The line between news journalism and entertainment reporting has blurred even more at the two local television stations' English channels.
It started a while ago when ATV World's newscasts started to include segments called Starwatch. Anchors who might have just read sober reports about genocide in Africa or Tin Shui Wai tragedies involving an entire family committing murder-suicide, would suddenly flash a toothy grin and brighten up to tell us about such silly stuff as movie premieres with Angelina Jolie and the romantic tribulations of Paris Hilton.
Admittedly, neither TVB Pearl nor ATV's news departments can be mistaken for staff at 60 Minutes, but it used to be that the local news teams were distinct from the rest of the programming staff.
I remember being told years ago by friends at TVB that the news people tended to keep to themselves and had a somewhat snobbish attitude, like they were more significant or important than those who worked in softer programmes such as variety, game shows and celebrity-driven drivel. Naively, I thought, yeah, they are superior because they are tackling real issues and are not dictated to by advertisers' whims.
However, the chasm that separates current affairs shows produced in the public's interest and inane entertainment fodder that merely distracts the masses has merged into a grey wasteland.
I'm not saying there's no place for light pop-culture diversion on the airwaves but if you're a news reporter then you've just undercut any weight and credibility you had. Imagine if Christiane Amanpour filed a CNN story on a terrorist bombing in Iraq and then followed up immediately with a shopping for shoes segment with Victoria Beckham. Not a good move for journalistic integrity.
Recently, TVB Pearl launched a new nightly mini-programme called Hong Kong Hong Kong which featured people from their news department covering non-news topics.
Essentially, it's similar to Pearl's other lifestyle effort Dolce Vita, only without the ultra-cheesy and over-scripted patter and mindless obsession with luxury. They include celebrity interviews, items on recreational activities, events in nightclubs and other non-hard news pieces. Actually, I take that back. Some have appeared during the newscasts too - on slow news days. Yet, it's the fact that it's produced by their news people that intrigues me.
It suggests several possibilities: one, the reporters just don't have enough to do. That's why they volunteered to create a new programme for the channel. After investigating hard issues and tough stories, the reporters clearly still have time to go to nightclubs and work on a fluffy piece like pole-dancing in Hong Kong, right?
The other theory is TVB is trying to consolidate its on-air resources so it is pooling the news team with the regular staff. If someone is good enough to cover the Legislative Council, they are good enough to interview movie directors and stars.
Seeing the enthusiastic reporting on Hong Kong Hong Kong, it certainly seems a few of them are ready to abandon journalism for the limelight of being the next Ryan Seacrest. This may mean more entertaining and fun stories for their current affairs programme but it's bad news for journalism standards in Hong Kong.
I'm not saying a good reporter can't do good hard news and human interest lifestyle spots too, but the fact TVB is asking them to do both means the company doesn't take its news section very seriously. If a restaurateur cares about the quality of his food, he wouldn't tell the pastry chef to pitch in and make pasta too.
The bottom line is - well, the bottom line ultimately rules. Broadcasting companies are here to make money. The TV stations may talk about public service but it's not in their interest to put a lot of resources into news shows. They're money losers. So, we just get the bare minimum the station's thrifty budget can get away with. That also means recruiting green and inexperienced reporters which might seem obvious to regular viewers.
In their defence, they are also working with little resources and minimal time. It's no surprise so many reporters cut their teeth at the local stations and then move on to bigger news networks: the fact is, if you have the skills, you don't want to stay on a small team in a small division. You want to test yourself in the premier league.
The Hong Kong Hong Kong segments are compiled weekly into a longer format show at the weekend hosted by models Anthony Sandstrom and Lisa S (or Selesner - if you have a last name use it).
How do you suppose TVB's news people feel about that? Their journalistic expertise has taken the back seat to some pretty faces with no experience.