Mass Shootings: How to determine what to cover and how much?

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Nov 072017

Unfortunately covering mass shootings keeps happening. I might even argue that journalism schools should seriously consider offering courses or at least workshops on the ethical challenges of covering these types of events. Journalists need guidelines. The coverage of these events can truly make or break our credibility with the audience long term. The subject matter is getting harder and harder to take as an audience. They are all too happy to be done with you and your coverage.

In my current role, I am finding myself having to train producers and managers on how to cover these events not only as they happen, but in the days after. RTDNA came out with an excellent article that everyone should book mark with solid ways to check the ethics of your content. But this Survive article is going to focus on different types of litmus tests that you need to start implementing.

RTDNA article mentions that stations should have breaking news coverage plans and guidelines. I whole heartedly agree. BUT I worked for several companies over the years that REFUSED to make these types of plans because they feared someone would not follow the plans. A mistake, when there was a guideline or perceived guideline, could make the company more liable. Yes you did read that right. Nothing in writing. Just whispers among managers.

And there is another big issue we have to consider: These shootings often happen when managers are not in the station and are hardest to reach. You know the middle of the night and the weekend. Guidelines would be fantastic. But for those of you stuck in the same world I lived in, you likely will go through the beginning part of this coverage basically alone. Most staffs on the weekend are simply a producer, a reporter, hopefully a photojournalist and the assignment desk person (If you don’t have to double duty and answer the phones while you produce.) doing the best they can. The anchors come later. So this article is geared more toward that bare bones team. It also is geared toward when the story hits and its not in your DMA but you have to put it on the air. This is the kind of training that just doesn’t happen much. You do the best you can and hope you don’t screw up.

The biggest things to consider as a TV journalist when these stories hit are as follows:

What does the scene look like (as in can I show anything)?
How reliable is the information I am getting?
Could this situation keep changing?
Is this too hard to take as a viewer?
When do we stop covering the story?

Now this list looks weird and I will fully admit on the surface is nowhere near as ethically clear a set of questions as the RTDNA article I referenced above. Remember, have that handily bookmarked ok?

This is the list though that any producer in any size market is IMMEDIATELY faced with solving. Remember, I am writing this article as though it is not happening in your DMA. I mentioned the other players in the newsroom because they will become your co-gut checkers throughout this list as you design coverage. This will make more sense when you read some previous articles on gut checking.

TV news is visual. You have to consider the scene images IMMEDIATELY. I have this idea listed first for a very important reason. Most often we lose credibility with the viewer over HOW we show the story. Yes. SHOW. That is even more impactful than what we say. Why? Because of how people take in information fundamentally as they learn. Look at this interesting set of facts about visual learning which sites many sources. Common thought is 65 percent of people are VISUAL learners. So they are watching that video and teaching themselves about it as they watch. Just stop and really think about that for a moment. Survive has long preached the “show it explain it” idea of writing to video. This is why. People turn on the TV to SEE what is happening. So you have to first and foremost think about how that looks to them. I am going to take the Las Vegas shooting video as an example. Hearing the rapid fire and seeing the people running and ducking for cover was INTENSE. It was hard to take. We can all agree on that. It was very important to show. But it was hard to take. And you had to immediately ask, “How often do I want to play this in my newscast?” “What do we say as we show this?” This is where your co-journalists come in handy. Ask them to scan your rundown (since hopefully everyone is mobile enough to take a peek). Ask them to watch the video. How many times would they want to hear those gunshots an hour? Is that interview just too hard to watch? Gut check each other.

Now because you are focusing on video first, it can be easier to sniff out information that just does not make sense. Too often you look at the breaking alerts and run with the information, then tell the editor to just slam down whatever video is available. This is one of the areas that causes not only fact errors, but also shows a detachment to the coverage of the story that viewers sense and find annoying. I cannot tell you how many times I hear anchors say one thing, and the images seem to show either nothing even close to that description or the opposite. You have to consider images first if they exist. And nowadays the wait time for images is usually short. You cannot take video at face value for sure, but images partnered with fact checking will help you root through information that doesn’t match up. It just sets up your brain to be more discerning from the beginning. Also remember if something you read or hear just seems weird to you, trust your gut, double and triple check.

