KSJ Tracker September 21, 2012

PBS Newshour: A broadcast interview is a poor reflection of a rich story on Newshour's website

Some street labels for bath salts

Last night, PBS Newshour ran a tepid interview by Judy Woodruff with a scientist who is an expert on the street drugs known as bath salts. The scientist, Louis De Felice of Virginia Commonwealth University, was earnest and informed, but plainly uncomfortable on television. The interview ran for just under six minutes, but it felt longer. It dragged. At the end of it, viewers would have understood that this is an unusual and dangerous drug--and not much more. The experience was like watching a filmed version of a Wikipedia article--interesting, but not urgent or newsy.

The broadcast segment contrasts starkly with the strong and moving oneline story it was based on. Newshour's Jenny Marder wrote an almost 5,000-word piece that led with the tragic death of a 21-year-old bicycle motocross racer who snorted a powder he'd bought from a friend, which triggered waves of terror and delusions, leading him first to try to slit his throat, and, later, after being released from the hospital with stitches in his throat, to commit suicide with a .22 rifle he'd won in a shooting contest as a boy.

Marder goes on to interview and profile De Felice, who emerges as a far more complex, sympathetic, and interesting character in the story than he did in the Woodruff interview. Marder writes:

When he was 10, De Felice's family moved from New Jersey to Florida, and he hated it. He couldn't get used to the weather, the slatted windows, and the flamingos. But a friend suggested he might overcome his aversion if he'd stop fighting his new reality and embrace Florida -- if he'd move toward the flamingo, instead of away from it. De Felice heeded the advice, both literally and figuratively. Now, in his office where he researches the science of illicit drugs, he is surrounded by the birds: wooden, stuffed and glass.

She talks to him about his research on bath salts, telling us so much more than Woodruff even hinted at in her rote interview. Woodruff began her interview with, "And we turn to a story we posted online earlier today." That's all she says, until the very end, when she concludes by saying, "Read the extensive story by our reporter Jenny Marder," and then describes it in one sentence.

Marder deserved better than this, and, more importantly, so did Newshour's viewers. Might Woodruff have interviewed Marder? Or perhaps a member of the bicycle rider's family, along with Marder and De Felice? Five minutes is a long time, and Woodruff and Newshour could have done a much better job in that segment summarizing the fascinating story on their website.

The Woodruff interview, which presumably reached far more people, was a poor alternative to Marder's story on the web.

-Paul Raeburn


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