When to add “breaking” information into a newscast.

Know Your Newsroom, Producing, Writing Help Comments Off on When to add “breaking” information into a newscast.
Sep 172015

Let’s face it, journalists are airing and/or publishing more mistakes than they used to. So it is a good time to reiterate some tried and true guidelines to determine when information is safe to tell the world.

Breaking News Guidelines

Two sources minimum have confirmed the information
You know the names or groups confirming the fact(s)
Another journalist looked over your information

Veteran journalists are looking at this list and rolling their eyes. Yes, I know, the old standard was really three sources. In this day and age of “WE MUST BE FIRST” three is not always going to happen. Hell, I think it’s questionable if some news organizations actually require more than one source before going with breaking news. That’s especially if we define a source. Which we need to do now. A source is NOT another journalist you overheard talking to the boss about the story, or the assignment desk repeating information while on the phone and writing notes in the assignment file. I say this because I guarantee this is a daily issue in most newsrooms. Also a source is not what the reporter or assignment editor said a story was in a summary during an editorial meeting. You have to treat those pitches as unconfirmed even if they cite a phone call or email stating the facts. You must still verify because the information more than likely was not vetted yet. Think about it. The majority of stories in a newscast rundown actually end up with key differences than during the original pitch in the editorial meeting. I am saying this so that tease writers, promotions departments and general managers remember, editorial meetings are to pitch ideas. They are not vetted stories, and a statement of absolute facts. You must verify the truth of the information later. That starts with asking who are the minimum TWO sources of information. A valid source is someone directly involved in the story, with expertise. A police officer on the scene. An accountant who saw and worked on the budget. A teacher who actually created lesson plans on the curriculum. PIO’s do qualify as sources because they speak on behalf of the agency. They are considered official. So when they screw up, it’s on them. Also, they are essentially the PR person for whomever they represent. So, they’re facts will often have a slant. A good journalist will double check a PIO with their own source first, just to make sure.

Producers in particular, before you go to the booth or into the IFB of an anchor with new information, know who the information you have came from. Ask the desk or EP or whomever is calling to give you a name. This seems redundant, but I cannot tell you how often asking this simple question led to some “Um Ah, let me double check this” responses from the information provider. Having to name names, means you must have solid notes, and double checked information before sharing. And sometimes asking for the name leads to expanded information like “Well I heard reporter x tell reporter y about it while they were at their desks making calls.” That could mean anything. One asking the other’s opinion on whether the fact sounds realistic. Wondering if the source seems to actually be dodging sharing some information. Or simply talking about what they hope the story will be. None of that is confirmed enough to air the information to the world. Yet this happens all the time. A producer in a hurry to write an anchor intro or a tease, overhears a story description and writes based on that eavesdropping. Especially when it’s a breaker.

Finally, you must let another journalist look over the information first. My go to was usually my anchors. Frankly, they need to look over the information before reading it anyway to make sure they understand the story and can explain it, ad lib about it, or even read the copy in a convincing manner. Having a manager read over the information first is ideal, because most anchors will do so as well and you will quickly get two sets of critical eyes. If neither questions the validity of the facts, they are even more likely to be trustworthy. In a breaking news situation there is always a certain degree of educated guesswork. The story is ever changing. But anchors and managers need to have good BS meters. Most do and if they stop and ask, “Where is that information from,” you need to have solid, clear answers. That means checks and balances happened, and you are far less likely to end up making a huge mistake. There needs to be less embarrassing screw up reels out there for the world to see.

For more on handling breaking news check out how Survive defines breakers in the first place.

 

How To Self Critique A Newscast

Know Your Newsroom, Producing Comments Off on How To Self Critique A Newscast
Sep 062015

More and more news managers require newscast critiques for anyone going for editorial positions. This is great because it helps the managers “see how you think” on many levels. The trouble is many producers have no idea how to do newscast critiques. Part of this is because many never get their shows critiqued by management. They may hear “The A-Block did not work.” or “Those teases did not hit well.” But that’s not a true critique.

