In my forty years of broadcasting experience, I’ve fielded thousands of questions about my work; topics include covering news, anchoring programs, interviewing world leaders and celebrities, and yes, the glamor and excitement of it all. But I can’t remember anyone-whether on a street, in a classroom, or at a dinner party-ever questioning how news people behaved, or whether that behavior reflects our society.
In my earliest days behind a microphone, I worked at a small radio station while finishing high school. That’s where I began learning the very foundations of journalism-accuracy, truth and fairness. Those principles have always stayed with me, from serving as a news assistant for the legendary Walter Cronkite at CBS to the unique public responsibility of owning a group of radio stations.
From the moment that I walked into that newsroom at WKRO Radio in Boston, I knew I was in a different world-clearly, a strange place where all the stress of society found a home. As a kid from Nashua, New Hampshire, just out of college, I was about to get my first lesson in professional journalism. Newsrooms became my second home, and some of the characters in them were priceless mentors to me.
TV News & Decreasing Standards of Civility
The newsrooms where I have worked, for the most part, did not fit common definitions of civility. They’re generally loud, peppered with colorful language, and rarely well-organized; most are littered with used coffee cups, pizza boxes, and newspapers. It’s always been a wonder to me that somehow, this environment manages to lead to creativity and responsibility in communicating with a mass audience.
What a rich heritage we have in broadcasting, from Edward R. Murrow and Peter Jennings to Walter Cronkite, once voted the most trusted man in America. Remember Chet Huntley and David Brinkley? It was nice to hear them say, “goodnight, Chet,” and “goodnight, David.” They were our heroes, and we stand on their shoulders.
There were also rules in the early days of broadcasting – unwritten for the most part – that reflected the kind of society we were, and the standards we respected. To me, history and tradition are marvelous teachers. I wish young people heading into our business would spend as much time studying the events and personalities of the past as they do on technology and social media.
Why We Should Be Careful On Air
When we hit the air and go into millions of homes, it has to be with respect for those who watch and listen. We should be careful not to offend in any way and always aware of the trust placed in us. At times, however, politeness bumps up against the demands of reporting and the urgency to get the facts ahead of everyone else.
We all have seen instances where a reporter will stick a microphone in the face of a person in anguish who has just lost a friend or relative, to ask questions that violate their privacy and make viewers squirm. How can we balance civility and privacy with the aggressiveness of a reporter and the immediacy of television?
Sometimes, Attempts to be Civil Do Not Work
And yet, there are times when an attempt at civility doesn’t work at all on the air. A number of years ago, we began introducing reporters live at the scene of a story by saying, “good evening,” and they would reply the same. It was a nice touch, a display of politeness between the anchor and reporter. But you can imagine how awkward that is when the story is a fire, a murder, or any event that’s anything *but *good.
The same standards of civility don’t apply to every situation. While I believe positive stories should have a bigger presence on our screens and in our lives, it’s impossible to avoid tragic events altogether. When we do need to report on something that has disastrous repercussions for other living, breathing human beings, we must practice sensitivity. We must assume that a missing woman’s family is hearing our every word, or that our reports are being broadcast straight to the town affected by a natural disaster. When we cover a newsworthy event with many casualties, we should think less about the salacious details and more about the victims, who deserve our respect and whose loved ones need us to tell the truth, not to sensationalize or speculate or glorify.
Historic Events that Shifted the Tide
On the air, Edward R. Murrow often referred to members of his reporting staff as “Mister Collingwood” or “Mister Severeid.” This was civility with a touch of dignity. And there was more. For example, it was unthinkable for a journalist to interrupt a president while speaking. At that time it was considered rude, uncivil.
The media aside, other things were different too. Men tipped their hats to women; kids obeyed their parents and cops on the street. For our purposes, it would be foolish to attempt to pinpoint a time when the country changed. Historians might say we lurched from one traumatic event to another.
In television terms, it was the equivalent of a sharp, jolting cut from the Kennedy presidency to the years of civil rights demonstrations, from the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. to protests against the Vietnam War.