Could this situation keep changing is something you need to constantly ask yourself. This will help you design the coverage in a way that allows you to change things up more easily. Whether it is determining how often to show a piece of video, or to hold off a bit on that sheriff soundbite or witness testimony. Are you expecting more sound in 15 minutes? It also helps you look at your chyrons with a more critical eye. Remember, visuals imprint on people’s memories more than words. When you super how many dead, knowing there is a good chance the situation could change, it is harder for the viewer to discern this is fluid information.I t doesn’t matter if there is a breaking news banner. Viewers tune graphic packaging like live bugs and breaking news banners out way more than journalists often realize. In their eyes, you could be putting up an error, and keeping it on the screen. When you are trying to understand something of the magnitude of a mass shooting, the simpler the better all around: Your graphics treatment, what chyron says, your full screens lines and images. Everything. Keep it simple and clear. Asking will this change will help remind you to look closely at what you are writing right then. Will it stand up to the test of time or are you assuming things?

 

You will not get all the facts right likely because these situations are fluid. But too many newsrooms accept “oh well it was breaking” as an excuse not to be critical over every element and look ahead for possible discrepancies, changes and frankly facts that seem a little off. You have to question everything you see and hear. Do not just assume it was fact checked. Asking “could this change“ helps you see possible holes in the story as it develops.

The next question delves into designing a newscast that viewers can emotionally handle. When something intense like this happens it is hard for you to emotionally detach from all you are seeing and hearing. Many feel an INTENSE need to cram every little element in and really play up the emotion of it all because you are saturated by it yourseld. Frankly it can become very all consuming. Now let me say, I am not encouraging you to downplay anything, but keeping it simple, sticking to what you really need to know about what’s happening right now, helps you decide what to include and what to leave out. A lot of coverage now is getting preachy.  If we can agree to focus on showing what is going on and letting the events play out without adding additional commentary, it will greatly help you put a newscast on the air that the viewer can emotionally handle. When we insert our own emotions heavily into the copy, or add a lot of adjectives and adverbs it can actually make the viewer detach from the intense reality of this. 9/11 coverage was very impactful because there was very little of the anchors and reporters talking about their feelings on air. They let the people in the middle of the events talk. They literally opened a window for us to experience what was happening. You could keep watching or turn away when needed. The commentary came later. With such an emotionally charged nation right now, its really important that journalists focus on the 5 w’s first. Your emotions are important as a person. But let viewers have a window into the event that is not clouded by your opinion of the events. This is where those gut checks with coworkers is super important. And this is where you try and wake up your manager in the middle of the night to ask, “Is this enough coverage or too much?” If they do not respond, just ask these questions repeatedly of yourself and do the best you can.

The final question to ask when designing coverage is when do we stop covering the story? The answer is really almost too simple. When you run out of new information to share. Not a new video or soundbite that is similar to the last 10 you ran. New information. When you run out of the facts, and have allowed viewers to witness some of the event with good use of video and sound, then recap and move on for a bit. Viewers appreciate you not droning on and on. They understand this is a big deal. Frankly all of us sometimes need to “turn off” the event for a few minutes to let it sink in. Droning on and on with nothing new actually causes people to emotionally detach and lose interest. Again, I think we can all agree these events are too large scale to risk alienating the audience. Remember, this article is focused on when the event is not in your DMA. When to stop covering an event gets more complicated when it is in your DMA. Do not fear waking up your bosses to ask if this is enough coverage as well. Especially if there’s no guidelines to go by. If you cannot get a call back, focusing on not repeating information over and over, will help you make this key decision.

I sincerely hope this article helps you be able to discern what to show, what to report and when to take a break from coverage. These events are not as clear cut as most breaking news, so you have to remember question everything especially hard. Really look at your sources. And lean on fellow journalists to do the best you can to give the most accurate information. Once coverage ends, write down what worked and didn’t. Over time you will have a more established outline for coverage of mass shootings to go by as a frame of reference.

