The president of the professional society is working on several fronts at the same time, including reporters’ access, government regulation, ethical standards, diversity and member education. The good news is local TV news keeps growing.
As president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association for the past decade, Barbara Cochran has been leading the never-ending fight for reporters’ access to events and information and against the government’s insidious efforts to regulate news.
And at the same time, she has been trying to make sure the diversity of newsrooms reflects that of the audiences they serve, to hold her members to high ethical standards and to keep them abreast of the new technology and media that are continually transforming their profession.
It’s quite a job.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Cochran provides updates on many of RTNDA’s on-going efforts and a sneak peak at the annual convention that is less than three weeks away.
An edited transcript follows:
Where does local TV news stand these days?
We’re still seeing news increasing at the local level. Our [not-yet-published] survey showed that last year again the number of stations originating local news is up from the year before. It rose by two [from 778 to 780].
We’ve read about some stations that have closed their news departments, but, even in spite of that, the number of stations originating news is still going up, albeit slowly, and the number of stations producing news on other stations has also risen. So, you’re seeing more duopolies or local marketing agreements or some kind of sharing of newsroom resources among stations.
The last RTNDA research I saw also showed the number of people employed in local TV news is also rising.
Yes, it has been. There was a downturn after 2001 a slight downturn, but then it has continued back up again. Of course, one of the things driving that is that the number of hours of news the stations are doing has also increased so you still have people working at top efficiency.
What accounts for the increases in local news?
The stations realize the value of having a local news operation. It’s one form of local production that gives you an identity in the community, gives you a source of revenue. News is something that people turn to and so more and more stations have decided to go in that direction. It’s also, in a lot of instances, less expensive to produce than a lot of syndicated programming and so there’s an economic reason for doing it.
What’s going on within the newsrooms?
Everything is going through major changes at the local level and at the network level. The influence of the Internet and digital communications is just really being felt. Stations are finding that they have to retool their operations.
On the television side, it’s everything from the digital [transition] deadline to a changing relationship with the network, to the changing business model, to how to be a local source of news on multiple platforms, to how to change from being TV stations into local content providers.
Do you think that the Web has changed what stations actually do on air? I mean, is the news different?
Certainly; you see it in some very obvious ways. Anchors direct viewers to ‘go to our Web site’ to see more about this or to see a map or view more video or whatever.
But hasn’t the Web simply become a place to repeat what’s on the air or to put material there that they would have thrown away in the past?
I think you see more integrated effort in places. I was just screening an investigative piece yesterday by a station in Indianapolis about drugstores that were discarding patient information in the trash. All that private information could be picked up by anybody. The station created a map on its Web site that allowed individuals to check out their own local drugstores to see how their local pharmacy stacked up in the research that they had done.
That’s not the kind of thing you would spend time doing on the air, but certainly something that’s very valuable and a perfect way to supplement the on-air story in a very important way and make it more useful to the audience. That’s a good example of how the Web can add depth and strengthen the connection between the audience and the station.
Would you say the liberalization of local broadcast ownership rules has been good or bad for TV news?
We don’t really take a position on this.
Understood. But I’m asking for an observation on what impact it has had.
You could be offering news on a station that otherwise might not be offering it, you could be offering it at a time of day that might be more convenient for a different segment of the audience or you could have a news that covers different topics, presents more stories.
Do you see yourself as a media critic at all? Is that your job?
I wouldn’t say critic is the word. I would say that we like to hold up the best examples and high standards. We do that through our code of ethics and the guidelines that grow out of that code of ethics and also through our Edward R. Murrow Awards that recognize excellence.
But if somebody runs afoul of the code of ethics, do you blow the whistle?
We don’t. Someone doesn’t lose their membership if that’s what you mean. But we can say this is what is considered to be appropriate practice in the industry. So, if whatever is happening is at variance with that, we can point it out. We’ll say this is what the accepted practice is.
Looking at some of RTNDA’s own research, I see that the percentage of minorities in TV news is increasing, but so is the gap between minorities in TV news and minorities in the general workforce.