As these stories of anger and bloodshed were brought into America’s living rooms, lives were being turned upside down across the country. The civility we once had-however minute-was lost as a generation embraced a new culture on the streets and campuses, reflecting the turbulence of the era.
About that same time in broadcasting, the peacefulness of Sunday morning- usually reserved for religious broadcasts-slowly disappeared. Some may still remember “The Eternal Light”, “Lamp Unto My Feet”, and other award-winning broadcasts. Now, of course, we have non-stop political shouting programs and other talk shows on the networks and on cable. The programming has changed.
And through the years-through tough economic times, wars, national upheavals, and natural disasters-Americans have suffered, but we’ve always bounced back. So, as the pendulum of our lives went from one extreme to another, so did our civility.
The State of Media Today
It is easy to paint a negative picture of civil life right now. Gridlock in Washington, guns on the streets, terrorism, unemployment, and foreclosures are just a few of the challenges we face as a nation. And we’ve managed to keep some degree of civility, but we can do better.
In order to consider the overall picture of civility in today’s media, it’s inevitable that we’ll have to spend a few minutes on reality shows, as well as the unrelenting bombardment of instant information and entertainment from cable TV and the Internet.
From the Kardashians to Jersey Shore, when we turn on the TV, our children are mesmerized by lifestyles that encourage drinking, bad behavior, unhealthy habits and a lack of respect for family values. And that’s just early in the day. Evening programming, aimed at a more mature age group, brings us such “memorable” shows as the Real Housewives installments, Mob Wives, Dance Moms, Repo Men, and Bridezillas, all of which encourage conflict, drama, disrespect, and even crime. And then there are channels devoted to just about any kind of hobby or strange occupation.
Then there’s YouTube, an outlet for video from the sublime to the ridiculous. It’s always on, and there are always people watching from every part of the world. Unfortunately, I must add, too many of the videos on YouTube also find their way onto news programs, just because of how bizarre-and usually uncivil-they are.
Well, like anything, there’s good and bad. Cable and satellite technology do have a positive side. There are many quality channels that are educational and carry excellent, inspirational programs. We also have channels that provide community access and allow us to watch local government in action.
At home, we are taught at an early age how to behave in speech and in manners. But media and technology have changed our culture. The violence we see in movies has been carried out inside movie theaters too, hit music fills the radio waves with demeaning lyrics, tabloid magazines and TV devote more time to celebrities’ bizarre choices, and all of this contributes in some way to a breakdown in society.
And now, another factor has become part of the equation. A survey of 1,000 American adults, taken by the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, found the level of civility has suffered further because of our country’s ongoing financial troubles. 49% of those questioned consider American CEOs uncivil. Given the Madoff scandal and the low level of trust in Wall Street, they certainly have a point. At the same time, the survey showed 81% of Americans hold the news media responsible for improving the way we treat each other. And so, in these early years of the 21st century, we are faced with a serious challenge.
Civility & Truth
Now, a few words about the blogosphere and social media. As someone who has spent his entire life in journalism, I strongly defend freedom of speech. But I believe that civility and truth go hand in hand. So at this point, I want to raise a red flag. When it comes to news, the key question is: what’s your source? Who *told *you this information? If the reply is a common one-”I saw it online”-then beware. The Internet is not necessarily the ultimate source for truth.
And with the incredible speed and universal access of social media sites such as Twitter, news reporters have to be more careful than ever to sort out the truth, to get to the facts. More often these days, civility and truth disappear when the Internet is used as a playground for rumor mongers, hateful bloggers, and cyber-bullies. We’ve all witnessed the dangers attached to social media, mainly the horror of teenagers committing suicide because of cyber-bullying that followed them home on their smartphones and laptops.
A survey conducted by Consumer Reports last year showed that 1 million American children were harassed, threatened, or targeted by hurtful comments and rumors. Teenage girls were more likely than boys to suffer this unimaginable experience. Social media is relatively young and has a role to play in society, but it has shown that it must be watched carefully. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker put it this way: “The greatest threat to civility is the pandering to ignorance, the elevation of nonsense and the distribution of false information.”
