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Advice for Skeptics: A Television Reporter Speaks

Interviews

Clyde Freeman Herreid

Volume 7.4, December 1997

I’m as much to blame as the next skeptic. I spend a lot of time complaining about the press and the coverage of the paranormal, but I do little about it. And when I do try to complain, I'm ineffective. I simply don’t know how to stop the incredible flow of paranormal material that pours out of TV sets and newsstands. We skeptics seem to be helpless in the face of the bizarre, the supernatural, and the New Age.

Kimberly Drake is a veteran of several radio and television stations and currently is an investigative reporter on KCNC-TV, the CBS affiliate in Denver. She not only covers the latest scandals, villains, and shenanigans, but also the occasional story on Virgin Mary statues that cry, cattle mutilations by aliens, and mysterious black helicopters. She has been a friend of the skeptical movement for years. I had an opportunity to interview her recently on the ways that a skeptic can influence television coverage.


CFH: Kimberly, many of us who pride ourselves on a rational approach to life are appalled by the increasing fascination the media have with the paranormal. The press and especially television seem to show little critical appraisal of their impact on the American public. They are just as likely to report an alien abduction as a school board meeting. How can we skeptics effectively make changes in the media?

KD: First suggestion . . . make sure you (the skeptic) understand what you are objecting to. Is it a nationally syndicated “entertainment” program, or is it something on a local news program? Frequently people confuse the two, making sweeping judgments about “the evil media.”

For example, The X-Files or Unsolved Mysteries, both programs that have an aura of scientific credibility that may confuse viewers, are nationally produced programs. The local station you are watching has practically no control over these shows. It certainly has no control over content. If you want to complain locally, complain directly to the general manager of the station, but this will probably have little effect on the programming. You would be better off writing a letter directly to the head of the national network that produces these shows. Call the local station to find what address you should write to in New York.

If, instead, your gripe is about something locally produced, for instance, a piece on black helicopters, ghosts, or the paranormal, you should contact the local station. However, you are wasting your time unless you do this correctly. Do not, I repeat, do not simply make a phone call to the local newsroom. Having worked in newsrooms in TV stations and radio stations for years, I can tell you this is a waste of time. I liken it to complaining to the school janitor about a budgetary decision the school board has made. Complain to the people who make the decisions. In a newsroom, the people who answer the phones are not the people who make decisions. You will most likely end up whining to some underpaid, overworked producer, writer, assignment desk person, or reporter. While these people may agree with you that the piece on (fill in the blank) was a bunch of hogwash, they aren’t in decision-making positions for the most part. The people to complain to are the news director and the general manager of the TV station. The general manager is really the top dog.

It is also a mistake to assume that your phone call, complaint, ideas will be passed on to those in decision-making capacities. You are just one more phone call amidst phone calls from people wanting to know when I Love Lucy reruns are coming on, people complaining about their landlord, people who say electromagnetic radiation is giving them headaches, people complaining about their custody settlements, people who see the Virgin Mary in the stain from their water pipes, people upset that the anchor woman has cut her hair, and people who want to know if today is Tuesday. You would be astounded at the number of phone calls that come into a TV station. It is a rare station that has a place to send people with legitimate programming gripes.

CFH: Is a phone call to the news director or general manager the best way to get attention or is a letter better?

KD: Your best bet is to put your thoughts down on paper. No, it won’t take that long. No, it won’t be ignored. Yes, it is worth your time. You can say the same thing on paper that you would be saying on the phone, but it will carry more weight. Make your argument that not all arguments have equal weight. Make your argument that by covering the psychics, the station is legitimizing outlandish, irrational thinking. Make your argument that the TV news has a duty to intelligently cover the news, a duty to not give credence to the silly and ridiculous, a duty to inform people so they can make intelligent decisions, not be confused by the fads of the day. Whatever. And, if you belong to a skeptics group, you should have several people in the organization write. Be organized. Be direct. Don't simply complain to one another. Have a group of people who are the media watchers.

I can tell you that your letter will carry much more weight and have a greater influence than all the moaning and groaning you do to one another.

Most people in the media are reasonably intelligent. Granted, they have different concerns than you do. It is a business. It is not a university. We are in business to make money, but most people in the media believe that we should be accurate and tell the truth. Keep in mind that we have unbelievably short deadlines. It is unrealistic to think that a news station or a reporter will have more than a few hours to do any story. You can help them do a better job by providing information about a subject you believe is not being well covered. Always remember that whatever you offer needs to be easy to absorb.

CFH: Suppose that with all our complaining to the news director or general manager we can’t stop the local TV station from doing stories on the paranormal, are we at a dead end?

KD: No. If you can’t convince the local station to stop doing stories about therapeutic touch, crystals, psychics, ghosts, and herbalists, then provide a counter viewpoint. Figure out who in your group can be available to offer another perspective. It should be somebody who is good on camera, witty, and succinct. It should not be someone humorless and monotonous. You want people to think about your alternate viewpoint, not be turned off by what a bunch of bores skeptics are. Even if you cannot convince a station to stop doing fringe stories, you can appeal to their sense of equal coverage — that being a good reporter requires giving the other side of the story. This argument will win over just about any news director or reporter.

It is of course always a good idea to make friends with some sympathetic reporters in each station. They can let you know if the station is about to do a five-part series on holistic healing or people abducted by aliens. While you might not be able to prevent this series from airing, you can make sure it has some rational thought in it.

