Where have all the people gone?

We all put stories through different filters—patrolling for clarity, urgency, pace, meaning, context and more.

The one filter we were all taught on day 1 of journalism school or at our first small market job was that “news is about people.”

At this point, you kinda want to say duh-but instead I’m gonna say oops. As in oops - a lot of our coverage is missing real people. Where have they gone? How can we get them back?

I’ve seen countless newscasts where I can say:

- official sound bites outnumbered sound from real people.

- I was not introduced to a real person (nor heard from one) for long stretches of 5 to 8 minutes; often that occurred at the tops of the newscast.

And we’re not just talking TV newscasts. It seeps into everything.

These stories are what get’s clipped and repurposed online and OTT. Absent of real people.

When we lack real people in newscasts, we lack them on topical promos, too. Ouch.

Maybe it’s happening because we’re in a bigger hurry than we’ve ever been to fill more newscasts and more platforms. Maybe it’s because some reporters now cover more than one story a day and have less time to find people affected by news. Maybe we’re lazy sometimes. Maybe we haven’t coached simple concepts like, “you can paraphrase what officials say in less time than it takes for them to say it-unless they have something really emotional to offer.” Maybe we’re too caught up in all the sizzle and we forget the basics.

Viewers connect better with stories when they see the real people at the center of plights, issues, and government decisions. Often viewers see themselves in these real people. So when people are missing from news coverage, there is an emotional void that viewers may not articulate but they can feel.

Some years ago, I saw a 3rd place station in a big market take real people to an extreme-telling its staff that no officials could be used in stories (unless the Governor resigned, etc). It went on for months. Those newscasts felt dramatically different and better. Combined with other community initiatives, the station grew quickly and its brand became very personal and connected.

I’m surprised stations don’t try things like that anymore. If they have, I haven’t seen it.

A less extreme thought might be to just turn on the news and start counting real people vs. officials (including politicians). Start timing how long a newscast takes to get to real people and how long it takes to get to more real people. Will you find real people drought or is the presence of real people just right?

If the answer is “just right” that’s a victory the viewer and your station and a likely upgrade over the competition.