 

Attribution In The Digital Age

Honing Skills, Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on Attribution In The Digital Age
Nov 052015

Recently, two stations in Boston were accused of not properly attributing a story by a competitor when writing off the AP wire. The AP copy attributed the story to a specific TV station. Two competitors did not mention that station in the story, but extensively used the wording the AP wire quoted in it’s attribution.  This Adweek story then goes on to state “While attribution is always the right thing to do, AP clients can rewrite stories to suit their audience, even leaving out attribution if they desire. But sometimes a tip of that hat can go a long way.”

Technically this is true, but there’s an important point to make. From the way the copy was written it appears the AP did not independently verify the story and simply quoted WFXT throughout. The AP does this from time-to-time. It will pick up a story and occasionally attribute it to another news organization. At this point, issues can arise for “clients” deciding whether to post the story. The AP attributed. So why not your news organization? In TV news, some managers do not allow attribution to a competitor, as explained in this Broadcasting Cable article,  “We cite other media to a fault,” says a news director at one market-leading station. “But we don’t cite other stations.” Why is that? “TV’s too competitive,” he admits. “We never give them anything.”

The problem is, the viewer or social media interaction will quickly and easily figure out if you are not attributing. It is just too easy to stumble on. It is too easy to get caught and make headlines like the ones out of Boston.

So what should you do? Attribute. If a competing station has an enterprise story you want, you need to go after it and verify on your own. That is unless you don’t worry about long term credibility. It really is that simple. If the AP attributes a story directly, as in this case, you need to do the same. You essentially are taking AP’s word for the article, when AP itself is at the least making it seem as if it did not independently verify the information. So think about the potential risk to liability. What if the other station got it wrong? You are trusting that it’s ok. You have no verification. And you cannot pass the error off to the AP because it attributed the facts to another source.

In this digital age it is too easy to get caught copying someone else’s work. Better to be behind on the story and know you have the correct facts, than to chance it and potentially connect yourself to an erroneous story. And if the story is correct, you still look bad for “stealing it” and not crediting the original source. No winning here. Especially in the digital age where you will get caught.

Does Market Size Matter?

Honing Skills, Survival Kit Comments Off on Does Market Size Matter?
Jun 252015

One thing about TV people… they love numbers: May ratings were up .5 at 6pm in the P25-54 demo. We’re number 2 at 6am, but just .1 behind station X. Year 2 of my contract begins in 2 months and I’m getting a 3% raise. I can’t believe my co-anchor makes $3,000 more than I do (yes, news directors, everybody knows what everybody else makes… they all talk). And oh, I want to make at least a 25-market jump in my next move.

And there it is—the TV market number obsession. For people who aren’t very good at math (let’s face it… you didn’t go into TV to solve advanced engineering math problems), we sure do know those Nielsen DMA numbers pretty well! Here’s the list, by the way:

http://www.tvb.org/media/file/Nielsen_2014-2015_DMA_Ranks.pdf

Of course, everyone in TV news wants to advance their career, make more money and have more viewers see their work. But as you climb the media ladder, ask yourself this question: does market size matter? While the answer may be “yes” most of the time, you’d be surprised how many veteran broadcasting people would answer “no.” We’ll take a look at why in a minute. We’ll also look at how quickly you can move up if that’s your goal, and what’s a reasonable market jump.

First, it all depends on where you are in your career. If you’re coming right out of college into your first jobs, chances are you’re going to start in a very small market making an equally small salary. And that’s ok. Your foot is in the door. But it also depends on what job you’re looking for. Talent jobs are tougher than producing or AP jobs. We have students graduating from Penn State (disclosure: I teach here at PSU and I’m the Director of Student Television) who are quickly getting reporting or anchoring jobs in places like Elmira NY (market 175), Binghamton NY (market 159), Bangor Maine (market 156), Altoona/Johnstown PA (market 104) and Plattsburgh NY (market 98). But we also have new grads getting off-air jobs at ABC network in NYC, ESPN and Miami (market 16). There’s a huge need for producers, so if you go that route, your chances of starting in a bigger market and moving up faster are better. Bottom line is this: if your dream is to be on-air, then go be on air! It doesn’t matter where you start. You’ll only be there a year or two, you’ll gain valuable experience, learn, grow, and then move on to a bigger market. Don’t turn your back on Eureka (market 195), Twin Falls (market 192) or Bend (market 193). Those are great places to start and yes, make mistakes. You’d rather make a mistake there than in a top 50 market where it’s a LOT more visible.

