Roger Klein, PhD
University of Pittsburgh
Can real news be fake? Of course. While most news stories are based upon real events, I use the term “fake” here to suggest that with a variety of production strategies, purposeful exaggerations, and other intentional decisions by management, producers, and reporters, the end product—what the audience sees and hears—can have fake components. Having worked in broadcast news for decades, I have both participated in and witnessed situations where real news is fake.
How about those so-called “live updates”–which your favorite local TV news station loves to “tease” during the course of the evening and then breathlessly report at 11 PM? Yes—the reporter IS live, but where exactly is she? One might assume it’s back at the scene of the disaster de jour, originally covered during the 6 PM news. But, alas, she might really be in the TV station parking lot, avoiding a 20-minute drive to the actual scene. If the reporter says –“Reporting live—I’m Suzie Smith,” but doesn’t add “In Wilkinsburg” (a location), you have every reason to assume that she and her videographer are just steps away from their home base.
Do local news reporters always accompany a camera crew on a shoot? The video would suggest so, but that’s not always the case. My features appeared on the 5:30 PM news and the lead producer approached me one day and made me an offer which, she said, I couldn’t refuse. I was going to be the “reporter” for a five-part series during ratings week. All I had to do was sit in a chair and nod my head (to get the infamous “reaction shot”) and then narrate five short scripts. The producer researched the topic, went out multiple times with a camera crew, conducted the interviews, wrote the scripts, and selected the video, while I got paid my typical rate for nodding and narrating. She did the work—I got the credit. I never agreed to do that again because I always enjoyed the creative aspects of the job. But that one time I did fake it.
Towards the end of my eight-year tenure as a health reporter for the NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh (WPXI-TV), station management decided they would cut costs (my fee) and work with a video syndicator in Florida who offered three new health stories per week for a grand total of $45. At the time I was earning $175 per segment, so the station made a wise economic decision. I was a freelancer with no contract, so I was released. Then I turned around and offered my services to the Florida syndicator. They hired me for $500 per segment, and I would research potential health features, conduct interviews, write scripts, select the video, and work with a local camera crew whom the syndicator paid. Afterwards I overnighted everything to Florida where a final version was assembled and sent to stations across the US. It arrived with my script but without narration so local reporters could provide their own. In Pittsburgh, one of my former colleagues would narrate and appear in front of a local hospital to do the glorified “stand-up.” It didn’t matter that the local hospital wasn’t the “real hospital” or that the reporter had absolutely no understanding of story content. It looked real and the audience didn’t know the difference. So, there I was back on TV in Pittsburgh, except now I appeared on-camera either as the tall, handsome, local anchor, David Johnson, or the lovely young reporter, Margaret Shortridge. It was real news, but the whole process was fake. I hated it and quit after six months.
On a cold Saturday morning in the mid 1980’s I poured a cup of hot coffee and settled down to read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I had been a health reporter at WPXI for five years. The headline struck me: “WPXI-TV hires health reporter.” Huh? I fumed for two days, and on Monday received a phone call asking me to arrive at the station early. There, I was introduced to a striking brunette and asked to show her some of my previously aired health features so she could get an idea of what was expected. I learned that she was a former video DJ, with no formal science background, who was eager to learn. But–there was more to the story. Our popular 6 and 11 PM female anchor was unhappy. She had been dating a Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback; their romance went “south,” and she wanted to leave the city. The new “health reporter” was the anchor’s former college sorority sister (I know—it’s hard to believe), and the TV station, desperate to keep the anchor, hoped that the new hire could help her friend emotionally adjust, and prevent the threatened departure. That the new hire had no background in health, science, or journalism for that matter, seemed irrelevant. Hey—it’s TV.
For six weeks I continued with my reporting while my potential replacement also went on video shoots. But—her stories never aired. Not one. Finally, my anxiety got the better of me and I asked a producer why none of her stories had aired? He said the young woman was unable to master the complexities of health reporting. She didn’t understand the material, had trouble writing scripts, and no producer was available to accompany her and then write/produce. So, the idea of her becoming a health reporter was trashed. Still, under contract for two years, the station successfully trained her to become a weekend anchor. In this example—a newspaper story was published about a real TV news hire, who was attempting to soothe an unhappy anchor, while the station hoped she could also fake the role of a health reporter. Local TV news is, more than anything, a business, which will do what it can to make a buck. But this time, fake news lost.
(Editor’s Note: Roger Klein received the 2019 Distinguished Lifetime Contributions to Media Psychology and Technology Award from the APA Society of Media Psychology and Technology.)