Accuracy in TV news

TV studio

I recently read an article on Poynter MediaWire about the use of the word “tonight” in TV newscasts.

The article showed the misuse of time periods in the narration of some TV stories.

Here is what Ric Ward found out when he watched ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir.

“On Tuesday, July 21, I counted 45 “tonight” references in the newscast. All but 10 of the “tonights” were in anchor scripts. The other 10 were in reporter packages or live shots. With a news hole of roughly 20 minutes, that’s a “tonight” every 26 seconds.

Were all the “tonights” necessary? In my opinion, no. Most were like Newswriting 102 in hyper overdrive. Not needed. Only thrown in to give the story an air of immediacy – a false air of immediacy.

Were they accurate? For most, if not all — no. Lines like ‘new video released tonight’ when the video had aired most of the day on other networks, cable channels and online were simply false. Lines like ‘investigators say tonight’ are also inaccurate. Unless you consider early afternoon as ‘tonight’,”

I was pretty shock by that article because I realized I had never really paid attention to the misuse of “tonight.” But by watching the ABC newscast I realized how misleading this was. It also made me think of the overuse of adjectives in TV journalism. It is not rare to hear words like “terrible,” “dramatic” or “incredible” in a newscast.

These adjectives make the reports less objective and adds drama and sensationalization. But this is not what an unbiased newscast should be. A journalist or anchor is not supposed to tell the audiance how to feel about the news.

On the contrary to ABC evening news, I watched the CBS evening news and they did a great job avoiding “tonight” when it was not accurate, they actually almost never used it. They used a couple of “drama adjectives” but nothing too problematic in my opinion.

Photo credit: Wiki Commons. Some Rights Reserved.

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3 thoughts on “Accuracy in TV news

  1. Have you every noticed this as a problem in print or online stories? What I always understood to be the concern when writing a news story, was that you don’t know when someone might be reading it. It could be the day you wrote it, so using “today” would be accurate, or it could be the following week, when the context would now be wrong to the reader. If all of these “tonights” are coming from anchor scripts, then who is writing and editing those scripts? Is it just assumed that viewers are watching the broadcast as it is happening, instead of at a later time? As Ward points out, there is often no greater reason for using those timestamps other than to give the story a sense of immediacy. I think you’re right in saying this just seems like a way that the broadcast news is being sensationalized.

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  2. This “tonight” phenomenon has been driving me crazy on NBC Nightly News, Audrey. Thanks for your discussion of it on ABC — and the comparison with CBS. There is definitely an ethical dimension to the meaning of words, and you’ve pinpointed a good example. One way of looking at this might be as a tension between the principle of accuracy or truth-telling and the perceived need to increase ratings by appearing to be extremely timely. The latter is a worthy goal, but not when it comes at the expense of basic accuracy.

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  3. I never thought of this but after reading your post it makes total sense. In fact, I really don’t watch the nightly news because it drives me crazy. Sensationalism, fear mongering, and a false sense of immediacy does not create a space for unbiased journalism. It does not allow for the viewers to draw their own conclusions or properly filter information. You’re right about the tension between accuracy/truth telling and the need for high ratings. Do you think that the extreme and seemingly blatant overuse of the word “tonight” is subconscious/accidental or on purpose? I wonder.

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