How quickly can you move up to larger markets? These days, VERY quickly. Back when I started in TV 30 years ago, you did your time in a small market, then after a few years, moved up to a slightly larger market, spent a few more years there, and then moved again. That was before FOX stations added a fourth affiliate in many markets, before regional cable TV news operations and other new media outlets were around. There’s so much more opportunity now that places are always hiring, and that’s good for you.

What are good market jumps these days? You name it! Just in the past month I’ve seen reporters/anchors making moves like these: Bangor Maine (156) to Greensboro NC (46),
Elmira NY (175) to Buffalo (52), Altoona (104) to Buffalo (52) and someone in a 150+ market going to Charlotte (24). These are major moves in some cases of more than 100 markets. Just be sure if you’re making big jumps, you’re seeing the money to go along with the move. Negotiate a good deal yourself or get help from an agent to advocate for you. As you move into larger, top 20 markets, there are other benefits you should be asking for too. Those stations are big enough to help you with significant moving expenses, and if you’re an anchor, a decent clothing allowance. But above all else, make sure you’re ready for the move from an experience standpoint. You don’t want to be in over your head in a major market—the stakes are far too high for you and your boss.

Some people have resumes that show a quick and steady progression to larger markets every few years. And that’s fine—if that’s your goal, go for it. But for others, it’s not all about the market size… it’s also about lifestyle. You want to LIKE where you live and work. Detroit is market 12, but it’s not for everybody. LA is market 2 but some people have no desire to live in the crowded sprawl of Southern California. My personal path in my career is one of moving to larger markets but also places I LOVED living. I really enjoyed Providence RI (New England Summers are great), then spent years in Tampa (awesome beaches on the Gulf coast and my two kids were born there!). Sacramento was great (sunny and dry weather and hey, an hour from Napa Valley!). And Seattle was fantastic… a stunning and beautiful place. I don’t have any regrets about the places I’ve lived, because I chose wisely—good TV markets that are also good places to live.

Be sure you do the same. My best advice is that it doesn’t really matter where you start. Just get that experience on your resume and grow as a producer, reporter, anchor, director or whatever you do. Then make smart and careful choices as you move up the market ladder. Big TV markets are great—the news quality is better and you’ll make more money and have more station resources. But remember, there are bigger hassles too. More people micro-managing your work, lots more ratings and performance pressure, big city traffic and a higher cost of living. That’s why some people find a place they love and they stay there. Some of those middle markets can be great places to settle down for years. The news quality is good, you make decent money and you can live comfortably if you’re in the right job.

There are plenty of opportunities in TV and you can make bigger market jumps than ever. Just think before you jump!

Steve Kraycik is a Talent Agent with MediaStars. He has 29 years of TV news experience and spent a decade as a news director in top 20 markets. He’s also the Dir. Of Student Television at Penn State University. You can follow him on Twitter @TV_Agent_Steve.

Why You Should Always Have Extra Stories In Your Rundown

Honing Skills, Producing, Survival Kit Comments Off on Why You Should Always Have Extra Stories In Your Rundown
Jan 072015

One of the most challenging parts of producing is making your meter points.
Some stations even penalize if you go over or under time by as little as 15 to 20 seconds, per block. Even if your station is not that picky, you have to make time at the end of your newscast.

The problem is, between chat, reporters turning in packages late or providing the wrong TRT and adding live shots and breaking news, it can be hard to time. That’s why you need escape routes for each meter point/news block.

So here’s a secret veteran producers know, that helps make sure they hit those key times, every time, no matter what. It all begins with putting extra stories in your rundown. You ideally want to put in 2 or 3 vo’s, some vo/sots and even a pkg just in case. Different producers do this different ways. But, I find, the easiest is to put them at the bottom of the rundown with the times zeroed out in your timing program. Then make sure they are edited right along with the rest of the newscast and ready to go.

