Royal wedding asks: Is U.S. TV news out of touch?

The second worst tornado in U.S. history devastated six southern states this week.  At least 343 people were killed. Thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed. The lives of millions of American have been plunged into crisis mode.

TV News anchors Katie Couric of CBS, Diane Sawyer of ABC, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith were all there.  No, not the tornado ravaged south. They were in London, making whoop-de-do over the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

London’s UK Mail reports: “ABC has vowed to devote 20 hours to the Royal Wedding starting at 4am ET with a special edition of ‘Good Morning America.’ Robin Roberts will be live from Westminster Abbey before handing over to Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters who will anchor the wedding itself. CBS News will have Katie Couric in London two days before the wedding and she will anchor the footage on the day itself. That night the network will broadcast a one-hour special called: ‘The Royal Wedding: Modern Majesty.’  CNN has unveiled its ‘global, multi-platform coverage’ of the big day with Piers Morgan, Anderson Cooper, Richard Quest and Cat Deeley presenting.”

The Wrap reports:  “Fox News Channel’s coverage will be anchored by Shepard Smith and Martha MacCallum and begin at 4 a.m. (ET) from Buckingham Palace — and will run commercial free from 5:30-8:00 a.m.”

The death toll from this week’s storms rose to 343 Saturday, according to an NBC News count. In Alabama alone more than 238 were killed by the storms. Four hundred and forty six others remain missing in Tuscaloosa alone. “I would classify it as a nightmare,”  Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox told the Los Angeles Times.  Today, Maddox said the confirmed death toll in his devastated college town had risen to 38 — a number he said he believed would continue to grow as search teams set out.  Maddox told disaster relief officials that their designation of his town as a “disaster” area was inadequate.

Video: In hard-hit Tuscaloosa, survivors take stock 

True, ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox News have reporters covering the tornado aftermath. (There were a reported 137 tornadoes in Wednesday’s storm system.)  These network’s anchors though, and most of the network’s resources, have been firmly committed to the royal nuptials.

After all, the networks dedicated weeks and millions of dollars promoting coverage of Kate and Will’s wedding.  I suspect the ratings will justify it even if the news network’s journalistic credibility suffers.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Nothing really.

It’s a crystal clear example of an inability by many TV network news executives to  distinguish  news from infotainment- Flash over substance.

Call me old school. I believe the TV networks should dedicate their talent, resources and priorities covering the still unfolding natural disaster in Alabama and five other states.  It’s what television does best;  cover important news that impact the lives of viewers.

Shouldn’t the networks and their marquee anchors prioritize coverage of the tornado aftermath rather than the pageantry and puffery of a royal wedding thousands of miles  away.  What message does this send to TV News audiences?

Here’s a check list of what makes a stories newsworthy:

  • Proximity- Where an event happens is important.   C.A. Tuggle, Forrest Carr and Suzanne Huffman elegantly state in their Broadcast News Handbook;

“An old maxim in television news says that one local death is worth (in terms of news interest) five elsewhere in the state, 20 elsewhere in the country and hundreds elsewhere in the world.”

  • Timeliness- What’s more important? Live coverage dedicated to search efforts to locate missing victims of tornadoes in the south or the royal wedding?
  • Impact- Which story impacts the greatest number of viewers, whether directly or indirectly?
  • Prominence- A person’s standing in society plays a role in making stories about that person(s) newsworthy.
  • Conflict- Disagreement makes for good copy and even better video.
  • Simplicity- Don’t dismiss stories automatically if they don’t seem simple: Make them simple. Relate difficult concepts to common things.

Kudos to NBC News and Brian Williams. According to TV Newser, Williams had arrived at London’s Heathrow airport on Wednesday, picked up his bags and was on his way to NBC’s Royal Wedding encampment when the damage and death toll from last night’s southern storm began to sink in.  “I never got to see our infrastructure in London,” blogged Williams, “or any of my colleagues beyond the confines of my car. We had a magnificent setup — the result of months of planning — to cover the big day in London, and we still will, live and wall-to-wall.  But for now, for us, for this story, one of us had to go back and lead a separate coverage team—as the death toll grows.”

