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Watching the Watchdog: It's Never Better to Fake it

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Veteran TV newsman Tim Knight contributes a regular column to HuffPost, analyzing and rating broadcast and online journalistic programs.

Background -- Terry Milewski is the CBC's Senior Political Correspondent and he's been furiously e-mailing me about a column I wrote last Monday, headlined CBC's Going Down Without a Fight.

(Milewski is a tough, hugely experienced broadcast journalist famed for refusing to accept bafflegab from anyone, particularly politicians. Full Disclosure: he was on one of my CBC broadcast journalism training workshops many years ago.)

Included in my Monday column he objects to was this paragraph:

"Lead story was by Senior Political Correspondent Terry Milewski, a steady, reliable, rather one-note CBC journalist. He interviews two people who claim they got those robo-calls -- and has them hold telephones to their ears and pretend to be listening to those callers. News, Milewski, isn't reality TV where everything is faked and fake is everything. In news, we fake nothing."

My point was simply that the shots looked staged. For the camera. In fact, those two people actually were pretending to listen to their phones. Which detracted from the integrity of the story at a time when CBC, facing serious budget cuts, desperately needs to look at its best.

Milewski takes issue: "Nobody said, or implied, or pretended for one minute that this is a shot of them actually listening to that actual robo-call a year ago! I don't just mean that we didn't explicitly say that -- I mean that we didn't even suggest it, or even come close...You cannot say, no matter how hard you try, that I 'had them pretend to be listening to the robo-calls.' First, it has the immense disadvantage of being untrue. I did not ask, or tell or have them do any such thing. And you weren't there...What actually happened, as you can readily imagine, is that the CBC cameraman or producer asked for a shot of them on the phone. Just possibly, they thought it was a better backdrop for a story about phone calls than having them stare blankly into space, or play golf."

Milewski makes some good points:

Mea Culpa -- I stand by my statement that the shots were and looked fake, which detracted from the integrity of the story. But after much thought -- particularly at two o'clock this morning -- I agree with Milewski.

My statement, meant to highlight the fact that so many TV news stories are to some extent staged, was hyperbolic and, since yes, I wasn't there at the time, as far as I know, untrue.

So I apologize to Terry Milewski.

Which naturally leads me to two questions:

How come, with all the stations and all the social media sites pouring out information by the megaton every minute of every day, do I so seldom ever see or hear a correction? Surely, that information can't all be dead-on accurate?

Anyway, my suggestion, for what it's worth, is that information outlets should set aside a few minutes (or paragraphs) every week for the boss person to appear and set things straight.

A little accountability and a lot of transparency would go a long way toward establishing much-needed trust in all media.

Which leads me, just as naturally, to my point about the staging of news stories.

To what extent should the reporter/producer/cameraperson direct people being filmed?

As Milewski explains the problem: "Complain all you want that these shots (of the robo-call recipients) looked more staged than all the other set-up shots, walking shots, handshake shots or driving shots that you see every day. I don't object to that argument and would love to hear suggestions on how to ban them all and still end up with a watchable broadcast."

Milewski's point, of course, is that without such shots, video reporters would be left with nothing more than a bunch of talking head shots. Dead bloody boring. Absolutely no-one would watch.

My own view is that it's a matter of degree. All of us have asked people in stories we're filming to stroll for us ("Just don't look at the camera"). Or pretend to be reading some report. We need such shots for the voice-over narration.

But I've also seen a reporter coach people on precisely what to say ("Could you say it again, and this time don't say 'I think maybe that's what happened.' Instead say 'And that's absolutely what happened.' Then add '... and it was horrible.'")

I shudder to think what the civilian involved told relatives and friends about the experience.
Maybe something like: "They told me what to do and what to say. And I always thought news was real. Now, for sure, I don't believe that any more."

And relatives and friends tell relatives and friends and their relatives and friends tell ...

For me, the ethical solution lies somewhere in the middle.

What do you think?