As my subscribers know because of an inadvertent early post of a rough draft last week, after much consideration your humble proprietor has decided to close down the Listening Post. It’s been fun and I’m happy that some of you liked it and found it worthwhile, but it’s time to move on.
Writing the blog has become too much like a job, an unpaid job at that. To do this blog right means spending way too many hours in research, handling technical problems, developing relationships and writing several posts a week, not to mention watching lots of local TV news. I’ll do that anyway, but I would rather be free to watch what I want, when I want.
One of the reasons I started the blog was my belief that the Austin American-Statesman was not doing a very good job covering Austin TV news. Its media reporter/blogger has his hands more than full covering radio, retail and various and sundry other business and city desk stories. I know times are tough in newspapering, but I hope his editors will give the guy time to do some original reporting and in-depth analysis on the local TV news scene. I haven’t even been trying to compete with the Statesman, but I have consistently beaten them to stories they should have had. That’s no great credit to me, but it should be a concern to the Statesman. I fear it is not.
With that, I thank all of you who have read this blog regularly over the past 17 months and wish you news junkies happy viewing. I’m sure I’ll continue to have some thoughts on the local TV news scene on Twitter, so please follow me @billrr.
Ranking the Newscasts and On-Air Professionals
Before I go, a number of you have asked me from time to time to offer my opinion on Austin’s best newscast, best anchors, reporters, etc. I have refrained from doing so because I felt it would taint various stories I might write. I did not want to appear to be coming down on the side of those I had identified as my favorites or criticizing those I had left off my lists. Now, with no future stories to write and with 2013 upon us, it seems like the appropriate time to do a report card.
These choices are just my personal opinion, based on what I have seen on the air. I have no axes to grind or personal vendettas or anything like that to influence these choices. Almost everyone in Austin TV has treated me wonderfully and I am truly grateful.
For all of you who did not make my lists, I am in no way saying you are bad or that I do not like your work. I simply chose my favorites and in many cases it was a very close call between making the list and just missing.
Judging TV newscasts and TV news talent is a very subjective topic, and I’m sure most of you would choose differently if you put together similar lists. No rights or wrongs here, just differences of opinion. I’ll leave the site up for awhile so that those of you who feel strongly can comment on this post and make your case for why anchor “X” or weatherperson “Y” should have made my list. Please, no obscenities, especially about me.
I based my opinion purely on journalism and on-air performance over the long haul–those I think have the best chances for success in TV news for the foreseeable future.
Best Overall News Coverage
1. KVUE (Tie)
1. KXAN (Tie)
Comment–OK, I punted on the big one. Sorry, couldn’t choose between them.
Best on-set team
1. Tyler Sieswerda, Terri Gruca, Mark Murray, Mike Barnes, KVUE Prime Time
2. Robert Hadlock, Leslie Rhode, Jim Spencer, Roger Wallace, KXAN Prime Time
3. Bryan Mays, Yvonne Nava, Albert Ramon, KVUE Mornings
4. Brian Sanders, Sally Hernandez, Mark Monstrola, Amanda Dugan, KXAN Mornings
5. Greg Kerr, Katherine Kisiel, Keri Bellacosa, Zach Shields, FOX 7 Mornings
Comment–These are the teams that both deliver professional newscasts while also seeming to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. They are comfortable with each other and as a result, we are comfortable watching them.
Best Male Anchor
1. Tyler Sieswerda, KVUE Prime Time
2. Robert Hadlock, KXAN Prime Time
3. David Scott, KXAN Weekends
4. Mike Warren, FOX 7 Prime Time
5. Robert Maxwell, KXAN/KNVA Prime Time
Comment—While for me, Sieswerda is the best, KXAN seems to have cornered the market on male anchors. I could have added that station’s Brian Sanders, but I elected to put him on my top up-and-comers list (below) as he begins new duties on the KXAN weekday morning team.
