January 1, 2014

Just before the holidays, late-night comedian Conan O’Brien poked a little fun at local TV newscasts. In doing so, he illustrated some serious issues about the compromises journalists make in understaffed newsrooms.

O’Brien strung together clips of two dozen local news anchors reading an identical story – a consumer report about the supposed trend of holiday “self gifting.” The newscasts were broadcast in different cities – from Boise to Ft. Wayne to Dothan, Ala., but each of the anchors introduced the story with the exact same words: “It’s okay; you can admit it if you bought an item or two or ten for yourself.”

O’Brien has aired similar montages in the past, capturing repetition in local stories about such topics as Cyber Monday shopping, restaurants that serve political-themed food, and the news that actor Mike Myers and his wife were expecting a baby. The compilations are popular fodder for Internet discussions, where viewers attributed the homogeneity to “consumerist propaganda,” “controlled brainwashing,” and “corporations spitting out prefabricated copies of fake news.”

The truth is less conspiratorial. Each story O’Brien featured was supplied by a syndication service that distributes scripts, video clips, and fully-produced news packages to local stations. The self gifting story came from CNN Newsource, which claims 800 affiliates. (CNN is part of Time Warner, which also owns the TBS cable channel that airs “Conan.”)

You’re almost certainly watching syndicated content when your local newscast shows video of national or international stories. Stations also rely on Newsource for sports highlights, business and consumer reports, entertainment news, and stories CNN categorizes as “Caught on Camera,” “Animals,” “Kickers,” and “Easy to Tease.”

“Those services give us the ability to run different content in each show,” said Matthew Weesner, the news director at KHGI in Kearney, Neb., one of the stations O’Brien included in the self gifting montage. “We’re doing six and a half hours of live programming a day, and we’ve got a lot of space to fill with a pretty small newsroom.”

Weesner notes the arrangement with Newsource is not unlike the deals news organizations have maintained for decades with wire services such as the Associated Press. Still, Weesner says he wasn’t happy when he saw the O’Brien routine, which revealed that KHGI’s staff was “ripping and reading” syndicated content, a practice he discourages in his newsroom.

“People are supposed to be at least rewriting the lead sentence, and hopefully the entire lead-in to the package,” Weesner said in a phone interview. “As soon as we saw that happen, we said it was time to reevaluate how we do things so that something like that doesn’t happen again.”

“You hope they’ve done their due diligence”

Used appropriately, video syndicators can greatly enhance newscasts, bringing viewers important stories that are obviously beyond the reach of a local station’s reporters. It was through CNN Newsource, for instance, that WMFD in Mansfield, Ohio, broadcast news of this week’s Russian bombings and the website of KRDO in Colorado Springs had access to a report on the South Sudanese violence.

But the self gifting story — which can be seen in its entirety here and here — exhibits some of the pitfalls of syndicated content. Even if viewers don’t detect the canned intro, they might notice that the rest of the story has a generic feel, featuring non-descript video of an unnamed mall and, in some versions, interviews with unnamed shoppers.

Some stations also edited key facts out of the story or presented it in ways that overhyped its premise. The original CNN report was largely based on a survey from the National Retail Federation, which annually asks people “if they plan to take advantage of sales or price discounts during the holiday season to make additional non-gift purchases.” The survey concluded that self gifting has increased over the past decade, but consumers planned to slightly cut back on the practice this year.

KTNV in Las Vegas missed that subtlety when it called self gifting “a trend that’s exploded.” Meanwhile, KGUN in Tucson aired the story without attributing the data to the National Retail Federation or mentioning any source for the statistics at all. That’s not a small omission, as retailers have a vested interest in promoting self gifting to help drive holiday sales.

It’s likely that a local journalist, given time to report the story in his or her own community, could have produced a more informed, more original, and certainly more local examination of consumers’ holiday spending. But many newsrooms don’t have enough reporters to assign one to that story.

Perhaps more troublesome, they also may lack the resources to scrutinize or fact-check syndicated stories before they broadcast them verbatim.

“That’s a concern,” said News Content Manager Kevin Wuzzardo at WWAY in Wilmington, N.C., a station that’s appeared in several O’Brien montages. “That’s why you rely on established, credible sources like the Associated Press and the networks and CNN.”

“You hope that they’ve done their due diligence,” Wuzzardo said in a phone interview.

‘Rip and read’ is common, but do viewers care?

A CNN spokeswoman declined to comment directly on O’Brien’s parody, but noted in an emailed statement that ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox provide similar news content for their local affiliates.

Indeed, the use of national feeds has increased as stations expand the number of hours they devote to local news while paradoxically cutting news staff and budgets.

“This is a sad state of affairs, but the TV equivalent of ‘rip-and-read’ content is prevalent in all markets,” said University of Hawaii Communications Professor Ann Auman, who used to work as a newspaper and television journalist. “Many of these stations are now owned by national corporate owners who have little interest in investing in news reporting in the local market.”

In an email, Auman noted that overreliance on syndicated stories results in local newscasts that are homogenized and lack local content and diverse voices. That not only makes the newscasts fodder for O’Brien’s recurring comedy routines, but also helps fuel viewer cynicism. And it encourages the Internet memes that cast TV news as a cog in a coordinated propaganda campaign.

“It doesn’t make us look very good,” said Weesner, the news director in Kearney, Neb. “To the average viewer who doesn’t fully understand how a newsroom works, that can be a problem.”

Related: Why local newscasters said ‘Yeah, baby’ about Mike Myers news

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