“Look Lives”: Eroding Journalistic Integrity One Hit at a Time?

If you watch the news, you’ve probably seen a “look live”. That news-speak term means a reporter who appears to be live in the field, but was taped doing the introduction to their story, or sometimes their throw back to the newsroom or a different type of seemingly live hit, well before the show is aired. In fact, look lives make up a much larger quotient of airtime than actual live hits do.

So why devote my first blog of the New Year to this seemingly irrelevant topic?  Because part of me thinks a look live is equivalent to lying to the audience, and journalism is supposed to be about telling the truth.

Look lives are so prevalent in current newscasts I’m beginning to wonder if there is some type of look-live training protocol which designates the time and speed at which reporters should nod their heads at the camera lens so it appears they are listening to the anchor back in the studio.

Interestingly, there often seems to be no concern over details such as it should be broad daylight in the time zone the reporter is filing from although it is clearly dark. What’s important is appearing to be live in as many locations as possible throughout the broadcast. Format trumps quality of content — the definition of Altheide and Snow’s Media Logic.

Altheide and Snow believe news is more drama than journalism; not about determining the best way to share information, but entertaining viewers in order to retain market share and make money. News is a perspective, not the truth. It doesn’t matter whether you’re really live or not — just that it looks good when you appear to be.

I took an informal survey of a group of journalists, representing every Canadian network and one local Toronto station, currently at work in a variety of jobs including producing, reporting, and directing, to see how they feel about look lives.

One reporter said that “standing in front of a static background, whether live or during a look live is not effective. Standing and/or interacting with a dynamic scene can engage the viewer and bring about a greater understanding of the story. Technically it’s not always possible to be live so a look live is a great alternate”.

Another wrote, “Look lives are meant like a stand-up. It shows you were there. We never say they are live, but it is a bit of a fudge. However, most viewers think the entire newscast is live, so live versus look live doesn’t seem to be a big deal. Sometimes a newsroom has to be pragmatic”.

A producer added, “I am not a fan of look lives. I prefer real time and I don’t think you are fooling anyone. That being said, as long as it’s not a fake chat or you are pretending to be live, they can add to a show in the event that you need it for pacing. For example, tonight we are doing an ‘as live’ from Buffalo to show our presence there — then a real live from a sports bar for the Junior game”.

A director had this to say:  “If you say the world LIVE, you better be. But if you say, “Joe Blow is in Washington tonight”, and Joe starts talking, I have no problem with that. Before the reporter tapes his/her top, the writer will talk to them and let them know how the host will throw to them. That way they are reacting to the exact words the host would say to them if they were live. It’s just another more immediate type of intro. I see it in the same light as when we have to pre-tape interviews.  Unless there is something that dates them, we don’t admit they are not live. As a director, I just add it to the ‘magic of television’ bag of tricks”.

Another producer said, “I get why we do them — I don’t like them. They always look fake to me, but then again I have a trained eye. The bigger question is does the viewing audience really care if you’re ‘live’ or tape? I think it’s a bigger deal to the media. Ask the average person and they don’t know or care”.

If there are any average people reading this who don’t work in media I’d love to know if that’s true, because I really do care and I’m wondering if it’s because I was trained to be a journalist.

As I begin to examine the relationship between traditional media and the audience, and how to build bridges to ensure a wider variety of stories are told from different perspectives, I’m truly perplexed about what impact, if any, “fudging” the truth has on journalistic integrity – and what journalistic integrity actually means in 2011.

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13 comments

  1. mike walsh

    Nicole
    just read your essay. I would encourage you to read Tony Judt’s final article in the The New York Review of Books last summer ( he died in August). Entitled, “WORDS” and published July 15, 2010. My give you some pertinent ammo for future ideas PLUS Christopher Hedges book of essays re: the media’s malaise entitled. Empire of Illusion
    Take care Mike Walsh

  2. Karen Owen

    I would simply add that in the Calgary TV market, look-lives are not used very frequently. Neither CTV, Global or CBC use them very much…so it may be a style-issue related to certain markets.

    Generally we use them when a reporter is out-of-town and can’t file live….or the technology is so unpredictable that they do the “look live” just prior to the show.

    Nonetheless it’s still an interesting discussion as to IF or WHEN they should be used at all.

  3. Reg Hampton

    Nicole, some very good points. As a TV reporter who has done many of these I have always felt a little uncomfortable doing the head nod and staring at an ENG camera that is most definitly *not* live. But I have also felt this way doing cut-aways, and walking out a door and chatting with my interview subject after the shooter yells “okay, go ahead.” TV news is a strange business.
    Personally, I am getting more and more frustrated with the whole concept of the look-live (or the actual live for that matter). Especially when an anchor throws to the reporter who then throws to his or her packaged story. JUST GET TO THE DAMN PICTURES ALREADY! But I have given up fighting that battle. These days most of the stories we cover don’t have a great visual element anyway. But I digress!
    Anyway Nicole, well said and well written.

