How much do average news consumers care about how stories actually come to be?
The New York Times is banking on them caring enough to invest 30 minutes of television time a week to watch those stories come to life.
“The Weekly,” which debuted last week on FX, chronicles the work of Times reporters as they chase down stories. The first episode featured the newspaper’s reporting on T.M. Landry College Preparatory, an unaccredited private school in Louisiana. Times reporting unearthed accusations that the school and its founders, Michael and Tracey Landry, subjected students to harsh corporal punishment and falsified students’ transcripts to help them get into elite universities.
The Times story, published in November 2018, led to a state police investigation of the school. “The Weekly” followed reporters as they interviewed former students and parents, worked with editors, and confronted the Landrys about allegations against the school.
All this work plays out fairly dramatically in “The Weekly” … or as dramatically as journalism can, I suppose. My biggest question coming into the premiere was whether the Times, which produces the show, could make reporting interesting enough to a mass audience. In the first episode, at least, producers mostly succeeded in delivering narrative about narrative. Times Executive Editor Dean Banquet in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter suggested the newspaper eventually could break news on the television show.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the journalism industry generally has responded favorably to more television about journalism. It is fair to criticize “The Weekly,” as some have, for glamorizing Times journalists at the expense of the stories they tell. To me, this is a fairly minor transgression. On the whole, the program emphasizes two important messages about journalism that audiences – and journalists themselves – need to hear.
First, it offers a compelling picture of the power individuals in a community have to bring about change when they make their voices heard. Journalism works at its best when it amplifies the voices of those it serves. Unfortunately, not all voices get equal amplification. “The Weekly” serves as a good reminder to journalists that stories don’t always start with the most powerful members of a community.
Second, it pulls back the curtain on the reporting process and gives viewers a chance to see how journalistic stories come to be. The majority of Americans have never spoken with a local journalist, and Americans increasingly see news organizations as a dividing force in society.
News organizations are increasingly coming to the realization that professional transparency can address both of those trends. At the local level, transparency often means accessibility. I believe this is an important reason that Americans say they trust local news organizations more than national news organizations.
“The Weekly” approaches transparency in a different way, showing the emotion and reasoning behind reporting processes. Understanding the roles those experiences play in the broader reporting process can help media consumers come to more informed decisions about the trustworthiness of news.
We’ll see if they also make for compelling TV.
Clay Carey is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Samford University. He is a former reporter and editor, and author of The News Untold: Community Journalism and the Failure to Confront Poverty in Appalachia.
About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.