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HARPER: For ‘World News,’ a distressing decline in standards
ABC's "World News," once a leader in innovative journalism and international news, has become a program that provides predictable coverage, with only a few reporters apparently leaving the office to cover stories.
I worked for ABC News for 15 years as bureau chief in Cairo and Rome in the 1980s and then went to work for "20/20" until I left in 1995. Simply put, I was amazed at how far the quality of the broadcast had fallen when I watched the program over the past week.
Correspondents from New York and Washington reported on stories from Memphis, Tenn., and Ankara, Turkey, rather than using someone on location. Journalists relied on Skype for interviews in some instances. Unimpressive animation was employed in several reports, such as the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara.
More troubling, however, were some of the stories selected for the broadcasts. Last Thursday, for example, the program began with a weather story in which six people died — three in a pileup on a Michigan highway. Apparently good visuals of the accident trumped the most important story of the day, which centered on the Senate hearings on Chuck Hagel's nomination to become secretary of defense. The blistering attack from his former Republican Senate colleagues, including his onetime friend, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, was especially fierce.
A story that filtered throughout the week focused on a 5-year-old boy taken hostage in Alabama. The hostage taker had killed a bus driver in a rural area and holed up in a weird bunker. The captor was killed Monday and the child saved. The title, "The Little Boy in the Bunker," really didn't seem to gather much of a following.
The only rationale for full-length stories on the incident seemed to be the continuing debate over gun ownership. In fact, "World News" followed the story on one occasion with a longer story on gun violence, which failed to include any group opposed to greater restrictions on weapons.
Moreover, some simply odd or incomplete stories appeared on the broadcast during the week:
• Beyonce acknowledging she did not actually sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the inauguration but would not lip-sync any songs at the Super Bowl.
• A burglary ring that gained access to a list of people who suspended delivery of their newspapers when on vacation. I don't really know many people who still have newspapers delivered to suspend!
• On Friday, the program led with the Dow hitting 14,000. The fact the stock market dropped nearly 1 percent Monday got scant notice.
• An out-of-focus rendition of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra playing and singing a song in support of the Baltimore Ravens.
But a story that crossed the line between advertising and journalism, however, occurred Friday when the "Person of the Week" segment centered on the Clydesdale horses, a new colt and the trainer. Almost everyone knows the tie between the horses and Budweiser beer. Having produced the first "Person of the Week" about a Navy admiral who led an attack on Libya, I was simply saddened how far the standards for this important segment have fallen so that a blatant commercial tie-in was broadcast.
Only three stories passed editorial muster during my week of viewing. Bob Woodruff, the onetime co-anchor until he was wounded in Iraq in 2006, outlined an innovative new braking system for trucks that might prevent much of the damage in major traffic incidents. Another story — labeled as exclusive — focused on Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani girl who was wounded by Taliban gunmen. The second-day coverage of the attack on the embassy in Turkey effectively focused on a guard who lost his life saving others.
Although the broadcast ranks as No. 2 behind "NBC Nightly News," Nielsen Media Research maintains the size of the ABC audience from the ages of 25 to 54 has been growing in recent weeks. Nevertheless, none of my 71 senior students at Temple watch the program.
One final note: Anchor Diane Sawyer has been a television star for many years, but I find her cloying delivery has become increasingly annoying.
An ABC representative was unavailable for comment.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and "20/20." He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20” for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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