Live News Reporting: Professional Judgment or Technological Pressure? A National Survey of Television News Directors and Senior Reporters

By Tuggle, C. A.; Huffman, Suzanne | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Live News Reporting: Professional Judgment or Technological Pressure? A National Survey of Television News Directors and Senior Reporters


Tuggle, C. A., Huffman, Suzanne, Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


Reporting live from the scene of a story is an increasingly dominant value in television news operations today. The proliferation of microwave and satellite trucks makes it possible for even small market news operations to go "live from the scene." Stations promote their live capabilities, station managers expect to see frequent use of the equipment to justify its cost, and news consultants encourage live reporting, saying it will distinguish a station in its market if it is done well (Jim Bernstein, Frank Magid & Associates, personal conversation, April 21, 1997; Tom Dolan, Broadcast Image Group, personal conversation, June 27, 1997).

To be sure, live coverage has an important place in television news, and it has seared images into the nation's and the world's collective consciousness. Events such as the funeral of John F. Kennedy, the Senate Watergate Hearings, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and the Persian Gulf War are vivid in memory due in large part to the live news coverage they received. The immediacy offered by live coverage helps bring news to viewers as it happens, and live coverage of developing stories, such as an approaching hurricane or tornado, serves the public interest well by warning local residents to take cover.

But live news coverage and the use of technology have also received a great deal of criticism. Live coverage can be overused to the point that it becomes "useless," as when live reports are done from the scene after everyone involved has gone home ("Editorial board," 1996). Such overuse has led to the suggestion that the technology itself, rather than news validity, now drives the television news editorial process (Rosenberg, 1993; "RTNDA panel advice," 1995).

The aspect of live coverage that some have believed is its greatest strength, immediacy, has also been questioned, as broadcast journalists' great achievements have been reduced to "being first" (Carey, 1986, p. 195; Hjarvard, 1992, p. 116). The rush to be first has led to complaints from the audience that much live coverage is inaccurate, intrusive, badly timed, and in bad taste (Wittstock, 1991). Reporters have also complained that live reporting makes it difficult for them to both gather information and to assimilate it into a coherent, thoughtful report (Dunsmore, 1996; Newsreels, 1997; Seib, 1997). News directors often defend the practice, saying that newsworthiness rather than technology is what determines news coverage, at the same time conceding 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 is a constructed reality and framing of the news is important in audience perception (Tuchman, 1978). One role of television journalists is to offer immediacy, to get information to the public quickly, to bring viewers near or "into" important events (Gans, 1979; Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996). But the very act of going live may also distort the importance of the event, giving the story greater importance than the facts warrant (Morris & Nydahl, 1983).

Research indicates a current emphasis on live reporting (Upshaw, 1994), that such 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).

News organizations are business environments with hierarchical systems within which news managers and news workers do their jobs. Business values can conflict with news values, and a worker's position within the hierarchy can affect his or her point of view regarding the news product and the advice of news consultants regarding that product. …

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