Live Reporting in Television News: Breaking News or Black Holes?

Article excerpt

Technical visionaries suggested the possibility of live television news reporting as early as 1939 when television was formally introduced to the nation at the New York World's Fair. Magazine writers at that time asked readers to imagine how exciting it would be to see live television coverage of fires and other breaking news events ("1939, television year; report," 1938). In those early days of television, it was thought that television's special appeal would be its sense of immediacy and presence. It was also thought that live coverage of breaking news events would be extremely rare, and therefore extraordinarily appealing.

Now, more than 60 years later, the technology to cover events live has proliferated throughout the United States and the world. Live coverage has become so pervasive that researchers and practitioners suggest that the use of the technology itself, rather than news editorial judgment, is frequently what drives the news gathering process in television (Rosenberg, 1993; "RTNDA panel advice," 1995; Tuggle & Huffman, 1999). Some news directors defend the practice, saying that newsworthiness, rather than technology, is what determines news coverage, yet at the same time they concede that live technology does affect the decision-making of news managers (Cleland & Ostroff, 1988). Other news directors see live capability as a negative influence on news content (Smith, 1984).

News directors and station consultants have said that live news reporting can build audience interest and distinguish a station in its market (J. Bernstein, Frank Magid & Associates, personal conversation, April 21, 1997; T. Dolan, Broadcast Image Group, personal conversation, June 27, 1997). Certainly, live coverage has achieved an important place in television news, and it has burned visual images into the nation's and the world's collective consciousness. Events such as the funeral of John F. Kennedy, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton are vivid in our collective memory due in large part to the live news coverage they received. The immediacy offered by live coverage of developing stories, such as an approaching hurricane or tornado, serves the public interest by warning local residents to take cover.

But there is a formidable downside. Live coverage now includes riots, freeway chases, hostage situations, and other dangerous events. What some consider excessive live reporting from the scene of such ongoing disturbances has led to charges that the coverage itself exacerbates the disturbances. Police officers believe that some live coverage interferes with their ability to do their jobs, and the Oregon Council of Police Associations supported a proposal in the state legislature to allow police commanders to ban live television coverage of events such as hostage situations involving barricaded suspects ("Oregon bill," 1999). Additionally, live reporting can circumvent established avenues of political communication by making it possible for world leaders to view breaking news events live and to immediately signal their reactions and intentions via CNN, for example, making the process of governing more reactive than deliberative (Beschloss & Talbott, 1993; Friedland, 1992).

Research indicates a current emphasis on live reporting (Upshaw, 1994), such that coverage often lasts beyond the true life of a news story (Hall, 1996), and that economic decisions rather than news values keep reporters on the scene longer than necessary (Tuggle, 1991). Research also indicates that live reporting affects story length and places greater demands on reporters who must present accurate and succinct information in one take (Cleland & Ostroff, 1988). Some in television news believe live coverage is often used without journalistic justification, and that many stories are covered live because technology makes such coverage relatively easy. Additionally, some reporters are troubled by the discrepancy between their own journalistic values and industry norms for using live technology (Smith & Becker, 1989; Tuggle & Huffman, 1999). …