Americans have more places to turn for news coverage than ever, but it’s the quality of the content that concerns ABC News President David Westin. Westin told an audience at the Kennedy School Forum Monday night (Oct. 25) that an “explosion of opinions” on the airwaves is beginning to “drown out reporting of the facts.”
And it is the reporting of the facts, Westin explained, that is television news’ most overriding obligation to its viewers. “If we follow others in this rush to opinion journalism, I fear we could become irrelevant to our audiences, and that, indeed, would lead to our becoming obsolete,” he stated.
Westin has served as president of ABC News since 1997, during a time of enormous change in the industry. Cable news networks have gained ground; Internet news sources have taken hold; and conventional news operations have adapted by expanding their programming and finding new avenues for reaching their audiences (even by delivering news content to cell phone users).
“This is the future of electronic news,” Westin says. “People are going to want access to electronic news anytime of the day or night, anywhere that they are, over whatever device that they want to use.”
But delivering the news to people anytime anywhere is an expensive enterprise, Westin says, and drives many programmers to take the low road. “Seeking the truth is expensive and inefficient,” he pointed out. “Expressing opinion on television is entertaining and less expensive.”
Expressing opinion at the expense of expressing the facts, Westin said, can confuse viewers who might not be able to discern the difference, and thereby undermine the credibility of the medium as a whole.
“To ensure that our future is brighter than our past we need to give people something of real value,” he explained. “The most valuable thing we have to offer the people is our reporting of what truth we can find.”
Seeking and reporting the truth will be of supreme importance on Election Night 2004, Westin admitted, considering the debacle of the 2000 election coverage when the networks flip-flopped on their call of the winner in the presidential race.
“The 2000 election was an unqualified embarrassment for all the networks, every one of them,” he claimed. “I was frankly appalled at the quality of our processes. … We have reformed those fundamentally. … I can promise you that we are going to be quite conservative this time and we’re going to be very careful about it.”
And you can bet the American people will be watching very closely on Election Night to see how well the networks perform.