What's Wrong With TV News and How Can We Fix It?

After some very public errors, dust-ups and floggings, can TV news continue to succeed?

FE_PR_100112_22Learning_CableTV.jpg
By + More

Particularly in a situation like the healthcare decision, every news organization was watching the event closely, and thus the amount of time among networks breaking the ruling was only a matter of minutes, if not seconds, as recounted by SCOTUSblog's Tom Goldstein, with one crucial differential: those who read far enough into the decision to see Chief Justice Roberts was upholding the law's individual mandate as a constitutional tax rather than striking it down as an unconstitutional penalty, and those who didn't make it to that page.

"For a statue that doesn't take effect until 2014, the risk/reward for getting it immediately was backwards," says Goldstein of Fox News and CNN's decision to run with the assessment that the court was striking it down.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

"Being first only matters when you have a truly exclusive story that no one else has," explains Lenzner, such as Robin Roberts's ABC News interview with President Obama when he came out in support of gay marriage.

Furthermore, when you are dealing with breaking news, trust the experts who break news regularly.

"Why are you paying so much to subscribe to the wires if you aren't going to pay attention to them," Goldstein says of CNN, which continued to report the ruling incorrectly even after Bloomberg and The Associated Press issued alerts that the court was indeed upholding the law (Fox News first raised the flag that they might have had it wrong when correspondent Megyn Kelly acknowledged on-air that Goldstein's SCOTUSblog was reporting the mandate as upheld).

Everyone is paying attention to what's happening behind the scenes

As SCOTUSblog's retelling of the Supreme Court decision shows, what goes on behind the scenes of breaking news will almost inevitably be dissected once the news has broken, for better or for worse. This couldn't have been more clear with the hullabaloo that surrounded NBC's decision to fire Curry.

"In this media environment, you can't keep a secret," explains Thompson. Indeed, New York Times's Brian Stelter had multiple of inside sources confirming plans that NBC was searching for a Curry replacement and the anchor was put through a mortifying week of hosting the show amid replacement-talk before her tearful good bye.

"If you want to avoid doing that, you have to make the announcement as soon you make the decision," says Thompson.

Lysak too was surprised by NBC's handling of the situation, particularly that so many of those involved were willing to talk on the record. "You don't talk on record about shortcomings in talent."

Many lined up to support Curry, and Good Morning America bested Today two out of the three first days her successor Savannah Guthrie officially stepped into the role. Lenzner says those numbers don't necessarily mean viewers are rejecting Guthrie as Today's new host. "It takes time to build rapport and build an audience and everyone has to give them that time," says Lenzner. If anything, the controversy revealed the awkwardness the industry faces when "trying to make money and moving people around we think of like family," says Powers. "The personal experience of television gets mixed up with the business venture," he explains. "They don't fit very comfortably"

Don't count out TV news just yet

As Gallup acknowledges that print news saw a similar decline in public confidence, with newspapers scoring just four points higher (but still not at its lowest, as it was in 2007).

"Fundamentally , [Americans] have never trusted journalists. There's always been a cynical view of the news business," says Powers.

Thompson too thinks fears over television news losing its relevance are overblown, even as the Internet has changed the media landscape. "One of these media isn't going to completely eliminate the other," He says. "If traditional news organizations went away, the Internet's role in news would be really challenged," as it is television and print publications who often pay to have journalists on ground filing the original reporting.