As the population gets more diverse, the increases aren’t keeping pace.
So that’s sort of a losing battle for you?
I don’t think it’s a losing battle at all, but I do think it’s something that we need to pay attention to and we are.
One thing that we can do is to try to interest young people in careers in electronic journalism at an early age. With funding from the Knight Foundation, we started a high school journalism project three years ago and it’s great because we create partnerships among our members, high school teachers and their students. The program does focus on working with students at high schools with high populations of students of color.
So, you’re like the cigarette industry—hook them while they’re young.
I’m not sure that’s the analogy I would want to use [laughs], but certainly if they can see this as a career choice, number one, they will develop a stronger appreciation for the role media plays in a democracy and for the First Amendment and, number two, a lot of them may decide to choose this as a career.
You know that a majority of communications majors in college are women theses days. Has that fact shown up in the newsroom?
The numbers don’t turn out that high. I think our statistics show that, overall, it’s about 40% and, among news directors, it’s more than 25%. The percentage is going up a point a year. Of course, the newsroom numbers take into account everybody—photographers, sports anchors and weather anchors and so on as well as the producers and regular anchors and reporters.
I know that much of what you do is fight for access to events and to information on behalf of your members. TV news was stung by the NFL policy barring news crews from the sidelines during games. What’s the latest?
The latest is that there is some legislation in Missouri that was introduced there by two legislators that would require games played in publicly financed venues to be accessible to the local camera crews. It’s legislation that’s picking up some momentum and is being watched in other states with NFL teams all across the country.
If that’s your answer, are you conceding that you can’t turn the league itself around?
The league did make some concessions. They made arrangements to allow for pool coverage from the sidelines, but they did not back off the original position. In fact, in October, they went after people who were covering things and putting them on the Internet. They said that nobody could use material from locker room interviews or the post-game press conferences on Web sites. It’s a battle. It’s definitely a battle.
How many stadiums are publicly financed?
Not all of them, but plenty of them. When you go to a legislator and say the taxpayers financed this, but they are not going to get to see the same kind of coverage they had before because the cameras are being banned, the legislator tends to get pretty exercised about it.
Such laws could also open up stadiums and arenas for station coverage of other sports—baseball, hockey, basketball.
What’s the most important access issue that you are dealing with?
Cameras and microphones in the court. That’s the one that is special to radio and television journalists. It’s about their being able to use the tools of their trade to cover something that’s open to the public and open to all journalists. We’ve made progress at the state level. But you still have a number of states where the effect of the rules that they’ve adopted is to keep cameras and microphones out of courtrooms and out of trials.
And where does the fed stand right now?
At the federal level, cameras are banned in all courts except for two at the appeals court level. The judges are allowed to make their own decisions in two circuits, San Francisco and New York, and have, on special request, allowed television cameras in.
You think that’s sort of a top-down dynamic where if the Supreme Court goes, everybody goes?
Oh, obviously. If the Supreme Court were to do it, then that would immediately set the example for the rest of the general courts.
Have the new justices—John Roberts and Samuel Alito—indicated where they stand?
Yes. Both of them have said they are open to the idea. The chief justice [Roberts] did say that he would want to consult with his other colleagues. Some of his colleagues are on the record as being opposed to the idea so it’s a question of how he wants to push it. An interesting thing is the chief justice and the newer justices are really becoming much more accessible on television. We had the chief justice do a live interview with Jan Crawford Greenburg of ABC News and we’ve had other justices do interviews. So they are certainly showing more willingness to go on television and explain themselves.
My assumption is that access has gotten considerably tougher since 9/11. What’s really changed over the last five years?
What’s happened since Sept. 11 is that at all levels—federal to local—you have government officials making the presumption that information should not be made available. So there’s a struggle over a wide variety of things. It’s a mindset that I think reporters are dealing with and having to overcome. It’s kind of a presumption that this information should be off limits unless you can show us right there in black and white why it should be made available.
And it’s hard to fight a mindset. It’s tough enough fighting written policies.
And the policies that exist may be murky; they may be contradictory.