So let’s talk about how to practice newscast critiques with your own or your station’s work. The best part is that it will help you grow as a content manager.

When self critiquing you need to consider the following items:

Does The Subject Flow Make Sense?
Did Production Values Work?
Is Branding Clear?

Obviously, this is a broad overview to get you started. True critiques are works of art unto themselves. But everything begins with the flow of the newscast. By this we mean more than the obvious did you put a sad story next to a cheery story. That often happens especially when having to kill stories for time. For more on how to avoid those issues read Emotional Toll.  We are going super basic here. Did each story make sense? Did the order you picked make sense? When you sit and watch the show afterwards are you left with a lot of lingering questions about the stories, or did the viewer truly get the information needed? Subject flow involves correct order of stories, related content themes (crime/crime or economy/economy) and some showcasing. Did the breakout you added make sense for the story after all? Was there too much crime mentioned in a row? Sometimes what looks good in outline form, doesn’t look right on the air.

Which leads to the next big item to consider. Did the production values put in place work? With so many new fancy sets, and emphasis on incorporating more graphics, more social media references and more spots for anchors to stand/sit and present information, newscasts can look very disjointed very quickly. Then, even if your subject flow is on the mark, viewers can still come away from a show saying “Huh?” So you need to grab a newscast every so often, then sit and watch it with a critical eye. Did each production element you used, from that cool monitor graphic to that map to the pan/zoom in the middle of the A-block, make sense? (If you are working on how to even do these things in the first place check out our article Produce It Up.) When I work with producers on building their skill sets, one of the things I see time and again are periods where the producer goes from too little production value to too much. There is too much when you watch the newscast and are left thinking about all the cool looks in the newscast, but can barely remember what the content was that day. Also, when you watch, if you find yourself pulling back in your chair or whipping your neck around to keep up, that’s too much movement.

Finally, we have to talk about branding. Frankly, if TV journalists are savvy at all they realize much of their job now is selling the content. We can argue if this is right or wrong. But truthfully, most stations focus on what content makes air based on brand. So you need to know your brand and you need to watch newscasts to see if the way you presented the content is true to the brand. If you are an “Asking the Tough Questions” station, then an A-block with more than thirty quick 15-second vo’s is not true to brand. That’s the simple truth. Your brand requires more breakouts and more phrases like: “So we went to the (expert) and got you more (facts/information/answers).”

In summary, when you self critique you need to sit down, no distractions and watch the newscast as an informed viewer would. Obviously you cannot look at things just like your Mom or friend who’s not in the biz does. But you are skilled enough to watch and notice if you are missing the mark in one or more of these areas. You should be able to say “That didn’t make sense.” or “I can’t remember half of what the anchor just said.” If you do this weekly, you will quickly figure out your strengths and weaknesses so you can work on both. (If you want to get even more nitty gritty when self critiquing read Humble Pie.) So here’s to self critiques!

Ways To Make Live Shots Safer Right Now

Know Your Newsroom, Reporting Comments Off on Ways To Make Live Shots Safer Right Now
Aug 272015

No doubt, the killings of Alison Parker and Adam Ward have really shaken up fellow TV journalists from all over. And whenever a tragedy like this happens there are calls to action.
Including two stations in Milwaukee that are not doing discretionary live shots the day after this attack. Several excellent articles have already come out asking broadcasting companies and station managers to consider using live shot delay buttons (similar to what is done in radio),
think about the dangers of one man banding  and raise the issue of live crews routinely feeling very vulnerable while on live shots. All of these are excellent points that journalists frankly should push for discussion about in their newsrooms. In the meantime “Survive” is all about very practical tips that you can do right here, right now to handle difficult situations you face each day in TV news. So let’s talk takeaways that deserve to be heard and implemented right now.

