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Viewer Letters, Viewer Trust

When the story on WJAR Providence ombudsman Paul Giacobbe came out earlier this week, I was curious if I’d hear from stations telling me I was wrong to say that Giacobbe was perhaps the only local TV ombudsman–a public editor tasked with addressing viewer concerns about reporting at the station–in the country.

I didn’t hear from anyone about their ombudsman, so I now think it’s even safer to say Giacobbe is the only one of his kind out there.

I did, however, get an interesting letter from a former WJAR anchor about his efforts to build trust with viewers and holding the station’s reporters and producers more accountable for their reportage. Dave Layman says he sought to launch a “viewer letters” segment at WJAR in the mid-’70s, and eventually got the project on the air at WBNS in Columbus.

He writes:

I anchored the evening news at WJAR-TV in Providence in the mid 1970s. Just before I left, I came up with the idea of running a local “viewer letters” special segment every week on our newscasts. We would showcase viewer comments on the news stories we aired and the way we covered them. News director Bill Vance left WJAR-TV before we were able to introduce it. A short time later when Bill hired me at WBNS-TV in Columbus we pioneered the segment, “Eye on Us” (”Eye” because we were a CBS affiliate.)

Several years later when I moved to Dallas and KXAS-TV we did an identical segment, “Action NewsLetters.” Again, these were weekly special segments running about three minutes. They were like no other local TV news segment.

Frankly, I was modeling it after 60 Minutes‘ letter segment–but with a twist. As you know, 60 Minutes would excerpt critical viewer letters and would run them without comment…kind of a sounding board. I thought we should do more. We designed the segments using different approaches and tools. We might excerpt the viewer’s letter; go out and put the viewer on camera to explain their complaint; run a short clip of the “offending” news story and so on. We would then do a sitdown interview with the reporter, producer, videographer, assignment editor, managing editor or news director, depending on the criticism. I would press them to explain or defend their story. When my own stories were called into question, my co-anchor would ask me the tough questions, too. No one was exempted, not even the news director.

Understandably, some news staffers didn’t like the hot seat. But no one ever refused.

Eventually, most of our news staff saw the value in the segment and took pride in it since it demonstrated how seriously we took our jobs.

The segment made for interesting, provocative and dynamic television. Reporters would offer their explanations (or defense). This also created an opportunity to explain to the viewer the often unglamorous, difficult process of constructing a story against all odds under a crushing deadline. Sometimes reporters starred down the camera and said, “I made a mistake…I goofed and here’s how it happened.” Powerful stuff. The viewer had a chance to walk in the reporter’s shoes while appreciating his/her humanity. The audience reacted favorably and the letters increased, sometimes applauding-not criticizing–a story.

You have to remember, this was at a time when TV news was king of the hill, watched nightly, respected and rarely criticized (except for those pesky TV critics who often seemed intent on smearing a competing medium.)

I wish more stations would run a segment like this today. They probably won’t. This is a different time now. We are in an anti-journalist era. This is also an era of more newscasts with fewer seasoned professionals contributing to them. That has ushered in the multi-platform journalists who have to shoot, write, edit, run their own live shots, post to the station’s web and blog. These differences mean more mistakes and that could open up an avalanche of critical mail, email, Facebook and twitter tweaks. The potential for a weekly skewering from skeptical viewers would be seen as self-destructive and at cross purposes with the station’s news promotional efforts

One thing hasn’t changed, though. If this segment is done well, I think everyone wins. The audience appreciates the journalists who are willing to look into a camera saying we tried hard but didn’t get it quite right. Refreshing.

The journalist’s mission is still critical; the truth still matters; and most professionals, regardless of their ages and skill levels still want to get it right. That’s all the more reason to still have the “Eye on Us.”

Dave Layman

Former major market news anchor, news director and managing editor