Public deserves to have network news anchors at Mandela memorial

Among the tens of thousands of mourners, hundreds of journalists and dozens of world leaders packed into Africa’s largest stadium to memorialize Nelson Mandela on Tuesday were two noticeable absences: the anchors for two of America’s three evening newscasts.

NBC’s Brian Williams is in South Africa for the first part of this week anchoring his network’s coverage, but Scott Pelley from CBS and Diane Sawyer from ABC are home in New York tossing to reporters in the field.

Media watchers, such as Brian Stelter speaking on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper,” pointed out the decisions to leave Pelley and Sawyers home come as network news operations face tighter budgets, logistical challenges and a dwindling public interest in foreign reporting.

I’ll accept the budget constraints and logistics as a plausible excuse, although it’s not like we haven’t known for quite some time that Mandela was in poor health, giving networks time to plan.

Still, the logistical challenges are daunting. It takes a significant amount of equipment and people to bring a network newscast on the road, plus the 16+hour flight from New York means you’d have to commit to at least a couple of days on the ground in South Africa, as NBC did.

The lack of public interest, however, is a lame excuse. Executive producers, news directors and editors for years have been grappling with an audience that more and more demands to be fed only the news it wants to hear.

The journalists calling the editorial shots at mainstream outlets see the success of news outlets that cater to a specific audience – Fox News, MSNBC and The Blaze come to mind – and feel the pressure to give people what they want, not necessarily what they need (or don’t know they want).

The rise of digital news also has a huge influence. Unlike newspapers or television, editors can see in real time which stories are getting clicks. Since page views largely equal money online, there’s a natural inclination to write stories that will get lots of clicks and shares.

TV producers now regularly look the “most popular” sections of websites to supplement their own news judgment because it gives them a quantifiable way to see what people are interested in. The end result is “viral” stories end up carrying more weight than they should across different media.

This is a difficult concept for editors and producers to deal with. News websites are largely money-making ventures, after all, and there is a lot of pressure to drive up traffic with stories that get people talking. I’m not saying that putting the “talker” stories on the top of your site isn’t always a bad thing (I’ve done it myself), but producers need to be aware that it’s not always the right call and have the backbone to resist the click pressure when necessary. It’s a nuanced and difficult thing to do.

Sure, people who are motivated will seek out news about Mandela or protests in Ukraine or conflict in the eastern Congo. But what about the office worker who logs on to scan headlines during a lunch break? I think he or she would click on these kinds of stories if news sites served them up prominently.

We like to blame the lack of international coverage on a drop in demand. It’s a convenient explanation, but perhaps the reason we’ve seen demand drop is because we’ve largely stopped exposing people to foreign reporting. At some point journalists need to take more foreign stories and say:  “Try reading this. We think you’ll enjoy it.”

That same principle goes for network newscasts. Despite the growth of new media, television news, especially the national evening news, is still a dominant player in the American journalistic landscape. That’s why it’s critical these newscasts commit to covering the biggest stories with all the resources at their disposal.

Sending the anchors to South Africa sends a powerful message about the gravity of the story. It’s sad to see that the memorial for the single most influential man in a generation doesn’t make the cut.

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