What I am hearing from TV journalists is this horrible loss hit everyone hard. And when something like this happens staff members really want one thing to happen right away: To hear from newsroom leaders that they recognize the concerns this creates, that there are provisions in place and more being discussed and that management passionately wants their crews to be safe. You can say this is a lot of hot air and we need to move forward. But simply put, at a time of crisis, staffers want to believe their leaders have their backs. So if you are a news manager reading this, it is not silly or stupid to make a few remarks. Your newsroom needs to hear it. In fact, at this point they are distressed if they haven’t heard it.

If you are an MMJ you need to think about how you select where you will be live. If you are told you have to be live, then look for a location where there are people around in case you need help. If you are covering an arrest, go from in front of the police station if you can. If the scene is active go live as close as you possibly can to where the officers are working. If the scene is about to be over and you will be standing alone in the dark, call and ask to send in a look live before the cops leave. If you have to, ask an officer or deputy if they can wait just a few more minutes to watch your back as you finish up. If they are already gone, call the department and tell them you are feeling unsafe, but have to stay, and ask if they can send an officer by. All they can do is say “No.” But sometimes they say “Yes.” We can only hope that managers will stop and think harder about the need to have MMJs going live on a regular basis. But again, we need to talk practicality here. Many of you went live the same day as the attack. Many more will go live today. Keep your eyes out, and stay within ear shot of other people. MMJ’s should play it even more safe and conservatively when going live than two or three person crews.

Managers when you think about where you are sending live crews, think about their surroundings. I have always been a proponent of cross training, this is even more true now. If you are not very familiar with the coverage area, at least take some time on your off days to drive around and explore the common areas where you send crews. Get a good idea of what they face. I understand that the story the WDBJ crew was covering was in an area considered safe, and did not have controversy around it. But crews face more than you might realize day to day. See it, so you can more easily identify solutions if a crew calls with safety concerns. Educated suggestions go a long way. Also reiterate to your crews that if they have concerns you will listen, offer suggestions and try to help in any way you can.

I hate to have to include this, but I worked in news long enough as a producer and manager that this has to be said. If you are one of those crews, that says you are nervous just to get home earlier (Yes, there are some people like this, and yes, I had to deal with some firsthand at nearly every station where I worked) you are doing your co-workers a great disservice. If you cannot handle the hours and workload, get out of TV news. Now, more than ever, a trust has to be inherent between news crews and managers back at the station. If you say you are not feeling safe, that has to be true. Be responsible. This will go a long way toward managers being able to more easily trust all their crews. Read “The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf” again if you need. And managers remember, one bad apple should not ruin the crop especially if you deal with the bad apple. The vast majority of news crews come in ready to give 110 percent. If they say they feel vulnerable, the fast answer of “just deal with it” is not correct.

Can we please stop letting consultant advice take precedent over common sense in newsrooms? In this day and age viewers take live shots for granted. Many, I promise, barely notice that “Live” bug. Managers, if in your gut when assigning a crew a story you think the live environment will stink, do not assign it as live. You can still have crews in live trucks, turning their pkg in a little earlier in case a breaker happens. In fact that is the smartest thing you can do. Live shots are meant to cover breaking information. It is the fastest means to get viewers the facts. If every newsroom reiterated this definition tonight, that move alone would prevent a lot of live shot photo bombing, “f her in the…” incidents and would make it a lot harder to predict where live shots will happen. Therefore, making it harder for people with less than good intentions to find your live shot locations.

Yes, if it’s the first night of the state fair, it will make for a great live shot. Do it. But overall, many live shots in newsrooms today have no point except to slap a “Live” bug up. By just saying no to live shots in dark holes, in front of empty buildings and hours before or after an event where there is nothing to show, you are making crews less vulnerable. Remember, safety in numbers. The best live shots have action happening all around them anyway. Being live is the best/only way to get the latest information quickly to viewers when it is changing. Those should be the parameters for live shots. And MMJ’s, no live shot is worth big risk. If your gut says no way, call your manager. The beauty of digital news nowadays is there are so many ways to tell a story.