Ernie and the Big Newz: the Book’s Message
We must find ways to turn down the volume of our national discourse and stop rewarding bad behavior, especially that of celebrities who fail as role models for our children. Those of us in the media-especially in the news business-have an obligation to society to clear the air. Adults want that. Even kids look for it.
I regularly speak at local schools, and while the feedback and reaction is terrific, it is also eye-opening. Many young children tell me that they feel the only way they can become part of a news broadcast is to do something wrong, something bad.
It is really no surprise, because it’s what they see when they watch the news. We mostly reward bad behavior. I believe that kind of thinking has to stop. I am deeply concerned about the unfortunate news events we cannot control and must report, which impacts everyone, especially children.
So in response to hundreds of comments from adults and young people about the shortage of positive news stories, I wrote an upbeat children’s book called Ernie and the Big Newz: the Adventures of a TV Reporter. The book is about making career choices and believing in yourself, and it’s filled with news stories that all have positive endings.
My respected fellow colleagues and I know it’s a tough job covering a very fast moving and traumatic world. Today, my message is clear: not all news is negative, and living by the golden rule is not old-fashioned.
When it comes to civility in society, and particularly in the media, I’m uneasy about the kind of world we will leave our children. Are we on the wrong path when it comes to civility in the media? From what I’ve heard and seen, the answer is yes.
Well, then, can we turn things around and improve the situation? Again, the answer is yes. So, what do we need to do?
Steps We Can Take to Make a Difference
In this media-driven society, we have to take the lead by producing more high-quality local programs. And we have to exercise good editorial judgment when it comes to news stories for our daily broadcasts.
How many times have you tuned into a broadcast that started immediately with crime? A child was shot, or a teenager’s bright future was canceled by drugs, or an elderly person was mugged. The old tabloid saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.” In my opinion, that’s the wrong approach. It exists only because there’s a long-held belief in our industry that it will increase ratings-but many of us believe it doesn’t work anymore.
After anchoring close to 15,000 newscasts, I’ve come to the conclusion – people want information that impacts *their *lives. Is my job in jeopardy? Are food prices going up? Are my children healthy? Are the schools safe? The audience is changing because their world is changing, and we must change with it. That’s something we can do.
Throughout my career, I’ve also played the role of a TV news anchor in a few Hollywood movies. So a few words are in order about the big studios and production companies. With all the glitz and glamor of the silver screen, we’re still getting more than our share of films that can leave moviegoers with the wrong ideas.
After that horrible mass-shooting in Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, studio giant Harvey Weinstein of Miramax called for a summit meeting of producers to discuss movie content. We thank him for that; I fully support this kind of discussion, and hopefully, action.
On a grassroots level, I urge educators throughout the country to recognize the importance of this issue. For example, schools could require students to take a course in media studies, to better understand our culture and choose wisely. They could include social media etiquette and media exploitation in their studies of ethics and manners.
I don’t want this to become a one-person crusade. So I’m respectfully asking my colleagues in TV news, at local stations everywhere, to join me. Together we can make this a national effort to improve the balance of positive stories on TV.
My personal efforts go one step further. I have recently created a new series of TV specials called “Positively Ernie.” We feature refreshing segments on health, education, philanthropy, technology, media, and a wide range of subjects that are making our community, our country, and even the world, a better place. The feedback has been great.
Finally, we must start at home by focusing on family life. Communication is at the center, and we need to talk with our children – and really listen to them in return. We also have to connect and strengthen ties with many reputable organizations to do whatever we can to help parents guide children in their use of the internet, social media, and TV. Kids are growing up in a much different culture than their parents did, and it’s our responsibility to bring parents up to date, so that they have some context in which to understand, relate, and make a difference.
But make no mistake. We have a long way to go. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. However, I’m confident that by working together, we can successfully spread the message that civility is the foundation of our lives-and of our media as well.