    • redefiningjournalism

      I remember a few years ago I arranged for some students to volunteer at an election, and they were horrified they’d been told to move around throughout the broadcast to make the shot behind the anchors look better — I believe my response was “Welcome to television news”.

  4. Simon Jones

    I’d have to agree with the general tone of the responses, look-lives don’t seem as vital as we in the media make them out to be. I operated a live truck for while, and understand how lives can add immediacy to a story or newscast. Look-lives can be suspect as they are often presented as being live. I believe they have their place, particularly when it is a hard news scenario where a live is not possible.

    But what’s lost in all this is does the viewer really care? Does it really add to the viewing experience? If you put a static live against a static look-live, does the viewer really benefit? Personally, I think everyone is better off putting the time and resources into a creative or sequenced stand-up, sound up, or visually appealing material.

    Look-lives may not formally “lie” or deceive the viewer, but more often than not they say that we don’t have the time, creativity, or initiative to make a story “immediate” or appealing without them. So I guess that’s where I think the truth is.

    • redefiningjournalism

      Great points Simon — I wonder if the fiscal pressures on newsrooms to do much more with less, for multiple media platforms, is at the crux of staunched creativity — or are we just so focused on filling a prescribed format we don’t even try to be original anymore?

  5. Fiona Prince

    Nicole,

    You asked someone not in the news field or an average viewer to comment. I am the former, but not the latter. I stopped watching and reading the news when I was a teenager because I didn’t get the sense that it was real. It always felt like a show; or someone’s idea about what I should be concerned about. I recognized spin and gendered news long before I studied it in school.

    On the rare occassions that I do watch the news, I am disconcerted when old footage is shown without the year and date. I know that this is a separate issue, but since I don’t watch often, when I do, I can’t trust that what I’m seeing is current anyway. So…I guess my take on live-looks is that it’s all part of the same problem — news as entertainment and propaganda, instead of just the facts.

    Is it possible to present ‘just the facts’ and keep your audience?

  6. redefiningjournalism

    I think that’s a great question Fiona. I find it hard to believe that the majority of people watch news to be entertained, and if a story is done well you shouldn’t have to fudge anything to make it compelling and hold your audience.

    Perhaps the problem lies in the stories that are chosen for coverage? Or the copy-cat “we have to have what they have” attitude, and “we have it first even if we’re not sure it’s right” mantra that seems to be pervasive in this 24-7 news environment.

    Going to back to the original issue, however, I doubt you and I are the only ones disenchanted with the way mainstream broadcast news is developing — and that could partly explain why some of the audience is choosing to create its own version of the truth.

  7. Arjun Singh

    Great post Nicole. What it made me think about what the definition of truth and the importance, in my view, of trust. When you say journalism is about telling the truth, I guess I would ask the question “whose truth?”. I am not sure if my truth is the same as anyone elses. What I rely on the news to do is to act as a filter based on what the people who create the news think I should see. So, I am okay that they have their own perspective on truth, their own bias (although I would be happy if I could know more about their bias, since I personally believe objectivity is unachievable).

    As a non journalist, my personal bigger concern about “look lives” is that they may further erode trust in journalism. I think journalism plays a critical role in helping citizens become better informed. Even if journalists don’t explicitly say that a “look live” is live, if it is taken as live, and someone later finds out it is not, I think there is a danger people will start to question everything. Maybe this is a good thing, but it makes life harder for journalists, and perhaps ultimately for the rest of us as well.

  8. redefiningjournalism

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Arjun — and for reminding me to be careful about using the word “truth”. I agree that what you see on the news is one version of the truth, and that that version of truth is filtered by each individual that works to create a newscast. Having worked as a journalist I know that the majority of people doing that job do their utmost to retain objectivity, but I agree that is a lofty goal.
    The filtering you’re talking about is sometimes referred to as gatekeeping, and I think newsrooms are less able to do that given the changed information infrastructure of the Internet. If you don’t like my version of the truth, you can easily find another one online — and sometimes they are scary — like Conservapeida, http://www.conservapedia.com/Main_Page .
    I think journalism is essential, and particularly publicly funded news, because it at least attempts to tell more than one side of a story — and that’s why it’s important to retain the trust of viewers and journalistic integrity. There is no need to pretend in a newscast.

  9. cristina

    Great post Nicole. The worst is if the reporter throws back to the wrong anchor in the looklive and another anchor is in the “boxes” :-)

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