I think NBC’s move was good journalism and good strategy. The network still devoted wedding coverage via its Today Show anchors.  NBC’s primary news anchor though kept the focus on the on-going southern tornado story.

Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

Robert J. Thompson,  founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University wrote about this week’s TV news coverage of the royal wedding: “Whether or not you care—or admit to caring—about the royal wedding, I suppose it can be acknowledged that the event does offer some things of interest, though perhaps more in the way of entertainment than news. There’s the distraction theory, which argues that in a time of war, economic uncertainty, natural disasters, and other bad news, we’re looking for stories of frivolous escape.”

Former CBS News Anchor Dan Rather: "What bothers me is the hypocrisy. The idea that we can't afford to throw resources at an important foreign story, but can afford to spend this kind of money on a story like the royal wedding is just plain wrong." "

Former CBS News Anchor Dan Rather also blogged today:

“Remember the millions of dollars, hundreds of staff and hours of coverage spent on a wedding in London when crises around the globe and here at home festered. Remember the unseemly pas de deux between the press and a reality TV show huckster peddling racially-fraught falsehoods, as both interviewers and the interviewee seek a bump in ratings…The networks couldn’t ignore the devastating storms that killed hundreds in the South, but you had the odd juxtaposition of that news being delivered by anchors sitting in front of Buckingham Palace.  There’s always the question, is the audience chasing the news or the news chasing an audience? I have nothing against the royals or their wedding. It is a legitimate news story, a big event for one of America’s most stalwart allies. We have had a lot of bad news lately, and if you are someone who finds this diversion interesting and exciting, then I think that’s great.  What bothers me is the hypocrisy. The idea that we can’t afford to throw resources at an important foreign story, but can afford to spend this kind of money on a story like the royal wedding is just plain wrong.”

What do you think? Would you prefer the news networks prioritize coverage on the tornado aftermath or the royal wedding?

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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5 Responses to Royal wedding asks: Is U.S. TV news out of touch?

  1. wanderer2007 says:

    CNN turned its back on real news when it hired its CNN Clown, Richard Quest, as a business anchor. What an insult to some excellent reporters and anchors who would have given the proper coverage to the tornado tragedy instead of CNN wasting valuable airtime with Quest stammering his way through a foreign wedding!

  2. guest says:

    I was overseas when all of this was happening and only caught the news during lunch and dinner via large TV screen in loud cafeteria. I have to say that the US weather situations were getting more coverage than the royal wedding. Yes I agree we tend to really confuse news and entertainment these days, but on a global level the royal wedding is huge. As for coverage, I think it’s only fair to take into consideration all of the extensive manhours and money (including increased costs of paid commercials possibly worth millions) that went into months long preparation for the wedding coverage. you cannot exactly dump that. it would be a huge blow financially and otherwise.

    I agree we as a culture are confused about news and entertainment, often taking one for the other, but in the end we get what what we ask for. It seems as a culture we want that escape into grandure and the fantasy of entertainment…and that’s a deeper topic.

    I would say in this case individual case we need to cut the major networks some slack. It was largely based on huge financial and business contractual obligations set in stone long before anyone could have guessed the natural disasters would occur.

    i would bet that thousands of local TV, radio, print news, etc, nationwide dedicated more than ample time to the coverage of the natural disaster.

  3. guest says:

    something else i’d like to share: from where I was sitting everyday getting more international news than we get here, pretty much all I saw were stories about global turmoil. I will admit…the royal wedding (what very little I saw of it) was a very nice diversion and a reminder that there is still some stability and tradition in the world.

  4. Pingback: Super Outbreak 5 years later: My story and the meteorology (Part 5 – the day after) - Northeast Weather

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