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TV News is a Phony Wasteland to the Digital Generation
A new voice picks up a familiar beat.

Illustration by Chris Whetzel

The college students in my journalism classes do not watch television news. Start a discussion about local-news content, and polite 20-year-olds turn into disgusted critics. They hate yellow police tape stories and stupid live shots during blizzards. “It’s snowing in Wisconsin.” Duh.

“It’s the same thing on all the stations,” says junior Maria Corpus. “We’re tired of hearing it.”

My students say TV news is pointless, clichéd and boring. It’s not heartfelt, fresh or real.

I think the key is “real.”

As part of an introductory journalism course, I teach digital-audio editing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I ask students to interview each other and put together a short story about their classmates’ goals or struggles. The fledgling storytellers produce mini-profiles that are bracingly gritty.

Vanessa was 18 when she lost her mother to suicide. “I had a really terrible, broken childhood, and I was always mad at my mom for that.” Her voice on the recording is matter-of-fact. “She wasn’t in my life, so I felt really pissed off that she left me this weird, broken thing.”

Another journalism major, Stephanie, described a dreamy visit to New York City for her birthday. “I felt like I belonged,” she said. She vowed to leave Milwaukee for Brooklyn as soon as she graduated.

Honest stories are everywhere. They get passed around on social media. They resonate and linger. The 10 o’clock news feels plastic in comparison.

I worked in TV news for 15 years and stood in the snow countless times for those stupid live shots. But I also covered issues such as school segregation and the right-to-die movement. Like many reporters, I built stories around people whose passion or sorrow brought big events home.

Joe Radske, a veteran news director at WKOW in Madison and board member for the Society of Professional Journalists, says station executives aren’t even trying to lure millennials to their newscasts. Advertisers target 35-year-olds with money to spend. Stations do want 20-somethings to buy into their brand via Twitter and text alerts. But for young people, TV news is not a place to find stories that mirror their complicated lives.

In the meantime, young adults seek out multimedia narratives in far corners of the web, discovering cutting-edge video series like “California is a Place” and audio shows like “Radiolab,” where the storytelling is raw – and real.

The best stories have surprises tucked in. Stephanie, the student who envisioned a life in New York, reveals that the nausea she’s been fighting is morning sickness. “I took eight pregnancy tests,” she confessed to the classmate with the digital recorder. “I’m going to name my daughter Brooklyn, so if I can’t be in New York, I can, at least, have part of New York here in Wisconsin.”

TV news isn’t all fake personality and false urgency. But the same old formula can’t cut through to these children of the Internet. They have brilliant tales at their fingertips. And poignant stories of their own.

Student Voices

In her introductory journalism class at UW-Milwaukee, Jane Hampden asks students to interview each other using audio recorders. The assignment is to produce short, focused stories about college students' experiences, passions and hopes. Jane tells us the results can be bracingly gritty.

Lisa Erin Brown, John Holman and Danielle Stobb recorded the student voices Jane used in the audio montage.

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