision made by him or by CNN was to run the one in which he got a little weepy.   That shifted CNN’s editorial line in that segment from being about New Orleans, to being about Anderson Cooper’s reaction to New Orleans. That made it “Broadcast News.”

In my 17 years overseas, primarily in Southeast Asia and South Asia — when the “big story” happened — the non-American networks including the CBC, the Australian networks, the BBC for example, had been covering the area in some form before a) disaster struck, or b) the riots happened, c) the elections were held, etc.  They had a presence and a body of work to represent their interest in foreign news without any personalities attached – beyond working-grunt correspondents.   (NPR was there, as were US print media.)

So if you’re an American network, and you’ve decided to do some foreign news,  you don’t pay your anchor $15 million a year…. not to hold the kid’s hand.

Without being on the ground in Haiti, we’re never going to know the point at which the genuine feelings of an anchor give way to the “information triage” that goes on in a disaster… remember – news is the aberration of normality.

But I’ve always thought it would be nice if a network would pay their anchor, oh -  I don’t know,  $5 million a year to squeak by –  while devoting the other $10 million to coverage of foreign affairs like their broadcast colleagues around the world.  Then they’d really be doing their duty to inform.


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  1. collapse expand

    Ms. Nunan: Yours is an excellent and informative piece about journalists and journalism. But I disagree about cutting the anchors’ salaries. They get paid their enormous (by my standards) salaries because they must attract viewers–millions of them. Even the worst network anchor (by ratings’ standards) has earned his or her way to that honored position. The answer is for journalists and producers to refuse to do sympathetic (pathetic?) pieces; but of course they risk becoming unemployed. There really aren’t many heros in our world, not even I.

  2. collapse expand

    Will the media give us a live feed of obama campaigning in massachusetts tomorrow for that liberal nut case who is just dying to sit in kennedy’s seat

  3. collapse expand

    Mr. or Ms. Palevering – thank you for your comment.

    But I’m still going to respectfully disagree. What part of, say, Brian Williams’ salary goes to attracting viewers? That’s the network’s job – and they spend all sorts of money just to do that.

    I know – the answer is because Williams is a recognizable commodity in the news-biz, NBC *needs* him for people to tune in, and “the market” set his salary that high.

    But two things. One, you could take any hitherto unknown (but competent) broadcast journalist, put them in an anchor’s chair — and ta-dah! – they’re a celebrity/personality/recognizable commodity by virtue of the fact a network just did that.

    And two, people watch BBC, CNN International, CNBC, any number of news channels that are less personality-driven. (No network is devoid of personality politics.) They watch it less for the news-reader, and more for the news. BBC World Service often rotates correspondents in and out of the anchor desk – again, it’s the content of what they’re introducing that counts.

    If an American network were truly interested in promoting the news more than the personality, then the “market” would find someone a great deal cheaper.

    Thanks again for the note.

  4. collapse expand

    I have to disagree with you. The anchor attracts the audience and holds them. He or she has editorial control, dictates to the correspondents what they want and how they want it, and controls content. The position requires lots of experience and responsibility. Moreoever, beyond all the neccesary credentials required of an anchor, they must also be presentable and have a personality that sets them apart from the competition.

    • collapse expand

      Thanks for the follow-up. You’re right: we’re going to have to agree to disagree.

      I’ve only worked with and observed the US networks in overseas settings, so I’ve never seen first hand the day-to-day operations that would go on in putting on the news out of New York.

      I’m sure all the network anchors *contribute* to editorial decisions. But an anchor is but one person – the most visible person for sure.

      Editorial control, telling the correspondents what they want and how they want it, and “controlling content” comes from a very large team, from the network news president, the news vice presidents, at least a couple of executive producers, in collaboration with the anchor and all the producers and associate producers beneath them.

      NBC Nightly News, for example, has at least 17 senior editorial staff in New York, all contributing to putting on the evening news. (That’s according to Variety. It depends on how you count. Some sites list 30 senior editorial staff at NBC; and I have yet to find a list NBC’s own credits.)

