Let’s begin with this statement: This article is meant to start conversation. It is meant to stretch your comfort zone a little. TV news has to keep growing and reaching audiences differently for us to stay employed.
There is a conflict in television news that many managers, consultants and journalists themselves are not sure what to do with. The conflict: Defining solid television news stories. We call it hard news. We whine about it every day in story meetings. You know the mantra: “We need more hard news.” So what is hard news really? If you get a few moments Google “hard news, definition.” The definitions are fascinating. Here’s a sampling:
“news that deals with serious topics or events” from www.wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn
“News, as in a newspaper or television report, that deals with formal or serious topics and events.” www.thefreedictionary.com/hard-news
“Serious news of widespread import, concerning politics, foreign affairs, or the like, as distinguished from routine news items, feature stories, or human-interest stories.” www.dictionary.reference.com/browse/hard+news
“Hard news is the kind of fast-paced news that usually appears on the front page of newspapers. Stories that fall under the umbrella of hard news often deal with topics like business, politics and international news. What defines hard news isn’t always about subject matter. Some might call a news story that’s heavily reported, on a subject matter considered softer (like entertainment), hard news because of the way it was approached. Hard news is also a term most often used by journalists and others who work in the media industry, though you will hear others outside the industry use it.” http://mediacareers.about.com/od/glossary/g/HardNews.htm
I purposely did not pull many definitions from TV news websites and reference books, because we need to see how the definitions we create impact what viewers think they will get. See how broad the definitions are? All describe ongoing types of topics: Political battles, stories about business in town, foreign affairs. Yet, most TV news veterans have seen a lot of these topics, especially business stories and foreign affairs, fail in the ratings. Even political news can be difficult to get people to watch unless it is a key election year or a very controversial subject. So what is hard news for TV journalist’s day in and out? Are we defining it incorrectly or executing wrong?
This is where the conversation comes in. Some talking points: First, what does serious news mean? Almost all of the definitions above reference serious news. Defining serious news, often explains a station’s news philosophy, understanding of its community and credibility with viewers. For the sake of argument, let’s define serious news as facts, events and people that have a direct impact on people’s lives. Events and topics that make people stop and think about their own lives and surroundings in a different way. So let’s try and put some tangibles with this idea. Let’s delve into a serious topic that often is covered horribly, if at all on TV: Education. This is a huge topic for your viewers. Your key demographic is raising children. I have worked at several stations that heralded a calendar year, as the year of education coverage. In all cases but one, the station dumped the idea within 6 months. The biggest problem is that education stories are often very video poor. Many schools do not allow you to shoot any video inside. But there are other ways to cover education besides sending a reporter to do a pkg. The biggest opportunity: Debates with local experts on hot topics in the area. Issues like, whether standardized testing is fair, teacher pay, new educational standards and school closings. All evoke a lot of emotion. They do not need b-roll. They need sound to play out. Remember the wild success of the cable network talk shows. You can turn mini-segments that will really get people talking.
Now, the next level of coverage: Show me the people in the schools grinding every day to make a difference. Make some of that coverage positive, because frankly most coverage of teachers involves one screaming at, smacking or diddling a kid. Yes, these stories are important. But we also want to showcase that there are teachers and supervisors that have very positive influences on students and families. Many managers over the years called this too soft, or said we don’t have time for “features.” Remember, hard news needs impact. It showcases events and topics that make people stop and think about their own lives and surroundings differently. (Yes, I am repeating that line, it is important!!) People love to watch stories about other people. Never underestimate the viewer’s fascination with their neighbors. It is basic human nature. Oprah made a gazillion bucks because she understood that. To truly cover a serious issue, like education, you need to showcase all sides. You need to show the human connections. This proves to the viewer you an informed witness, not just another group with an agenda. Remember, viewers are extremely media savvy in this day and age. If you come up with an advocacy campaign and ram it down people’s throats without another counterbalance kind of coverage, you eventually lose some respect. So called “feature” stories about the cool chemistry teacher who reaches students in a unique way, are as important to the viewer as live coverage during hearings about school closures or new testing policies. You have to showcase all elements of impact. That teacher also impacts a lot of lives and seeing a story about the teaching approach helps teach parents ways they can educate their child differently. That has a serious edge. Therefore, it is “hard news” coverage.