Finally, all of us need to recognize that no matter how much we try to stay safe, things like this can happen. No one could truly predict what happened in Virginia, despite what’s coming out about Vester Flanagan’s past. That’s why Alison and Adam are heroes to fellow journalists. They did their jobs all the way to the end. Adam’s dedication and ability to get the image of the shooter is something I think all journalists will carry with them. We are trained to be eyewitnesses. We will fight to bring the facts to the viewer. And now we’ve been reminded again that there are risks. May the reward continue to be greater.

Making Desk Calls: The Risk To Your Credibility

Anchoring, Know Your Newsroom, Producing Comments Off on Making Desk Calls: The Risk To Your Credibility
Jul 262015

Recently there was a bunch of talk on Twitter about why anchors sometimes feel the need to make producing calls from the desk during a newscast. Producers talked about ways they try and prevent this from happening by being proactive before the show. Others discussed how this really causes them to lose respect for the anchors. Mostly though, the discussion centered on why then?

Let me quantify, this is not in reference to anchors who also produce the show and have no choice. We are talking about anchors who sit on the desk and ask the producer to move things around in the rundown or say they aren’t going to read story such and such or are going to mention a breaker next. This is a slippery slope. The biggest reason may surprise you. In today’s “everything has to be automated world” it can be very hard to just move things around on the fly. The anchor could be setting him or herself up for a major live mess up.

Some anchors make the argument it is worth the risk because they are seasoned journalists and the producer is green. I totally see that. Understand there are likely times the anchor is absolutely making the right call. The issue here is the timing.

Possible technical snafus aside, anchors making quick on desk decisions exposes something anchors should never want discussed. Lack of dedication. That newscast was not put together in a vacuum. Chances are high the story you want moved was in the rundown for hours before the newscast. Even if the producer writes copy late, you can at least check to see what each story is about based on slug, so you are informed of the subject matter. That is part of an anchor’s prep work before a newscast. Just sitting back and waiting for the scripts to come in is never a good way to gain credibility. If you want it moved up, you better know the facts of the story very well. You are taking a big risk that you will be ad libbing. You want to make sure you absolutely know what you are talking about.

Then there’s the issue of who’s really in charge during a live newscast. There needs to be a clear chain of command. Too many decisions are made on the fly. It needs to be clear to all involved who is making the call. No hesitation. Bottom line, even if that producer is half your age, management gave that producer that designation.

One last clarification. If the producer is trying to throw in a breaker, and the anchor doesn’t know what is happening, he/she may be forced to “make a call” on the set. This is more of an extreme circumstance and should not be lumped in with the points being made in this article. The anchor has to make sure fact errors do not come out of their mouth during breaking news. There is no time to check ahead of time in this case. But if the story has been in the newscast, even as a slug for hours, the producer should be the only voice making decisions to move things around during the live newscast.

Live For The Sake Of Being Live: A Survival Guide

Know Your Newsroom, Reporting Comments Off on Live For The Sake Of Being Live: A Survival Guide
May 072015

A savvy viewer recently asked me a very telling question. Are most of the live shots done on TV just for the sake of being live? I think most TV journalists would have to admit, yes.

First, in defense of sending the trucks out, you cannot get to that breaker at the top of the 5, if all the trucks are sitting at the station. It makes sense to put crews in trucks at the beginning of a news cycle. And if you are going to drive the truck all over town, it makes marketing sense to use the truck. Think of all the people who drive by just wondering why that news truck is there.  As for backpack journalist live shots, well we could (and likely will) dedicate another article to that.

