News Viewers Won’t Be Fooled

About 15 years ago, Don Hewitt, the genius-creator of 60 Minutes and my longtime boss, gave an interview to a TV writer. The reporter asked him how much his decisions about stories were driven by the “minute-by-minutes.”

“The what?” Don responded. “Oh come on,” the reporter said. “You know what I’m talking about. Those ratings reports that show viewer tune-in or tune-out down to the second.” Don, in all sincerity, had never heard of them. He liked to say that he decided what to put in each Sunday’s program “by my fingertips.” In other words, he exercised editorial judgment.

It’s safe to say that there’s not a single executive in TV news today who’s ignorant of those real-time ratings reports. And there aren’t too many who don’t make decisions based at least in part on what they say. It is almost impossible to over-estimate the degree to which U.S. news organizations have surrendered editorial judgement to market testing, audience research and the relentless pursuit of eyeballs.

Michael Jackson’s death provides a perfect example: At the beginning, all the metrics of audience measurement showed huge public interest in that story. Naturally, news organizations threw every resource, and every moment of airtime, into satisfying that audience hunger. That’s fine; it was compelling … for a day or two. But audience interest is like crack cocaine for news organizations; after the first rush, they just can’t stop, even when sensible viewers or readers have stopped. So they rode Jackson, quite literally, into the ground, offering blanket coverage long past the point at which most people had said “Enough!”

The other significant way in which audience-chasing is trumping editorial judgement is ideological: some news organizations have decided that the best way to build ratings is by playing to one end or the other of the opinion spectrum. “If we consistently reinforce our viewers’ political opinions,” the theory goes, “they’ll become much more loyal to us, and a more reliable audience base.” This happens to be true, but it’s a business model rather than a journalistic instinct.

There’s a price to be paid for this pandering, of course. Every public opinion survey shows massive cynicism about U.S. news organizations, and the numbers of people who don’t trust or believe what they see or hear on mainstream news outlets continues to grow. The Pew Research Center’s Sept. 12 study on the subject found record levels of mistrust, with the public’s confidence in the accuracy of news stories at its lowest level in more than two decades. Just 29% believe that news organizations get their facts straight … 63% say that news stories are often inaccurate. The same study, titled “Public Evaluations of the News Media: 1985-2009,” found only 26% of Americans feel that news organizations are careful that their reporting is not politically biased.

People are smart enough to know shamelessness when they see it. They know that stories are chosen and highlighted because someone has decided they’ll grab the greatest attention or appeal to a particular point of view.

I honestly believe that this trend is the road to ruin for news organizations. Anyone who doubts it should go back and read the Pew study. Luckily, I work for an organization, the BBC, that believes both in engaging its audience and sticking to the principle of sound editorial and journalistic judgment. I’m sure we do just as much audience research as anyone else, and we want to draw as large a rating as possible. We’re just not willing to throw our profession and its standards out the window in pursuit. And if my old boss, Don Hewitt, proved anything in his remarkable career, it’s that you can have both editorial integrity and huge ratings.