Newscaster Ted Koppel, formerly of ABC’s “Nightline,” spoke Saturday on campus about the current state of the media and its role in society.
His lecture focused on the effect technology has had on the journalism industry by increasing the number of media outlets and the speed of production, and advised young journalists to use the Internet as a forum for their reporting.
The event was the fifth in an annual series of lectures on journalism and international relations. The series was started in memory of former Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. The event was co-sponsored by Hillel at UCLA and the UCLA College.
Students who were present said they were impressed with Koppel’s ability to articulate his ideas about the media and society.
“He was an extremely intelligent person. He got to the point and was very eloquent and informative,” said Amanda Ghahremani, a first-year undeclared student.
When discussing the changes in the journalism industry, Koppel emphasized how technology has affected the content of stories by speeding up the amount of time between when a story is reported and when people receive the news.
He said when he went to Vietnam in the mid-1960s, it took two to three days to get a short story on the air, but when reporting in Iraq, it took two and a half seconds.
Because stories did not used to be on the air immediately, Koppel said he had to look for stories that would be relevant in those next few days. Now, he said, there isn’t that problem anymore.
Koppel also spoke about how money impacts networks’ preferences in the types of programs they air.
He said the change came in 1968 with the start of the TV program “60 Minutes.” After two or three years, the show began to make a profit, which previously had never happened in broadcast journalism, Koppel said. Profit became extremely important to networks.
“It’s the worst thing that happened to our industry,” he said.
As cable, satellite TV and the Internet emerged, shows received fewer and fewer viewers. Networks began to turn to members of the audience who brought in the most money, which was the aged 18 to 25 demographic, Koppel said.
Because of this change in target demographic, Koppel said ABC wanted him to make changes to “Nightline” which he did not feel comfortable with.
“I left ABC because the networks had wanted me to dumb down the show to meet this demographic,” he said. “I felt we could reach young people by treating them with intelligence. But that’s not how the industry sees it.”
He said networks now think people do not have the attention span to watch 22 minutes on one story. When he worked on “Nightline” he focused on one story throughout the entire program. Now “Nightline” covers three or four stories in that same time period, and it still spends more time than the average evening news program, he said.
Koppel also commented on the current political system in the United States, relating trends in journalism to those that can also be seen in politics. He said government officials, similar to the media, know what the American public wants and try to give the impression that they are willing to meet the public’s needs.
“Leaders pay far too much attention to what the public wants, without doing what they are elected to do,” Koppel said.
After his lecture, Koppel answered questions from the audience, with the help of the moderator, Los Angeles Times columnist and reporter Patt Morrison.
When asked if he thinks news will focus on quality over entertainment value, Koppel said he believes there are still many quality news sources.
“We have enough media out there now that every form of journalism can have some voice,” he said. “If you like something, watch it, give money to it; this has a major impact.”
Koppel said he believes programs stay on the air because networks think people want to see them, not because they believe in the programs.
His advice to young journalists is to take advantage of technology. He said people do not even need to try to get a job anymore; they can put their broadcast on the Internet, and if it’s good, word of mouth will travel, and someone will hire them.
But Koppel said there is also a negative aspect to the increase in technology, which is that news is available all the time.
“The problem with 24-hour news is that newscasters have 24 hours they have to fill. It’s hard to fill up that whole time with quality,” he said.
Aimee Sorek, a first-year fine arts student, said she was awed by his sincerity throughout the lecture.
“I’ve met broadcasters before. … It’s like they’re actors. I was blown away by how brilliant he is. He wasn’t acting; he’s an incredible speaker,” she said.
Koppel focused on the integrity of his fellow colleagues. He said he believes that in journalism, just like in any other industry, there are still people who value the needs of others over their own monetary needs.
Morrison said she agrees with Koppel, and highly values her role as a journalist in society.
“We journalists are proud of our calling. We think what we do is a vital part of democracy. … Ted Koppel is an example of this. He is someone who practices dispassionate and humane journalism, never losing his integrity,” she said.