ABC and CBS both have anchors whose background is in morning television--so it was odd that NBC should be the network to run an ayem-style feature entitled Trading Places. The human interest piece gave us a glimpse of anchor Brian Williams' family life as he used his own relationship with his 89-year-old father Gordon to illustrate a demographic trend as society ages. Many elderly residents of assisted living facilities do not have family members as neighbors. So anchor Williams hires the firm Visiting Angels to deliver the supplementary support services to his father that kin would normally provide.

What is wrong with this type of journalism?

First, it has mixed motives. Its desire to inform us is tangled with a marketing impulse, namely to boost identification with the just-folks personality of the anchor.

This leads to a second, bigger problem. In its desire to make us identify with Williams crucial components of the story that would be reported if the coverage concerned a stranger are omitted in the quest for anchor-viewer bonding.

Specifically, how much does Williams personally pay to provide his father this extra treatment? How difficult is it for Williams to afford this amount? If those questions were answered truthfully, viewers would find out the opposite of the feature's intentions: not how like them Williams is but, financially, how unalike.

There is no journalistic virtue in this type of personalized coverage. In fact, to be a marketing success it has to cut journalistic corners.


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