All The Day's News ... And Ducks

"The news is so awful lately, we thought at least a little good news would be in order. So we close tonight with the story of a man who has an unusual relationship with ducks," said Bob Schieffer last night, introducing the final piece on the "Evening News," a profile by John Blackstone of a California duck hunter who also rescues ducks in the region, where the wetlands are dwindling.

ABC's "World News Tonight" also closed with a feature that was unrelated to Katrina or other news of the day—a piece on a recent study from Columbia University on the benefits of family dinners. "Those of us who have children don't need a reminder of how hard it can sometimes be to spend as much time as we'd like with our kids," said anchor Elizabeth Vargas, introducing the piece.

With such an overwhelming amount of news about Hurricane Katrina--most of it depressing--when and how does a broadcast decide that it's time to include something unrelated and upbeat?

PE spoke with Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, senior broadcast producer for the "Evening News," about how the decision to include Blackstone's piece came about.

"It is two weeks plus after the hurricane," said Ciprian-Matthews, "and we felt like it was the right time to do something else. That kind of feature was uplifting and didn't detract from hurricane coverage and it just felt like the right time to do that."

A 30-minute news broadcast has a limited amount of opportunity to include such feature stories, said Ciprian-Matthews. "The print media has a lot more opportunity because they have a lot of space, they can offer all kinds of things. We don't have that kind of luxury."

Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University who studies the media, says that broadcasts include these types of stories to hold on to their audiences. While acknowledging that he hasn't done any research on the subject specifically, Gitlin said, "They think, and they may be right, that there is a portion of the audience that badly wants these gestures of reassurance and would flee otherwise."

Ciprian-Matthews disagrees: "Yesterday, we weren't thinking, should we do something so that we don't lose audience? The day comes when you walk in and say, we'll cover the big headlines, but let's also go with something a little more uplifting. It was a good story and that's why we did it, because it was a good, well done piece."