TV news reporters do the nod as they mind the gap in technology

John Kelly
Columnist February 23

According to the Bible, the Land of Nod is the place east of Eden to which Cain was exiled after murdering his brother, Abel. But there’s another, less sinister Land of Nod. You can see it every night on your TV news, where anchors and correspondents in the field bob their heads while communicating with one another.

In a column last week, I wondered why they do this.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Silver Spring’s Abby Thomas is not a TV newsperson, but she e-mailed to say she’d “always figured they are mimicking real conversational behaviors, to make it feel to the viewing audience more as if they are actually conversing.”

Several media consultants — professionals who coach clients on how to show themselves in the best light when interviewed — raised similar points: You want to look friendly and natural on TV, even if you have to do something unnatural to achieve it.

But these reasons didn’t strike me as the whole story. Then I heard from Wendy Rieger, the veteran Channel 4 anchor who last year celebrated her 25th anniversary at the NBC affiliate.

“It is a new device created in response to technology,” Wendy wrote of the Nod.

The audio and video signals that travel back and forth between the studio and the correspondent — whether via satellite or by using what is essentially cellphone technology — can suffer from a time lag of three seconds or more.

“Rather than stand there looking stupid for several beats after the anchor has tossed to you, the field reporters start nodding as they hear their introduction so they appear engaged during the delay,” Wendy explained. “It’s actually quite comforting to do it. I don’t know why we didn’t do it years ago.”

Susan Peterson, a former NBC and CBS correspondent now at the Communication Center, a media coaching company, said the Nod is also a way for the field correspondent to signal to control room technicians that she is in fact hearing the audio feed.

This little sleight of hand — or sleight of head — underscores how difficult it must be to deliver a live TV report. Leave aside the journalistic footwork that’s involved before the red light goes on, and focus on how the correspondent must look semi-normal and not trip over his words while staring into an unblinking glass eye that represents hundreds of thousands of viewers.

Keep that in mind as you sit in the comfort of your living room.

And yet, that’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. Many readers expressed irritation with the Nod. They didn’t stop there.

Martin S. Protas of Potomac dislikes the way anchors and correspondents continually address each other by their first names, as if in private conversation.

Anthony Kolkmeyer of Manassas agreed: “They exchange each other’s name at least half a dozen times in the one- to two-minute report . . . I don’t remember Cronkite, Brokaw, Brinkley and the others having that awkward exchange.”

Bob Barber of Alexandria dislikes what he calls the Anchor Dance, in which an anchor punctuates every other word with a physical tic: a hand gesture, a jerk of the head, a seat bounce. Wrote Bob: “Please, somebody tell these people not every word requires physical emphasis.”

Don Smith of Kensington is annoyed by something else: the audio “swishes” on the evening news. “Every story Diane Sawyer now leads into is accompanied by a fake sound that might be used when Superman has just ducked out a window,” he wrote. “Do viewers really need or benefit from having their brains assisted by this superfluous noise?”

I’m guessing consultants earn their paychecks by figuring out ways to keep viewers engaged. Perhaps research suggests that nods, swishes and the kabuki of the Anchor Dance do just that.

Of course, I shouldn’t just sit here and dish it out. It’s possible that newspapers and news Web sites do things that drive you around the bend. Send your gripes my way.

Precious metal

Gaithersburg’s Andi Drimmer takes issue with the view I expressed last week that no one had improved on the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. Wrote Andi: “Personally, I prefer an alternative that I like to refer to as the Silver Rule: Treat others the way they would like to be treated.”

She provided an example: “Person A is an early riser who loves receiving phone calls at 7 a.m., before having breakfast. Person B is a night owl who prefers not to be bothered before noon.

“If Person A wants to call Person B and follows the Golden Rule, the call would take place at 7 a.m., thus making Person B extremely angry. Following the Silver Rule, the call wouldn’t take place until after noon.

“Which do you think is better?”

I think an entirely different set of rules applies when you actually know the person you’re interacting with.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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