      Again, I think the focus of the networks remains too personality-driven, but that doesn’t mean Brian Williams (or Katie Couric, or Diane Sawyer) calls all the shots.

      If anyone dictated anything, my money’s on Steve Capus, for example, NBC’s Network News President.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I can’t debate the way they do it now. But I knew Peter Jennings and he ruled!!! No one dared to call him Pete, either. You’d be certain to get a tongue lashing. He lacked a serious education (although he was extremely knowledgable and knew his stuff), and it showed (only) in his social skills.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    The broadcasters will find Obama in Massacusetts today…not Haiti

    Obama is trying to rescue “kennedy’s senate seat”

  6. collapse expand

    Good posting. I haven’t been following TV coverage of the Haiti earthquake, but I did — for a few seconds — watch it last night, and there was Geraldo Rivera interviewing a U.S. solider (and another American) in what appeared to be a kind of Green Zone. Also saw Anderson Cooper on the streets of Haiti. How much does Geraldo make? And Cooper? I don’t want my news filtered by Big Journalism Names who parachute into trouble spots that they didn’t care about before they became Big News.

  7. collapse expand

    Interestingly, Mr. or Ms. Palavering, last year I went to a panel discussion with the Network News Presidents of ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN at the Council on Foreign Relations.

    ABC’s David Westin confirmed (in a roundabout way) that he was approached by an anchor who offered to give up $4 million of his salary, if the network would match him, dollar-for-dollar – provided that $8 million would go towards reporting foreign news.

    The network turned him down.

    Without naming names, Westin said “that anchor is no longer with us,” so the assumption was that it was Peter Jennings.

    That suggests to me that Jennings thought the network’s approach was broadcast news was broken – and he was the only(?) anchor with the nerve to try and fix it.

    The transcript of the Council on Foreign Relations discussion is here. September 2009.


  8. collapse expand

    Jonathan C – I think the de-facto “green zone” is the airport — and lots of journalists are camped out there. One, it’s safe with the US military around (and there are probably generators providing electricity for all that gear) and two, one must monitor the arrival of aid flights and politicians.

    Thanks for your nice comment!

  9. collapse expand

    Mr. Levinson – Thanks for your comments. If you’re suggesting that Haiti would be better served if President Obama made the trip there, I’m going to have to disagree. Not yet.

    The flight itself and the security involved in a presidential visit would only mar efforts to distribute aid, which have been difficult at best so far.

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Port-au-Prince today, but my understanding is she caught a lift on an aid-flight (or her team insisted on aid coming along on her flight.) That’s just not an option for the president.

  10. collapse expand

    Katie Couric’s account, and video, of holding that kid’s hand is on the Huffington Post today. It does not look like showboating to me.


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    About Me

    I'm a freelance journalist and writer who has recently returned to the US after 17 years living overseas, primarily in Southeast Asia.

    In 1992, I went to Cambodia – then at the height of the UNTAC peacekeeping mission - to cut my teeth on journalism.

    ….I was in Hong Kong, for the 1997 Handover to Chinese rule; and then it was off to

    …..Indonesia - for the fall of President Suharto in 1998, through the the reformasi movement; the East Timor conflict, its independence ballot and peacekeeping mission; the fallout from September 11th in “the world’s most populous Muslim nation” and the Bali bomb, and myriad points in-between during a five and a half year span;

    …. and onwards to India, where I was Voice of America radio/television correspondent for South Asia between 2003 and 2006, which included rotations in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with my “patch” of India, including Kashmir; Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

    I’ve freelanced my way in and out of Bosnia, Burma, Egypt, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand. I’ve also filed out of Vietnam and Malaysia.

    My name is Mary Patricia Nunan, and I vastly prefer “MP.” If you’ve heard me on the radio or seen me on tv – NPR, VOA, CBC, BBC or others -- it would have been as “Patricia Nunan.” I’ve never had much use for the “Mary.”

    See my profile »
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    Contributor Since: August 2009
    Location:New York City