Best Female Anchor
1. Katherine Stolp, KEYE Weekends
2. Sally Hernandez, KXAN Mornings
3. Yvonne Nava, KVUE Mornings
4. Terri Gruca, KVUE Prime Time
5. Leslie Rhode, KXAN Prime Time
6. Shannon Wolfson, KXAN/KNVA Prime Time
Comment–I have ranked three “secondary” anchors ahead of the prime time stars. For me, Stolp, Hernandez and Nava are essentially tied for first. Because of families and ties to Austin, I’m assuming Hernandez, Nava, Gruca and Rhode will be around for awhile, which is good. Wolfson has already announced she will be leaving in March in search of greener pastures and I fully expect Stolp to land a better job in a bigger market at some point, if she chooses. Still, this is her hometown, so we may keep her, too.
1. Jim Spencer, KXAN Prime Time
2. Mark Murray, KVUE Prime Time
3. Scott Fisher, FOX 7 Prime Time
4. Burton Fitzsimmons, YNN Mornings
5. Zach Shields, FOX 7 Mornings
Comment–Spencer and Murray are tied for first in my opinion, and obviously Troy Kimmel would have made it a three-way tie had he remained at KEYE. This is probably Austin’s strongest category and we will be blessed indeed if these gentlemen continue in their roles.
1. Dave Cody, FOX 7
2. Roger Wallace, KXAN
3. Bob Ballou, KEYE
4. Mike Barnes, KVUE
5. Ricky Doyle, YNN
Comment–Again, tough call. Veterans all who seem to love Austin sports. We are the winners.
Best Male Reporter—Non-Regular Anchor
1. Chris Willis, KXAN
2. Chris Sadeghi, KXAN
3. Mark Wiggins, KVUE
4. Rudi Koski, FOX 7
5. Jim Swift, KXAN
6. Shelton Green, KVUE
Comment–For day-to-day, on-the-street coverage of any story, Sadeghi is the best in this market. You can argue that Willis does not belong here since he was a long time anchor and still fills occasionally on the desk, but as KXAN’s chief investigative reporter, he has assumed that role as his main job. He has become the face of KXAN’s branding efforts with frequent on-air promotions. You can also argue that Swift is more a story teller than a regular news reporter, but that’s quibbling. I love his work and it’s my blog.
Best Female Reporter—Non-Anchor
1. Heather Kovar, KVUE
2. Jessica Holloway, KVUE
3. Noelle Newton, FOX 7
4. Erin Cargile, KXAN
5. Jessica Vess, KVUE
6. Karen Kiley, KEYE
Comment–These women all do a good job. Kovar’s experience shows. Holloway has brought a real skill to sensitive interviews.
Up and Comers to Keep an Eye On
1. Brian Sanders, KXAN anchor
2. Mark Monstrola, KXAN meteorologist
3. Angie Beavin, KXAN reporter
4. Amanda Dugan, KXAN traffic
5. Shawn Clynch, KVUE sportscaster
6. Adam Bennett, KEYE reporter
Comment–I guess there’s not too much doubt about which station I think has a bright future.
The Connecticut school shooting has dominated the headlines for many days. As usual in such circumstances, the media coverage itself has come under scrutiny and brought criticism about such issues as factual mistakes, especially early on, and interviews of children.
Coverage of these major events offer news directors a chance to review their own policies and thinking on how their news organizations might cover a similar story. I asked Austin’s five news directors to comment on the Connecticut coverage. Two veterans responded—YNN’s Michael Pearson and KVUE’s Frank Volpicella.
I asked them how they guard against the reporting of bad information in a tense situation with constantly changing “facts” and the competitive pressures to be first. I also asked about the use of unnamed sources and reports on social media. I asked if they would have interviewed children, even with parental consent, live or pre-recorded. Third, I questioned them on the reporting of the shooter’s history of asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism. Finally, with some commentators opposing massive coverage of the shooter for fear of “glorifying” him and possibly leading to “copycat” shootings in the future, I asked Pearson and Volpicella for their opinions.
Michael Pearson–It’s all about transparency in reporting. I have a little trouble swallowing stories like the one in the Statesman on Sunday headlined: “Media stumbled over many ‘facts’ as story unfold” by the Associated Press. Yes, I think criticism of the cable networks is somewhat fair because they have this tendency to fail to include lines like, “The best information we have right now is…” Or, “We’ve been told this by one source, but we have not confirmed that information…” I think news consumers fully understand breaking news and developing stories and how that reporting is done. It is extremely important that we are very transparent with our viewers about what we are doing in our reporting and letting them know the source of our information and the limitations of that information.
