A Trivial But Disturbing (To Me) Technique

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

This posting has been updated

The headline above refers to a couple of things that happened during last night’s broadcast of the PBS NewsHour. In the grand scheme of things, they are minor transgressions. The NewsHour does not see them as transgressions at all. But I found the NewsHour’s handling of what I see as transgressions to be annoying and, more importantly, misleading to viewers.

There is no shortage of news these days. The normal broadcast runs for about 54 minutes on weekday evenings. But last night, March 9, the NewsHour used more than 14 of those minutes to rebroadcast segments, one on tourism in Iceland that had originally been aired last August, and one on the crumbling infrastructure in this country that aired in December. One can take issue with that use of time, but that’s not what this short column is about.

What it is about, as I see it and saw it, is that in neither case did the program adequately convey to viewers that they were watching old clips. For example, something straightforward like “This segment first appeared on the NewsHour in August…or December” would have cleared up any reasonable confusion on the part of viewers.

Instead, anchor person Hari Sreenivasan, in introducing the infrastructure segment, which was longer and came first, said: “Even as the president is working to pass the health care law, there are reports he would also like to craft a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan this summer. That leads to questions about priorities, and the question of public investment. Our economics correspondent Paul Solman takes a trip on the rails in a second look for his weekly series ‘Making Sense.’”

Now in case you missed it, the words “in a second look,” according to NewsHour Executive Producer Sara Just, are supposed to alert you to the fact that this is a repeat. That’s “what we often say in such situations,” she explains. That, to my mind and ears, is inadequate. As soon as I saw this segment—which happens to be very good and would certainly qualify as something that could have been introduced as reported on earlier but now especially timely and worth rebroadcasting—I said to myself, but out loud: “This was on months ago. Why are they repeating it?”  Obviously “in a second look” didn’t register with me in real time, if I even heard it, and I doubt it registered with anyone else except perhaps the NewsHour staff.

For the Iceland segment, Sreenivasan introduced it this way: “For those stations still with us, Iceland was one of last year’s it destinations for vacationers. But people there are learning the downside of that boom. More tourist money can also mean more problems. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has our encore report.”

“Our encore report”?  "Encore report" is, I guess, supposed to tell you that we did this once before in August and there is nothing new in here. I didn’t get it. I watch the NewsHour closely and what I remember are segments that I’ve seen before.

Explanation and Examples

Just explains, with respect to the Iceland segment, that “We do that every night during pledge season. We have content for the few stations that don’t air pledge programming.” Her other point, that the show uses shorthand like “second look” and “encore” in such repeat situations, is true, but in the few instances that our search turned up in recent years, the show was better about explaining what viewers were about to watch.

For example, last December, correspondent William Brangham made it clear what was about to be shown in a rebroadcast segment about crime in Chicago.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: “That problem was one of several big challenges that the NewsHour‘s John Yang heard about when he reported there earlier this summer. He also examined what is being done to combat it. For some context, back then, there were roughly 200 fewer homicides in Chicago at that time. Here’s a second look at his report.”

And anchor Judy Woodruff did the same with a report back in 2014 about education.

JUDY WOODRUFF: “Schools across the country are putting new shared standards in math and reading into practice, but what about for the arts? Are those required to be taught as well? The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, looked at those questions recently. Here is an encore of his report.”

Maybe I’m just being cranky and nitpicky, but I think the program always needs to be upfront and clear—more transparent to viewers—when segments are being repeated.

*An Additional Response From The NewsHour

"Your inquiry was only about the language used to introduce a rebroadcast story - not why it aired. Here is a further explanation: It is not the NewsHour's habit to air previously aired stories. We make special exception during the portion  of the broadcast covered by most stations during pledge breaks and occasionally for some feature pieces during holidays. However, last Thursday we made the decision to pull a story from the broadcast close to air for further reporting. Our only option so close to air was to rebroadcast an excellent, compelling but previously aired story. We believe that was the wisest choice and that we informed the audience in the 'second look' language that we have used on several other occasions. There was no effort to deceive the audience."

Sara Just, SVP & Executive Producer

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