This summer has been an embarrassing one for television journalism: CNN and Fox News botched the Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act; NBC very publicly gave longtime correspondent Ann Curry the boot from the Today show in a desperate struggle to ward off Good Morning America's challenge to its ratings lead; and an uppity Aaron Sorkin waved a sanctimonious finger at news broadcasting, blaming it for the dire state of modern American politics in his new show The Newsroom.
It's not surprising then that a Gallup poll released Tuesday shows public trust in television news to be at an all-time low. So what's to blame? And what can be done to regain the public's trust?
TV news is first and foremost a business
In opening of the third episode of The Newsroom, reformed cable news anchor Will McAvoy lectures his audience that when Congress allowed advertising on the one hour it required networks to inform the public, it set television news up for compromising its civic duty for the sake of bumping up viewership. The fictional McAvoy is joined by a number of real-life critics in accusing TV news, particularly cable news, of being too partisan in its coverage.
According to Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, this shift to ideologically slanted news was an institutional necessity. Twenty-four hour cable stations found that their ratings spiked during breaking news events and stagnated in the lulls when nothing new was happening. Tailoring their station to a political view was a matter of maximizing audience.
"They were creating programs that people wanted to watch regardless if there was any breaking news," says Thompson.
Fox News and MSNBC play to the right and left respectively, and CNN has attempted to stay towards the center. All three saw a ratings drop in the second quarter of this year, but CNN's was most precipitous—its worse ever quarter along with May its worst ever month.
While network news has had some ratings struggles of its own, it is not the media dinosaur some make it out to be.
"Morning shows are a cash cow," says Thompson.
Morning news is also one of the last places NBC has been able to maintain its dominance among the networks, until recently, when a rebooted Good Morning America began to creep up in the ratings. The obvious variable, to NBC execs anyway, was Curry, who had only been installed as anchor a year ago, and their move to replace was not surprising, explains Thompson. "That decision would have been made before the age of the cell phone, let alone the Internet."
While cable news plays to a niche audience, network news tries to stay as broadly palatable as possible. "Television keeps shooting for the lowest common denominator," says William Powers of Bluefin Lab, which analyzes what people say online about what they watch on TV.
But more can be done with its resources, he says, "We could have a smarter television news, but we are stuck in the old model."
Being first doesn't matter, or at least, not as much it used to
"Being right is more important than being first," has been oft-repeated in the wake of the healthcare ruling debacle.
"When you get it wrong, that's what people remember," explains Suzanne Lysak, a professor of broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse University.
The competition to break the news as fast as possible goes as far back as the telegraph, which first allowed information to be transmitted instantaneously. The race became more intense as the means of distributing information expanded with the invention of the radio, television, and the Internet.
But beating the competition might not be as important as it once was, at least in the circumstances of the Supreme Court ruling. "What is the relevance of being first anymore? As soon as any news breaks every news organization publishes on it on the Web," says Emily Lenzner, who worked in both PR and production for ABC News before joining SDK Knickerbocker.