Leave it to the (Real) Experts
By Chad Mira
News Anchor, KNWA/KNXW
Hearts collectively broke across the country as news spread of 21 people murdered in a Texas elementary school.
As a parent to young children, this has been one of the most challenging moments for me in my journalism career. I, like many of you, need time to cope, heal and process what happened and ponder the swarm of questions that rush through my head: Is my son safe at his school? What does homeschooling look like? At what age do I need to talk to my children about this kind of violence? How do I even go about that?
Then, the questions grew broader: Are there new measures of gun control that would prevent this violence? How can we make schools more secure?
While it is hard to work right now, this is when our community needs us. Journalists are in a position where we can get these questions answered for our community. But who are we getting to answer these questions?
In a 24/7 news cycle, deadlines seem to get tighter and tighter. The pressure to generate more content is always growing, and sometimes it feels like you just need an easy quote.
Politicians are almost always there to deliver for us. It is election season after all. School curriculum, rising crime, abortion rights — all of these topics will likely play key roles in the midterms. And while your politicians’ opinions could be relevant to the story, we need to be careful not to misplace authority.
Misplaced authority can leave important questions unanswered and affect the tone and even accuracy of our stories. The mayor’s opinion on gun control and school security is as important as anyone else's. But is it any more educated?
We need expert opinions to answer these questions — real experts. There is a time and place for political debate. But we need to hear from the sheriff about School Resource Officers. We need to hear from the superintendent and an architect about if the new school being designed is done so with safety in mind. We need to hear from doctors about how to help our kids understand this senseless violence.
So, in a moment where political arguments touch nearly every aspect of life, let’s tone down the rhetoric and educate the public with real expert opinion on important issues for our communities.
Political debate has thrust Critical Race Theory into the national spotlight; more specifically, the supposed teaching of CRT in K-12 schools. By now, most of us have seen the clips of parents arguing with school boards about whether CRT should be a part of school curriculum.
Parents have every right to know and inquire about their kids’ education. And as a parent, you can understand the anxiety surrounding their child’s education. But vaguely covering a school board meeting on this issue can create more questions and cause more confusion for our audience.
We, as journalists, need to make sure we aren’t just capitalizing on these contentious moments. We need to provide the context that our viewers need to fully understand the issue. Is there even an issue or is this just politics spilling over into school board meetings?
In the national headlines right now, you can see “violent crimes on the rise,” a “violent crisis” and how “homicide rates have soared nationwide.” As a result, politicians everywhere are campaigning on who is to blame and how to fix it. Our news coverage cannot rely solely on those campaign statements and those national headlines. Local journalists need to take care to report the local data and not just the nationwide numbers. Otherwise, your story could be inaccurate. Violent crime could be on the rise nationwide but trending down in your community.
A perfect example of this can be seen in COVID-19 coverage these past couple years. Some parts of the country always lagged behind the national trend. As COVID-19 numbers started spiking in New York, they remained low in Arkansas. As COVID-19 numbers started to drop nationwide, Arkansas’ case numbers were still peaking.
Local newscasts rely on national content to provide their audiences with access to information from some of the country's top doctors. But that national content does not always reflect our local community. So anytime we cover a national trend, we need to tell viewers how it applies to them. First, make sure you have local statistics. You can even provide further context by showing which types of crime are rising and which types are dropping. Then, instead of just getting the political soundbites about passing blame, interview the people who could potentially address the problem.
What are the police chiefs, prosecutors and social workers doing to address the issues? There is a political angle to this, but it cannot be your only angle. Reporting the local facts and interviewing the right people will help prevent the political tone from overshadowing your work as a journalist.
Turn on some news outlets and everything sounds like another crisis. The tone grabs your attention but at what cost? Are viewers being educated or just being fed anxiety-inducing hyperbole through soundbites? One of the greatest political debates has come to a head with the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion that shows the landmark Roe v. Wade decision likely will be overturned. Abortion is a topic that elicits deep emotions and strong opinions. It is only natural for journalists to feel something at this moment, but are those emotions affecting the informative tone of your news coverage?
The tone of coverage is often referred to throughout RTDNA guidelines. Debate, protests and politicians will all be a part of this story. But remember, this is as much a legal story and healthcare story as anything else.
Does your coverage include information about the abortion services in your state, the state law that could take effect and how many people it will affect? If you live in a state where abortion will likely become illegal, what other services are available for women to either prevent an unwanted pregnancy or to support a pregnant woman? You are better serving your audience through an informative tone and not just overwhelming them with the outrage that can take over air waves while reporting on such a contentious issue.
Journalists have the important privilege of giving our community access to decision-makers and experts to help guide us through some of life’s most challenging moments. With that comes a lot of responsibility. Following the Uvalde shooting, the information we provide right now could influence people’s decisions on important factors like how to raise and educate their children.
With that kind of pressure in mind, let’s take a beat and avoid the low-hanging fruit when gathering news interviews and really think through who the best authority is on our stories.
Chad Mira is an evening news anchor for KNWA News in Fayetteville, AR. He has 12+ years of experience working in TV newsrooms as an anchor, reporter and producer.