But just because you are assigned a live shot for the day, and no breaker comes up does not mean you should just stand in front of a generic scene, and go through the motions. This is meant for both the crews who have to get creative because they are stuck with the live shot for that day, and the assigning managers who are supposed to help crews best showcase and explain the news of the day. I say this because I would be very rich if I had a dollar for every time a crew called in to say: “We don’t know what to show ( event x) is over and they are turning out the lights.” The manager’s answer was “Go live anyway, just reference that “The crowds just cleared up.” Seriously? Come on.

You have to reference the scene in some way. That might mean moving from an event to the next scene or focusing on the one area still damaged (just don’t exaggerate the extent). If there’s absolutely no way to reference where you are, then ask not to be live for an intro and tag. A live tag only can really help the crew not feel stupid and doesn’t waste the viewer’s time.

And here is another idea, why not shoot a backup intro and tag, as live, while there is something happening and offer that as an alternative option. I promise a live bug on the TV screen does not make or break viewership. Reporters demonstrating things attracts viewers. It helps the story become more relevant and the journalist become more approachable. You still got use out of the truck. You are still interactive and the reporter doesn’t look like he or she is forcing relevance at a dead scene. If the scene is absolutely a dead one, like the dreaded “stand in front of our satellite dishes and be live” assignment, think of an anchor question. At least then you can sort of justify why you are  “live” by engaging with the anchor, and providing relevant information.

And a final thought, managers please, please, please stop and think about these assignments.  Do stations really need to put live bugs up when a reporter is standing in front of their own satellite dishes on their own property? This is a classic example of live for the sake of being live. Often there’s a mandate. “We must have 5 live shots a day!” Why? What does that image really prove? Again, I make the argument, viewers would rather see an interactive standup somewhere in the piece to engage with the reporter than some person standing in front of satellite dishes. This has no marketing benefit at all. It doesn’t show that you are everywhere. It just looks sloppy. I hope this article gets stations talking more about relevance and less about live bugs in corners of screens.

What To Do When The ND Says Your Newscast Sucks

Know Your Newsroom, Producing Comments Off on What To Do When The ND Says Your Newscast Sucks
Mar 292015

Producers have nightmares about three scenarios, mistiming their shows, not getting their shows done and being called into the ND’s office to be told line-by-line how much their shows flat out sucked.

This is a rite of passage in some ways. It happens to everyone at some point. It is never a comfortable situation to be in. So how do you handle it?

With grace and humility. In other words, do not cry. Do not make excuses. Do not throw the EP and/or anchors under the bus (even if they deserve it). You have to man (or woman) up, take the critique and grow from it.  Even if your cheeks are burning hot with shame and rage, even if you want to crawl under the desk and die or go dry heave in the bathroom, take ownership.  The ND is delivering a message that you need to hear. You need to hear it to grow as a producer and keep your job. So keep that in mind, and focus on the lessons instead of the delivery.

So what do you say in response when asked “What the hell were you thinking with that newscast?” The best answer is, “Obviously, I need to focus more on the station brand.” Then follow up with a question like “What more could I have done with the lead today, so I can learn from you?” This is a very proactive way of also diverting some of the responsibility away from you. Managers do have a responsibility to make sure the staff understands expectations. If you don’t understand you cannot execute.

Another common pitfall question is “So what are you going to do tomorrow (after ND has listed about a thousand reasons why your newscast sucked today)?” The right answer? “I am going to work harder to never repeat what happened today and show you that I learned from our talk today.” In other words, take ownership, show you have a thick skin and do whatever you can to grow from the discussion. Again, focus on the message instead of the delivery.

And understand one more thing about the “your newscast sucked” conversation. These are often tests to see what kind of moxie you have. Most ND’s respect someone who owns up to mistakes, is willing to learn from them and then has the humility to ask for guidance. Even if the conversation is simply sh&* rolling downhill, it is a valuable opportunity to show the ND you are not a quitter, but you are a leader. You will get back up, move onward and upward. Simply put everyone in the business gets knocked around and pushed down from time-to-time. The true winners get back up, dust themselves off and come back strong the next day.

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