Image Versus Reality in TV News

WE in the ``pencil press'' are reluctant to admit that a picture can be worth a thousand words, especially the flickering images on TV. But the fact is, a picture - especially a television presentation of a news event - is a very powerful thing which can greatly influence individuals and governments. Just recall Vietnam and the Watergate hearings that riveted a nation and changed the course of US politics.

It's also true that watching television is a relatively passive act. Not many people use VCR's to record news shows. And unlike reading newspapers and magazines, there's not much chance to mull over or challenge an idea or image presented, even during the commercial break. The medium rolls over one at it's own pace, not the recipient's.

All of this is to explain why the use of professional actors to reenact current news events is at least troublesome.

ABC News last week had to apologize for its recreation of a US diplomat's alleged meeting with a Soviet agent. ABC in effect labeled him a spy. Trouble is, it's not known for sure that the diplomat was engaged in espionage.

Two other commercial networks - NBC and CBS - are launching prime-time shows which will include ``simulations'' and ``recreations'' of current news events. Defenders liken these to courtroom sketches and animations, but these new techniques seem a far leap from those which are obviously done artificially.

As ABC's irrepressible Sam Donaldson has said, ``Even if you label it, it's not reality. When you put it on in a news context, people might blur it in their minds.''

Losing audiences as they are to cable, the networks understandably are looking for ways to keep viewers during prime time. But it seems, as former NBC News president Lawrence Grossman said recently, that ``the techniques are beginning to overwhelm the old standards.''

``When you start mucking up reality, even though it may be justified in a particular instance,'' Mr. Grossman warned, ``it really creates a very dangerous pattern.''

We agree. Television has much to offer a society that needs to be better informed. But it should be used to help clarify - not confuse - image versus reality.

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