What’s the overall effect of that mindset and of the Scooter Libby leak case on reporters trying to get something done in Washington?
I don’t know what the effect is and that’s because you’re looking at a negative. You don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know what person who has a great story has decided not to come forward with it because he’s afraid that somehow in the end the reporter will be forced to disclose his identity and I think that’s the biggest danger.
What I hear a lot from station group execs that that, yeah, we are using technology to cut a lot of jobs, but we are using the savings to put more reporters on the street and otherwise improve the news. Should I believe them?
I hope it’s true. Local news is still the primary source for that information in many communities. You still have to have people who are trained, who know what questions to ask and know what’s important out on the street, who are gathering the news. Anything that diminishes that capacity is a step in the wrong direction.
Another issue is video news releases. The FCC is going ahead with its investigation into how stations are using them despite your pleas not to. Do you know when the FCC is going to act?
No. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but they’re certainly considering it. We’ve been talking with commissioners and making our own case. There has been some misinformation and we’re just trying to make sure they have all the facts that they need.
What’s your case?
Our position has been very clear since video news releases first became widespread in the early 1990s and that is that material from a video news release, when it’s used, should be identified. But we think it’s up to the newsrooms to decide how to make that identification so they can do it in a style that goes along with their own particular style and graphics and so on.
By the way, this material isn’t always used in a promotional way. When you had stories about the dangers of Vioxx, those stories all used the company produced video of the pills rolling off the assembly line.
The material can be valuable when it’s used as part of a package that’s being reported. We say that it should be identified, but we certainly don’t think that this is anything that requires government intrusion into the newsroom.
Even if the material is not properly identified?
No. I don’t think so for two reasons. One is that we think that the statute as it exists does not apply. The statute deals with material for which consideration was received, and this material is all provided to the stations for free. Secondly, the government shouldn’t intrude into the editorial decision making and create rules about what has to be identified and how it has to be identified.
One of the raps of local TV news is that even though it received billions in political advertising it doesn’t do a good job covering politics, that it’s more interested in the fires and crime.
I just don’t agree with that. I have the opportunity to see a lot of what local stations do and what they produce. They do spend considerable amounts of their news time on politics when there is a significant and competitive race.
The other thing is stations are often sponsors or distributors of debates and lengthy interviews. From what surveys tell us, voters find the debates to be just about the most valuable source of information for making their decisions about who they’re going to vote for. That’s a huge commitment of time by the stations.
Critics of local news who are counting up the numbers of seconds don’t give credit for that kind of coverage. They only take a very narrow look at what a station is doing. They don’t look at the totality of the station effort. If they were to do that, they would find that the picture’s different from the way that it’s been portrayed.
Let’s talk about the convention this year. What’s coming up?
What I would emphasize is that we know that our members are all dealing with the new digital landscape and so we’re trying to get them as much information as we can. We’ll have some of the brightest minds to talk conceptually and also to do the hands-on that people find so valuable.
We have things like News 2.0, the opening session. Miles O’Brien [of CNN] is the moderator. You have Zadi Diaz, a new media producer and principle of Smash Face productions, you have Terry Heaton who is from Media 2.0 at AR&D and you have Michael Rosenblum, who is the founder of the video journalist movement. These are not the usual suspects and the hope is that everybody will learn a lot.
The RTNDA convention isn’t what it was 10 years ago when it was a standalone convention with thousands of attendees. Do you see a time when RTNDA might go it alone again?
We feel that we have a great relationship and a great partnership with NAB that extends into the future and I don’t see us changing that.
NAB came along at just the right time for us. After Sept. 11, everybody experienced a downturn in travel and people just weren’t going to meetings the way that they used to. So we were able to say to our members, hey, come to the RTNDA convention you know and love and you’ll have access to the whole NAB exhibition as well. That has worked out very well.
What kind of attendance are you getting for the conference with NAB?
It has been running about 1,200 people. The other great thing about it is that this is a conference attended by engineers, general managers and station group executives. So it’s a great place for station group executives to meet and talk about their strategies for the coming year. We find that that has really paid off too.