The Importance of Context: The case of a report on Tennessee’s sex-ed bill

CNN’s Brooke Baldwin with Tennessee state lawmaker John DeBerry on the “Starting Point” program.

In which a CNN piece gets this writer thinking about the way to structure a news piece.

As I begin writing this, I just finished watching a segment on CNN’s Starting Point program regarding the new sexual-education law in Tennessee. The segment consisted of a live appearance by State Representative John DeBerry, a supporter of the law. In general, I found the segment an excellent illustration of the problems with the sort of live interview segments we often see on cable news.  Here is the CNN page with video of the segment. Before I go into talking about the segment, here is a bit on the law.

The bill, SB 3310 HB 3621, sets new guidelines on educational curricula with regards to sexual education in Tennessee, and in general redoubles the abstinence-oriented aim of the state’s curriculum. (legislative summary) (full text) The data generally seems to bear out the idea that abstinence-only education is a failed project, but this law is seen by many to go even further. The aspect that has triggered the most mockery from comedians was the clause in the law that notes:

Instruction of the family life education curriculum may not:

(1) Promote any gateway sexual activity or health message that encourages students to experiment with non-coital sexual activity

The host of the program, Brooke Baldwin, gave a good setup for the segment, but it did not give enough context, a problem I’ll come back to at the end of this.  DeBerry was initially asked to clarify what the first clause in that law actually meant, and did narrow it down to something that seemed more reasonable. He then noted that teachers had been dealing with this behavior “for generations”. While true, this would only obviate the need for a bill, and the interviewer should have followed up with that. The panelists in studio on the show were given a chance to answer, and one of them did ask an effective question on the fact that abstinence only education has not been shown to work well for high school students as for middle school students. Unfortunately, after a short bit of crosstalk, the dreaded “we’re going to have to leave it there” was said, and the segment ended.

Several months ago, a former broadcast journalist wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review about how the package news report—essentially your conventional TV news report where the reporter goes out and interviews a bunch of people on a story from different angles, and then sums up the information—is becoming less prevalent on American news channels, replaced by live segments like the one on CNN this morning. While the context of that article was with regards to the Arab Spring, it could easily apply to all news coverage.

This story was an issue where the package news report would have been much better than a simple live appearance for two main reasons. First: the viewer is probably coming into the segment with a limited or non-existent understanding of the specific issue. The bill has largely been covered either locally or mocked by late night comedians. A package report would allow for bringing in context on the statistics of sex-ed approaches across the US and in the state. Second: there are a wide variety of stakeholders in the environment that the bill would actually affect (high schools)—parents, teachers, students themselves, and the perspectives of all are much closer to the situation than that of the lawmaker.

A package report would allow those perspectives to be brought into the story to see how the law affects actual people. The lawmaker interview actually would have been much better had it been prefaced by a 2-3 minute package explaining the law and the circumstances that prompted it. It would have allowed for better questioning from all involved and provided more light (in addition to the heat) for the viewer. This report by WCYB (incidentally a CNN affiliate), a Virginia local station that serves parts of Tennessee, while not perfect, does provide more context for the viewer.

There are probably an inordinate number of stories that would be better served this way than the normal manner in which cable news treats them, but the abstinence segment stuck out to me because the angle the story took was not on the politics but rather on the “effects on people,” making the shortcomings of the style more apparent.

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