The last few weeks, we've witnessed cable and broadcast newscasters fall victim to their worst instincts. I still can't get over how not a single journalist asked a single question about COVID during Biden's first press conference. Plus, there are lingering questions about how CNN may have aired a staged border crossing, almost equating to propaganda for a conservative member of the House.
I'm going to try to look past those mistakes and use a dose of positive reinforcement along with a big, blinking warning sign to cajole my former colleagues.
First let's give credit where credit is due. This week, cable news salivated over the prospect that one of its biggest antagonists may be facing jail time for child sex trafficking. Yes, it's newsworthy. But so is the $2 trillion infrastructure package Biden just announced, which has received almost no coverage on cable news. Some of that negligence may be political, but there are significant risks of not debating such a piece of legislation. Some conservatives will see it as the liberal media helping slip a big giveaway past voters (think Tea Party-like reaction). Some progressives argue it should be larger. It's possible both groups are right, but at this point, we don't know because there's been scant public discussion.
But I digress. I'm supposed to be giving a compliment. Point is, in the face of these other big stories, CNN's Erin Burnett made room in her (almost) primetime show -- dedicating more than 12 minutes to Myanmar. Correspondent Clarissa Ward was granted access by the ruling military -- which she disclosed, as well as their heavy-handed attempt to control the filming -- and was able to present a portrait of a nation under siege, desperate under violent junta rule. The network doesn't often give international stories such prominence close to primetime (because producers think Americans don't care), so they deserve applause for dedicating precious cable real estate to this crisis. That segment allowed millions of people to bear witness, millions who otherwise may remain in the dark on the foreign tragedy. If you missed the story, it's worth watching here.
Next, a massive warning to my former colleagues in cable news: you know those ratings you tend to obsess about every day? The ones you get at 4pmET from Nielsen? Yea. Those. They're very likely wrong. And they likely have gotten worse during the pandemic. No, you shouldn't make editorial decisions based on what the audience wanted to watch YESTERDAY. Now we have even more reason to ignore those numbers.
I dug into the Nielsen system and found they aren't able to integrate digital use into the numbers they generate overnight, which is exactly the data that cable news producers use. That's important because even before COVID (i.e., before many people cut the cord), Nielsen reported digital use made up 20% of the TV market. Based on what we know, those users tend to be younger and more urban -- so their TV use isn't being delivered to news producers. Therefore, cable news producers are pandering to a portion of the audience which is older and more rural. What's more, we're just learning how even the large market data (considered a golden standard for accuracy by Nielsen), likely isn't accurate since the pandemic started a year ago because they aren't replacing households that relocate (or, unfortunately, die) -- and they aren't sending company reps to the homes to verify that the technology is working.
Interestingly, the company provided a communications representative who could speak to me on background only. He sent no information to me in writing and did not respond to my three pointed follow-up questions, even after two weeks. Color me skeptical that a data organization can't provide key data about its data.
There are many, many reasons why producers should not use those daily ratings to make editorial decisions. Now we know those problems are even worse. Read more about how the Nielsen ratings are computed in my latest column for CJR -- and critically, why cable news producers should ignore them now more than ever. You know what computer geeks say about garbage in. It produces garbage out.