Keep in mind that, as obvious as you believe your viewpoint is, chances are the people deciding what gets covered have not thought of your viewpoint. Chances are they see no harm in doing stories on ghosts or UFOs or iridology. They most likely look at it as something unusual and interesting. Don't throw your hands up and complain to your fellow skeptic. You're preaching to the converted. And if you do get up the gumption to do something about what you don’t like, make sure you direct your complaint to the right person, or you are wasting your breath. News directors and general managers care deeply about public perception. And you are part of the public.

CFH: Kimberly, I think it would help if the viewers understood how stations decide to cover particular stories and how assignments are made on a daily basis.

KD: There is a morning meeting, where the producers and managers sit around and discuss what they think should be covered during the day. Keep in mind this always changes. News is a fluid business, and if there is a four alarm fire and five people die, the story on baby giraffes born at the zoo will never see the light of day.

Ideas come from a variety of sources: the newspaper, press releases sent to the station, ideas from reporters and producers, and, of course, there is breaking news that often dictates what gets covered. So, after about half an hour to an hour of discussion, reporters are assigned stories, and photographers are paired with them. Stories that require less note-taking may only be assigned a photographer.

The assignment manager writes who is doing what on a giant board and, as reporters come in, they are given their assignments. Reporters then go off and begin making phone calls to set up interviews so they can go out with a photographer to shoot their story.

Reporters at the station where I work are expected to develop their own stories as often as possible and are expected to break stories. We “work the phones"; in other words, we talk to cops, politicians, sources to see what’s going on that might end up being newsworthy.

CFH: In what way can you as a reporter control the final product that we see on the evening news?

KD: Individual reporters may or may not have a lot of control over what they cover. It depends entirely on the newsroom, or sometimes how much respect the individual reporter has in the newsroom.

If it is a breaking news story and you are the one on the scene, usually you have a lot of control. Unless you work in a newsroom with an egomaniacal news director, it is assumed that you have the best handle on the situation. But, that’s not to say you won’t be overruled by an assignment manager, executive producer, assistant news director, or news director.

If we are talking about a daily story you have been assigned, you have a lot of control over whom you talk to, how much time you give people in your piece, what pieces of information are included. And if you really think it’s a moronic idea, you may be allowed to do something else, provided you have a better story up your sleeve.

If it’s a story you have come up with, you have the most control. You know the subject and the story. You write it, you voice it, you have say in how it’s edited. It’s your baby.

If it’s a series piece and you've been assigned it, you are pretty much expected to produce what the news director or manager who assigned it to you wants. You will have some say in whom you end up interviewing and, of course, you write it, but the people who assigned it to you usually have pretty definite ideas of how they want it to look and be promoted. At my station, for instance, the promotions manager is involved in series meetings and has a lot of say in whether something is worth doing, based on whether he believes it is “promotable.” In other words, can he attract viewers with the piece. TV is a business and you should never forget it. Those who do are out of jobs. If people really wanted PBS, everybody would be doing shows on the secret life of crayfish.

CFH: So, what are the essential criteria for determining the news value of a story?

KD: Well, I could write a book on this one . . . but it’s common sense. Is it interesting? Is it unusual? Is it new? Is it something that affects a lot of people? Is it something out of the ordinary? Is it something people need to know about? Is it something people will watch? Will it touch people, make them happy, sad, mad, whatever?

Most people see TV news as both entertainment and news. The people who are giving you the news need to be engaging, yet credible. The stories need to be well-told, yet accurate. It’s a peculiar business because presentation is an important part of the equation. Yet, faking news, lying, being sloppy are absolutely not acceptable. That’s why when it happens — and like any business, we have some bad apples — it receives so much attention. Think about it, we are one of the few businesses where we cover, we report . . . we reveal our weaknesses and expose them.

CFH: Why cover the occult or paranormal at all?

KD: At our station it hardly ever happens. I can tell you, I don’t say, “Hey, let’s go do a story on devil worship today.” But to think there aren’t some kids who are into that is to ignore the truth. But, we would only do that kind of thing if there was a news peg. For instance, let’s say several kids at a high school had killed themselves and the police said that in all the deaths, there was evidence that the kids were involved in devil worship. The public has a right to know this, and parents need to know because it might be something their children might be getting mixed up in.

Just going out and doing a story on the occult or the paranormal without any news peg doesn't happen too often where I work. If the decision was made to do it, my hunch would be that my bosses would assume that people might be interested in it, want to know more about it, and, therefore, it might pull in viewers. People, for better or worse, are often interested in the macabre and bizarre. Thus the success of Stephen King, Anne Rice, etc.

CFH: So, if you are assigned to do a story on the paranormal, what do you see as your obligations?

KD: To be accurate. To make as much effort within the time constraints to tell a complete story. To get as many different, legitimate viewpoints in as possible. To help people get enough information to make good, intelligent decisions about the important issues in their lives. To be fair. To work hard at collecting information, making every effort within time constraints to get correct information. To write clearly. It would take a lot more time to answer this one well.

CFH: How much do you think the average person believes of what he sees on TV?

KD: I'm not sure I understand the question. I would assume that if I do a story on a bill before the legislature, and I talk to two different legislators with different viewpoints, that people know this is an issue where people have different ideas. People can listen and decide which viewpoint they agree with. If I do a story on a crime, I talk to neighbors, the police, anybody I can get my hands on, and try to tell what happened. Stories like this change, because the police learn more as an investigation goes on. So I tell what is known at the moment. I assume people know that. I believe people are skeptical of some of the viewpoints presented. I believe that viewers believe I am making a good effort to get accurate information.

Clyde Freeman Herreid

Clyde F. Herreid is a CSICOP consultant, magician, biologist, Distinguished Teaching Professor and Academic Director of the University Honors Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14260.