'Lorraine' Needs Our Help: How and Why Local TV News Tries to Scare Women

I have often said the purpose of TV news is to “scare women 18-54 into watching the next newscast.” When I tell people that simple line it’s very interesting to see their reaction. They laugh and they get it. They know exactly what I’m talking about. All of a sudden they understand why TV news does all those stories on “baby buggies that kill,” or “make-up that could be deadly.” You think I’m joking? Those are lines from TV newscasts that are used on a regular basis. Of course, rarely does the content of the story actually match the headline, but what the heck, we’ve scared her into watching the next newscast, so mission accomplished.

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The “sausage making” of TV news is not a fun thing to watch. On one level it is silly and ridiculous, on another level it is demeaning and insulting, especially to women. The business that prides itself on protecting women actually holds them in derision.

The first thing you need to know is that women are the target viewer of any newscast. Advertisers know where they can find the men, they’ll flip on the tube…oh, sorry, they don’t use tubes anymore… they’ll flip on the LCD 1080p HD on Saturday or Sunday to watch football. Women supposedly are home morning, noon and night and they want their news. TV newscasts are Oprah without Oprah, since she can’t be everywhere all the time protecting women.

It didn’t use to be like this. I’ve been in the business long enough to live through the change. There actually was a time in TV news when reporters showed up at work every day to just go out and report the news. The reporter would chose the story with the photographer (now the “photojournalist”) and they’d return with a story, put it together and it would be broadcast at 6 p.m., simple as that. I did it thousands of times and was trusted to get it right. Nowadays, a full staff of management, marketing directors, consultants, producers, executive producers, writers and probably the gal at the front desk all play a role in what goes on air. Half a dozen people or more may be involved in the choosing of the story, the content of the story, who is interviewed for the story and the angle of the story. Ron Burgundy was funny in Anchorman when he complained about women in the newsroom, but he was also right about some things. Oh, there is no question news is better with men and women both anchoring, but the “chickification” of news, as Rush Limbaugh calls it, is real and it’s much deeper than whether the voice is Katie or Dan.

The content of any newscast is designed to drive female viewers to the shows. Whether you have a woman delivering the news or not, it’s more important that the content drive her to the newscast and keep her coming back. Think about it, what are the stories that fit in virtually every opening segment of a newscast? “High chairs that could kill your baby!” “Toys from China that could destroy your life!” and “Are the walls in your home safe?” With intros like those, you would be an unfit mother if you didn’t stay around through the break and watch the next segment. Child Protection Services may be knocking at your door if you grab the remote and turn to Judge Judy.

For thirty years in the TV news business, I sat through more meetings with management and consultants than I care to count, and the general tone of those meetings was usually this: the viewers don’t know crap, and without our help, they/she would wither into oblivion. Ceck out this research we were handed that told us who our typical viewer was, and who we wanted to attract.

OUR VIEWER IS:

25-34 Woman

High school educated

Has Kids

Service worker

Mid-downscale

Owns small house

Lives paycheck to paycheck

Shops at Wal-Mart

Needs our help

NASCAR fan

nascar fans

We came up with a name for this woman, “Lorraine.” All management needed to say was to “go out and interview Lorraine,” or “make the story about Lorraine” and we knew exactly what they meant. We weren’t just going out to do the news, we were going out to make the story fit Lorraine.

If you went to a gas station to do a story on high gas prices (remember, “Pain at the Pump?”) you would never think to come back with an interview with Fred. You waited around at the Wal-Mart gas station until some lady drove up with 1.2 kids in the car and she was Lorraine. I recall a time when jokingly a reporter actually used the graphic of “Lorraine” as the name of a person because he forgot to get her real name for the interview. It was an inside joke that made for a great laugh, but I did wonder what the lady thought was she watched herself misidentified for her barely 15 seconds of fame The foolishness is not lost on the people in the building, but if you want to keep your job, you give them what they want, no matter what you may think as a journalist. Fred may have a great story to tell, but it would get dumped in the digital dungeon if you brought it back to the station.

She “Needs our help” is perhaps the most demeaning line in the research. Forget the line about her “shopping at Wal-Mart” or is a “NASCAR fan”, those are other issues for another time, but she “Needs our help” caused me to react at the time it was presented to us in a staff meeting. I asked the simple question, “Who are we to put ourselves in a position that we know what she needs and how to help her?” You have to know that newsrooms are typically made up of young, single, 20-somethings who are working to find their own way in life, much less be there to help save somebody else. Good, hardworking people, but put in a position by management of authority over “Lorraine.” Now you know why you find TV news so silly, and insulting at the same time. It’s the game plan.

It should be mentioned that there are many times where TV news does a great job investigating and uncovering wrongdoing. But, on the rare occasions that that happens, the awards are handed out and promos are produced with praise heaped upon praise for all involved in the story that “Saved Lorraine from the Evil Business that tried to rip her off”. The reward is that the reporter gets a trophy that helps him/her get out of Yakima and on to Portland and the station gets to remind the viewers how they could not survive without them.

Oh….TV news is first and foremost a business. You get reminded of that every time you try to do some sort of investigation that might involve something that isn’t all that salacious and might take two days to finish. If you don’t fill 10.5 hours per day on air of local news time, you don’t get paid. Business is good for everybody, but journalism has always prided itself in being something more, a higher calling, constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. That doesn’t always square with the result, but who’s watching anyway (ratings are way down, but that’s another column for another day)? TV news is not the corner auto shop; in fact, it goes after the corner auto shop….but only if Lorraine was the one who got ripped off so that Shirley or Susan could be scared into watching tonight at 11.

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