What ever happened to 'Pure Truth' in broadcasting these days?
December 2002

by Jim Parisi

"The voting was very close, and I made a decision to go with 'It's My Life” You're right that the ballad won out. It was a last-minute decision that I made to go with an upbeat song that is a fan-based favorite.” -GMA producer Shelley Ross

So what that the Good Morning America hosts Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson told viewers that Bon Jovi would play the song the viewers picked. Who cares that votes spilled in to ABC.com for a week, and that viewers chose a ballad as the song they wanted to hear on GMA?

Hey, so we changed the facts and let the viewers think they actually made the choice. Hell, we’re TV executives, we don’t follow rules right?

That’s what is wrong with TV these days. It just isn’t honest any more. Certainly not in the pure sense. That’s why journalists get no respect these days. Other professionals know our game. They know when the network radio announcer says ‘let’s go LIVE to John Smith” and then we actually even hear the ‘click’ that he is simply playing a tape of something that was live once. No, we weren’t happy simply doing live shots where events ended hours earlier. That wasn’t exciting enough. So now TV news does “Look Lives”. We don’t even use the euphemisms anymore. I mean, in the “Pure Days” I even hated when taped pieces started and ended with a ‘toss’. Back then I felt it was misleading to have the reporter in a taped segment say “Thank you Jane, I’m here at…” I argued that we are misleading viewers to think the reporter is there live. The comeback always was “but we never SAY we’re live”.

But the ‘Truth Stretches’ have gotten worse in recent years. Now reporters sit in front of ‘green-screen’ and talk about their ‘location’ story as if they actually mingled with the locals. (see Heraldo Rivera) While reality shows, their very name a lie, are convincing viewers they are seeing ‘real life’ unfiltered, broadcast news producers are ‘teasing’ stories as if they were in our backyards when they are oceans away. Scaring us even. They seem to know our very thoughts when they write “the danger is WORSE THAN YOU THINK”, or maybe “YOU’LL BE SHOCKED” to learn… of whatever…

So if the producer, or consultant, or news director has no conscience, as so many apparently do not, why would it be a ‘jump’ to fake all these Interactive Polls we do? How can we as viewers trust what television has become? I’m not a cynical type by nature, but I’m enough of a realist with what I’ve personally experienced in television and radio news to know that facts are ‘tweaked’ at times.

We heard this week that a new study on the controversial Atkins diet shows some good things about the diet…and then at the end we learn that the study was funded by Atkins. But that’s not all. We hear that the people on the Atkins diet were also taking fish oil, which we learn may be the real reason the study group had lower cholesterol. The fish oil may also get the credit for lower Triglicerides, we hear later. So we, as ‘The Media’, just suck-up whatever we are told and blast it out there for the world to consume. So what if most of our stories don’t even mention Atkins paid for the study. So what if most reports never mention the fish oil supplements. So what if what we are saying isn’t exactly the truth?

It’s not all done on purpose. News has gotten out of control by the sheer volume of it. I’m sure the first story of the Atkins study mentioned everything. But in this business, we steal from other news outlets…and don’t always put in every word, and the meaning is forever changed as a result. Radio stations around the country rewrite the local newspaper articles. Trouble with that is, the original article may have been 500 words, and the radio report might be 20. Just not enough room to explain the whole ‘fish oil’ thing in 20 words, right? Not our fault.

Now, with Internet news portal sites, a story takes on a life of its own. The original story will appear on hundreds of sites around the world, with virtually no chance of being policed for accuracy. Add new technology to this mess, and the viewer or listener will never know the truth.

Sometimes the technology is a great tool, when not used for evil. For example, when we took our publicity shots in Albany, NY and one of our main anchors couldn’t be there, it was great to simply ‘add’ him in the picture, sitting right there in his anchor chair, days later. To see the picture, you’d swear he was there with the full group on the day the picture was shot. Innocent manipulation for a good cause. But how about when we do a newscast on tape and need it to be a bit longer after we’re done? Now we just take a story from an earlier newscast and through the magic of non-linear editing we just plop it in the new newscast without anyone being the wiser. Now the ‘innocence’ gets a bit blurry. Maybe now the viewer is seeing the Governor smiling when he is ‘hearing’ a question about a serious topic, when in truth that ‘cutaway’ was lifted from a feature shot days earlier. Hey, the viewers will never notice…but the Governor sure did. Now we are changing reality, and that’s not what news is supposed to be all about.

We’ve taught viewers not to believe us anymore. We’ve made cynics out of them, and then we wonder why ratings are down. We had their unconditional trust some years ago, and we blew it.

For that, we should be ashamed.

© Jim Parisi

(Jim Parisi dabbles in television news management where he specializes in interactive news, is a former anchor/reporter, and is the editor of www.tvnewz.com.)

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