Roman poet Phaedrus once said: “Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” So why am I quoting a man who was born in 15 BC in an article about 21st century TV news? Because the central idea of the quote often plays a part in what we are asked to do.
How many times have you heard a news manager lament that reporters need to do more storytelling with the packages they produce? And then how times have you heard those same managers send crews on stories that are not “TV friendly” and seem to have no opportunity for storytelling. You know the ones I’m talking about. These are the stories that have zero visuals, zero interesting nat sound and seemingly zero opportunity to “story tell.” Most of us hate them. But by the same token, most of us have to cover them from time to time. So what do you do? Do you just curse those managers who send you on these stories and then “mail it in” by turning a TV news “report” rather than a piece of storytelling? I certainly hope not for a couple of reasons. First, you should always have more personal pride in the work you put your name on than to do that. Second, you can almost always do some storytelling no matter what kind of dog of a story you are assigned.
I can hear the groans and grumbles right now! Stop cursing at your computer (i.e. – me!) for just a minute and open your mind and I will show you how to do it. It’s pretty simple really. One little word is all you need to remember: Writing Yep, it’s all in **how** you write that package. Earlier I threw out the term TV news “report.” A “report” is a bunch of facts and words put into a package with little or no cohesive narrative and no relation to the video on screen. It’s boring television and should never be what you aspire to produce. “Storytelling” on the other hand is exactly what it sounds like. It’s telling a “story.” Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They also have characters. In TV news a “story” also, ideally, has great visuals and nat sound. (Remember, the beauty of TV news is in blending visuals, sound and words in a way that makes the viewer feel as if they as “there” where the story is happening.) Sometimes those elements are all there, sometimes they are not.
So, what do you do when they are not there? Let’s talk about it. One of the most common retorts I get when I say “You can story tell with just about any assignment you get.” is “What about when we get sent to a boring meeting?” Again, it’s all in the writing. Suppose you are told to package a government council or commission meeting where they are going to be talking about some sort of tax hike. You get there and it’s immediately apparent that there are not going to be any fireworks from the assembled crowd… but you still have to package it. You can still tell a “story.” First, figure out who the main person involved in the tax hike issue is gonna be. Make that person your first “character” and center the piece around them. If there is someone, anyone, there that has an opposing view, make them the “antagonist” in your piece. Voila! You now have the beginnings of a true “story.”
Ask the videographer you are working with if they could please get a little extra b-roll of your protagonist and antagonist. When you interview them, don’t ask questions about the facts. That’s what your reporter track should do. Ask questions that get at the emotion behind their support for or opposition against the issue. Hopefully, going at the interview this way will get you some marginally less dry sound than you would’ve otherwise gotten. It does not always work though. But don’t fret.
Now it’s time to write. Don’t just set the boring scene and put the boring video over it:
“EXAMPLE COUNTY COUNCIL IS TALKING TAXES THIS NIGHT… BLAH… BLAH… BLAH.”
Instead, use your characters:
[VERY SHORT NAT BITE (3-SECONDS OR LESS!!!)]
“JOHN COUNCILMAN NEVER THOUGHT EXAMPLE COUNTY’S SEWER SERVICES HAD THE PROPER FUNDING AND IT REALLY STEAMS HIS SHORTS.”
[SUPPORTING BITE WITH JOE]
“JANE COMMISSIONER ADMITS THE SEWER SITUATION STINKS.”
“BUT SHE BELIEVES IN HER HEART… THERE’S A BETTER WAY TO FLUSH THE PROBLEM BESIDES A TAX HIKE.”
[SUPPORTING BITE WITH JANE]
Bam! You are now producing a “story” rather than a “report.” And, even if you don’t have any compelling visuals or nat sound, your “story” will be more compelling to watch than your competition’s “report” any day of the week. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it would’ve been had you just mailed it in and it does not really take much more effort if any at all. Plus, you prove old Phaedrus right yet again and justify why we continue quoting him all these eons later.
This article is written by a veteran reporter who has worked in small, medium and large markets and has won multiple awards for storytelling.