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The consequences of broadcast journalism

March 30, 2010

In previous posts I have discussed McLuhan’s theory that the medium is the message (The Message is the Medium) as well as how new technology influences the depth of the news story (Are Newspapers Making Us Stupid?).  Although I considered finding a new topic to discuss, Tim Harrower’s chapter on broadcast journalism reminded me of the relevance of these two issues.  Harrower advises readers that when writing for television or radio sentences should be no longer than 20 words and news stories should be between 10 to 30 seconds.  He informs his audience that “it would take 28 hours to read a typical edition of The Washington Post” over radio or television and that “most half-hour newscasts contain fewer words than one typical newspaper page” (179).   Clearly the medium determines how much information the consumers receive; and needless to say, such concentration causes facts and analysis to be omitted.

This structure connects to Harrower’s previous tutorial regarding how to layout a feature story in order to convey information effectively. The layout’s objective is to transmit a message in the shortest amount of time, which relates to the structure in broadcast journalism. While I agree it is necessary to appeal to one’s audience and mold to fit the audience members’ busy schedule, I fear that some depth will be lost along the way.

The comparison between the number of words in a broadcast news segment versus only one article in a newspaper demonstrates that newspapers provide more details and information. But Inside Reporting‘s Student Journalists’ News Attitude Survey (page 300) indicates that only 6% of students get their news by reading print texts. In contrast, 76% get their news through a combination of text and images, which suggests a television news program.  Therefore, the majority of news students receive only scratches the surface of the issues.

In an interview I conducted with Mr. Felten, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Elon, for an article about online higher education, he described a Wikipedia effect, which I think applies to the broadcast news structure. The Wikipedia effect implies that the article is only effective in providing general knowledge rather than details and in-depth analysis. Such a structure could produce an audience familiar with multiple issues, but ignorant of their true implications and significance.

Although I acknowledge that the concise news style is needed to match consumers’ busy lives, I argue that one cannot solely rely on broadcast news to make them an informed citizen.

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