YNN Austin would have interviewed children on camera, but only after pre-interviews with the child accompanied by a parent and the videotaped interview makes it very clear the parent is a third party in that interview. And then the interviews would be very judicious and aired only one or two times. Al Tompkins with the Poynter Institute sent out a piece to news directors offering excellent ethical guidelines for doing and televising these interviews. Check out www.poynter.org. YNN Austin often turns to Al for advice involving journalistic ethics and has been employed by us for training our staff. Also, YNN Austin every year sends two members of its staff to the Poynter Institute for more intensive training in ethical storytelling.
In my view mental illness is a major part of the story. What I worry about is the hype of some journalists’ reporting intended to keep the story going that says, “We are still trying to find answers as to why this happened.” To me, the answer is abundantly clear, the mass killer of innocent children is mentally ill. That’s why it happened. What YNN Austin and our Capital Tonight political team is doing is reporting on the collapse of the state’s mental health safety net as a result of massive cuts in mental health funding in Texas.
When the shooter’s photo was first available, I asked our producers to run it only once, if at all. And we have barely mentioned him. Our coverage has been focused on the children and their families, the community of Newtown and local reaction.
Frank Volpicella–As far as reporting information that was not factual or properly vetted…the lack of information coming from law enforcement added to that chaos. In those types of breaking news stories, wrong information will unfortunately find its way on air. But I can’t second guess the decisions that were made from 2000 miles away.
I wrote a KVUE News philosophy statement some years ago, that in an overview, calls for restraint and respect in covering the victims of crimes. But in a story of this magnitude, you must go with your years of training, and gut instincts.
As to reporting inaccurate information….the basic rules of journalism should apply, and should not be waived because of the nature of the story. Who is the source? And is that source informed? Many times people in authority speak, but don’t have the knowledge or the facts to do so. Journalists should always name the source, name and title, so that individual knows they are being quoted, and so you can hold them accountable for inaccurate information.
If other media are reporting something as factual, we will confirm independently. However, there will be times when we attribute a fact to the AP, or the Statesman. As long as we name the source, and work to confirm independently, I’m comfortable in some cases, in reporting information from another outlet, especially ABC or CNN.
As to unnamed sources, we don’t use them. There is always an exception, but I haven’t found one yet. Why does that source want to remain anonymous? Are they in a position to know the information first hand? Typically we use that unnamed source to find another source to get it on the record. It’s more important to be right, than first.
Social media presents another problem. The information must come from a reputable source on SM, such as police or the FBI. SM can be a great tool to help us gather information. But without proper documentation or fact checking, we cannot report that information as factual.
As to interviewing children. Tough call. What are their ages? A 12 year old is different from a 6 year old. But I would say in general, I would steer away from any live interviews, even with parental consent. It’s too exploitative.
I would possibly agree to a recorded interview. Then we can consider its value without the deadline pressures of being live. The age of the child will matter, as well as parental consent. And of course, we would want to know what the child has seen or heard. But, I would show restraint and be sensitive to the circumstance.
I disagree with other media who failed to report the shooter’s name. I don’t believe that “glorifies” him. Quite the contrary. There is no glory in what he did. Who he is, is the first step in understanding the why. I have yet to see a study that links media coverage of a mass shooting, as a motive for a subsequent mass shooting. How can we not report his name? Again, it’s how we report the facts that is important. We must show respect and restraint to the victims and their families. With the web and social media, video, photos and information of all kinds will find their way to the news consumer. We as the “traditional media,” must be more careful, responsible and accurate in what we report, because we are still the only media that people can hold accountable.
Michael Pearson is a former longtime print journalist in San Antonio, Corpus Christi, San Angelo and Killeen. He began his TV news career in San Antonio before joining YNN in 2000. He became the cable channel’s news director in 2010. Pearson is a 1978 journalism graduate of Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State).
Frank Volpicella has been a reporter, producer and assignments manager in Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, Tampa/St. Petersburg and Atlanta. He was news director in Lexington, Kentucky and Huntsville, Alabama before joining KVUE as executive news director in 2000. Volpicella earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Florida.