Which leads to my next talking point about hard news: It does not always need conflict. Sometimes you just need to relay the facts in a situation so that viewers can learn information and draw conclusions for themselves. A perfect example is health news. If you think health news is all feature fluff, you are very out of touch with the average human being. Everyone thinks about their health. They worry about family members or friends. Everyone has questions. Everyone has concerns. Health news should never be a feature that’s simply considered “fill” for a section of a newscast just to get viewers to weather. It is a type of hard news and should be treated as such. Health news has almost as broad an impact as weather. It’s just usually treated as a throwaway, and therefore comes across that way to the viewer. Next time an interesting health and/or fitness story pops on the wires, sit down and brainstorm on ways you could make it a lead story. I am not saying you really must lead with it, but treat the story like you would hard news. (Remember the definition above that references some things like entertainment news becoming hard news because of the coverage approach?). Look at it critically. Ask a lot of WIFM questions (if that confuses you read What is the viewer benefit really? ) and see if you end up with a fascinating edgy pkg idea or segment for your newscast.
My final and most crucial point is hard news should directly influence people’s lives. Again the word impact. Let’s replace the word serious in the above definitions, with the word impact. Let’s consider how most stations cover several topics, starting with crime. There’s a home invasion in a crime ridden neighborhood and police think it is drug related. If hard news is about serious issues that directly affect your viewers lives, is a live shot outside the house with a banner saying home invasion fair and/or enough? Are you giving the viewer, who counts on you to be the experts in your community, an accurate representation of where they live? Or are you in lust for a 40 second quickie that allows you to type in home invasion on a live super because it’s “sexy?”
Studies by The Pew Research Center consistently show that people are interested and looking for news about the economy, and aren’t getting the coverage. Slapping up a 20 second reader with an over the shoulder that says “unemployment down” is not the kind of economic news they want though. People are confused. Concerns over their job security, the worth of their house, if they will ever have enough money to retire, and if more of their neighbors are going hungry are daily topics. I can honestly tell you that not a week has gone by in three years that I have not overheard or been involved in a conversation with “viewers” about concerns over the economy. It is a constant. I hear it in grocery store checkout lines, picking kids up from school, having friends over for dinner, taking a walk in the neighborhood, and in exercise classes. People are worried. They feel at a loss for information. They need help. That is hard news. It has impact.
So remember, when considering if a story idea is hard news, consider the likelihood people are talking about that story and have lingering questions. Is there a new set of facts people need to know about, but don’t have the information? Is there something going on they should care about, but may not know yet? Think about the stories that just stick with you. A lot of those emotional connections you make with a story, involve coverage and techniques many journalists would call soft. There is a character. There is emotion. You feel differently for having watched the story. You remember those stories. But chances are most of the so called hard news you pushed for in a rundown or agonized over turning because you could not find impact… are a blur as of you drive home from work. Guess what? It’s a blur to viewers also, because they turn off the TV. They say to themselves: “This story doesn’t affect me and my friends. I cannot relate to this. Why should I bother to watch.” Believe me, they really do. I get bombarded with these comments and questions constantly. Truthfully, you probably do also from your non-news friends. Make sure the people make it into the coverage so the viewer can truly feel connected to the topic or event. Don’t fear lack of video, you can always showcase interesting sound to make your points. Do not push for or create conflict when there is none. Sometimes a story is hard just because it has great information. Finally, stop labeling types of news, like health and education as “features.” Try and show these broad appeal topics respect. Journalists are feeling more pressure these days to market and brand themselves. Taking these impact topics and delivering interesting stories with a “hard edge” is a great way to quickly make a name for yourself. Remember to focus on impact and people. The hard edge will come out in your coverage, because your viewers will be impacted by the information. You will become popular with viewers because you get what they need. You will brand yourself as “real” and “trustworthy.” Most importantly, delving into these topics can and will be journalistically gratifying. These topics can provide opportunities to empower people to change lives. Isn’t that why you got into broadcast news? What is a harder or a more serious type of news than that?