There has been an increase in the number of people reading from prepared statements at news conferences in the last few years AND a huge jump in the number of local TV stations grabbing a quick clip from those prepared statements and putting it on the air.
The question is why? I think there are at least three reasons, but the biggest is the failure of local TV news.
Ditch the Script
A couple of weeks ago, a media training colleague of mine in the US posted on Twitter about an interesting experience she had with a client.
Julie Parker said she was getting a client ready to meet the media and he had done a prepared statement. She said he read just fine, but she asked him to tell her why it mattered. Without a second thought, he spoke about why it did matter and did it very well. Her advice was “Ditch the script. Your words will resonate.”
We traded messages over Twitter and Julie wondered whether people facing the media write a script to read from because everyone else is doing it, or not enough people are telling them to stop because it doesn’t work.
I think it’s both. I think reading from a script at a news conference has become so common that almost everyone is doing it and there aren’t enough people like Julie and I telling clients to stop it, because they can sound so much better by talking instead of reading.
More than anything else though, I blame the media for letting it happen.
Lowering the Bar
When I was a reporter at a news conference many years ago, the person speaking at the newser would often start by reading his or her announcement from a script. Myself and the other reporters would sometimes need to fight to be patient before we could start asking questions. After all, we already had a copy of their speaking notes and knew what the announcement was. We knew we weren’t going to use anything from what the person was reading because, well, they were reading it.
It was boring!
Who wanted to use somebody reading from the paper in front of them? Only small children want to hear the voice of their parents or teacher reading a story to them.
We wanted to get to the real reason we were there, which was to ask questions about the announcement. We knew what the announcement was. We wanted to find out why and what was behind the announcement. Was this decision made because of politics? How much will it cost taxpayers? Why haven’t you done this before? Are you doing this to keep your supporters happy with an election a few months away?
Think of a local TV station running somebody reading a statement that ends with "I have nothing to apologize for." The obvious first question is "Why do you feel that way?" There are many others that would follow.
What would you want to hear?
This rarely happens anymore. The video clips we get from news conferences on the local evening news far too often just have the newsmaker reading part of the announcement from their script. They’re not answering questions, which not only keeps them accountable, but forces them to answer questions without using a script. It sounds better and the newsmaker sounds more credible, unless of course, they’re poorly prepared for the questions.
Instead though, we have drifted into this mindless bit of TV journalism where the TV outlet picks the most important two sentences read by somebody at a podium and throws them on a newscast.
That’s not good journalism, but it’s what we’re getting in 2022.
How Did We Get Here?
I don’t want to sound like an old guy yelling at kids to get off his lawn, but the demise in local media has led us to where we are today.
Years ago, when I was in the media, news conferences used to be well attended. Some reporters who I looked up to like Bill Laing at CBC and Fred Kazakoff at CFRN had been pounding the reporting pavement for years. They wouldn’t think of grabbing two sentences from somebody reading from a script. They wanted answers.
Today though, many news conferences have TV stations represented by camera operators, or video journalists as they are called today. They may ask one or two easy questions, or they just get the sound bites they want from the scripted statement. A reporter or editor then chooses what to use on air and the camera operator will even do the editing.
There used to be three jobs there - the camera operator, the reporter and the editor. Now it’s often done by the same person.
Is there any wonder why we get clips on the local TV news of people reading from prepared statements? It’s quick and easy.
The bigger stories still have reporters asking questions and compiling stories, but they’re becoming the exception. They’re generally done by reporters covering a beat, such as the Legislature, or City Hall. Everything else better be lede material, or it gets tossed into the bargain basement bin of scripted sound bites.
For local politicians, or a health care officials making announcements, if you can get the media to pull a clip or two from your scripted statement that’s a big win. It’s almost like writing a commercial that gets on the TV news.
No questions, no pushback, it’s all good.
I guess there’s a third answer to Julie Parker’s excellent question about why there are so many people reading from a script at news conferences. It’s because they can. They’re doing it because the news media is letting them get away with it.
As always, your comments are welcome.