“Look lives”: Eroding journalistic integrity one hit at a time?

If you watch the news, you’ve probably seen a “look live”. That news-speak
term means a reporter who appears to be live in the field, but was taped doing
the introduction to their story, or sometimes their throw back to the newsroom
or a different type of seemingly live hit, well before the show is aired. In
fact, look lives make up a much larger quotient of airtime than actual live
hits do.

And what’s the problem with that? Part of me thinks a look live is
equivalent to lying to the audience, and journalism is supposed to be about
telling the truth.

Look lives are so prevalent in current newscasts I’m beginning to
wonder if there is some type of look-live training protocol which designates
the time and speed at which reporters should nod their heads at the camera lens
so it appears they are listening to the anchor back in the studio.

Interestingly, there often seems to be no concern over details such
as it should be broad daylight in the time zone the reporter is filing from although
it is clearly dark. What’s important is appearing to be live in as many
locations as possible throughout the broadcast. Format trumps quality of
content — the definition of
Altheide and
Snow’s Media Logic

Altheide and Snow believe news is more drama than journalism; not
about determining the best way to share information, but entertaining viewers
in order to retain market share and make money. News is a perspective, not the
truth. It doesn’t matter whether you’re really live or not — just that it
looks good when you appear to be.

I took an informal survey of a group of journalists, representing
all of Canada’s national networks and one local Toronto station, currently at work
in a variety of jobs including producing, reporting, and directing, to see how
they feel about look lives.

One reporter said that “standing in front of a static background,
whether live or during a look live is not effective. Standing and/or
interacting with a dynamic scene can engage the viewer and bring about a
greater understanding of the story. Technically it’s not always possible to be
live so a look live is a great alternate”.

Another wrote, “Look lives are meant like a
stand-up. It shows you were there. We never say they are live, but it is a bit
of a fudge. However, most viewers think the entire newscast is live, so live
versus look live doesn’t seem to be a big deal. Sometimes a newsroom has to be

A producer added, “I am not a fan of look lives. I prefer real time
and I don’t think you are fooling anyone. That being said, as long as it’s not
a fake chat or you are pretending to be live, they can add to a show in the
event that you need it for pacing. For example, tonight we are doing an ‘as
live’ from Buffalo to show our presence there — then a real live from a sports
bar for the Junior game”.

A director had this to say:  If you say the world LIVE, you better be.
But if you say, “Joe Blow is in Washington tonight”, and Joe starts
talking, I have no problem with that. Before the reporter tapes his/her top,
the writer will talk to them and let them know how the host will throw to them.
That way they are reacting to the exact words the host would say to them if
they were live. It’s just another more immediate type of intro. I see it in the
same light as when we have to pre-tape interviews.  Unless there is
something that dates them, we don’t admit they are not live. As a director, I just
add it to the ‘magic of television’ bag of tricks”.

Another producer said, “I get why we do
them — I don’t like them. They always look fake to me, but then again I have a
trained eye. The bigger question is does the viewing audience really care if
you’re ‘live’ or tape? I think it’s a bigger deal to the media. Ask the average
person and they don’t know or care”.

If there are any average people reading this who don’t work in media
I’d love to know if that’s true, because I really do care and I’m wondering if
it’s because I was trained to be a journalist.

As I begin to examine the relationship between traditional media and
the audience, and how to build bridges to ensure a wider variety of stories are
told from different perspectives, I’m truly perplexed about what impact, if
any, “fudging” the truth has on journalistic integrity – and what journalistic
integrity actually means in 2011.

**This blog was originally posted on my Master’s
research blog http://redefiningjournalism.wordpress.com/