Before you say “that’s just extra work and I do enough already” consider this. I did not say NEW stories. These can be alternate versions of stories in the newscast. Just make sure there is at least one “go to” option per block to add or shorten time. Veteran producers often add a line or two or a sidebar type story that gives depth to at least one story per block for showcasing opportunities. If you get heavy, that can go. Some write a vo/sot version of a vo in a block, so they can just sub out the longer version if they are suddenly really short during their newscast. Frankly, you are already going over the material, so writing a second version is fast and pretty painless.

These can also be stories from earlier newscasts that you flirted with putting in the newscast, but ran out of time or decided something else was more relevant. Every producer has those stories you initially will run, that get pushed out for something else. Just keep them at the bottom of the newscast, and zero the time out. Sometimes these don’t even mean more editing. They can be real life savers.

In terms of a backup package, this is something on the feeds that makes sense to put in your rundown lower down or at the end of a block. This precaution is great if you suddenly cannot get a live shot or a big breaker falls through. Always have vos and vo/sots first. This is a good last resort option if you are really light. But it can save you on and off and is worth striving for daily.

Just remember, time block-by-block. Have backups for each block to shorten or lengthen the segment. A little extra work, creating different versions of a few stories is totally worth it. Hitting meter points and timing your newscast correctly is expected and highly doable, you just need to do a little pre-planning.

“Technical Difficulties”: A Sideways Live Shot Survival Guide

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Jun 122014

Recently a reporter emailed “Survive” for advice on how to learn to ad lib while in the field. The main concern, how to get around technical problems.  So I asked a veteran reporter for advice.  Here goes…

History is filled with quotes about the importance of preparation from very brilliant, very famous people. One of my favorites comes from a B or maybe even C-level actor named Richard Kline. (Best known as “Larry” the neighbor on “Three’s Company”) Kline says, “Confidence is preparation. Everything else is beyond your control.” I like this one because it is perfect for live shots. If you are prepared, you should and will be confident. If there is one constant in live shots (as in much of life) it’s that something will inevitably get sideways at the worst possible moment. That moment is simply beyond your control so don’t sweat it. Just be as prepared as possible and chances are pretty good you will be able to get through it when something goes squirrelly.

In order to learn to tap dance your way through a sideways live shot, you first have to have the basics of doing a live shot down pat. I still remember the first time I knew I was going to do a live shot at my first real reporting job. I went to an experienced friend in the newsroom and asked for some advice. The advice they gave me was very basic and perfect! Best advice I’ve ever been given in my career actually. Do not script your live shot word-for-word. Let me say that again: Do NOT script out your live shots. If you script your live shot you will have to memorize it. This is a recipe for disaster! Ask anyone who’s done any acting what happens when you miss just one word in your lines. The answer: It generally throws everything off from that point on. Additionally, when you memorize a bunch of lines they are just that: A bunch of lines. You do not have near as much comprehension of what they mean. It’s just a bunch of words floating around in your brain waiting to come streaming out. Once they are out, so are the meanings behind them. More on retaining meaning in a moment.

First, here’s the key to basic live shots. Rather than memorizing a script, write bullet points. Each one should have a word or three for each key thought you’re going to present. Each of those bullet points acts as a memory trigger for the information you are imparting in your shot. You can then glance down at each bullet point and be easily guided through. You will also find that your comprehension of the subject matter increases too. You will not only have smoother live shots but also retain the meaning more.

Start trying the bullet point trick today. Do it every time you are out live. It will quickly become a natural way to do your shots. Eventually, you will depend on those bullet points less and less. Your live shots will also get smoother and smoother.

No matter how smooth you become on your basic live shots, at some point something will go wrong that you cannot control. A package will not run correctly; the wrong package will run; the video server will crash. If it can happen, it will. So how do you “prepare” for this? Try making some extra bullet points that sum up the package. Keep it on the next page in your reporter’s notebook after your life shot bullet points. Don’t try to quote the sound bites in the package though. Use your bullet points to help you paraphrase one or two of those bites. Do this and then if something goes wrong you have somewhere to go. Just pause briefly then look up at the camera and cooly say something like: “We’re having a little trouble with that story. But here’s what you need to know.” Then run through a few of those bullet points, sig out and toss back to your anchors. Don’t make it overly complicated. Keep it simple and smooth. Better to keep it short and clean than try to get everything in that was in your package and muck it up. Most of the time when something like this happens, viewers know something went wrong technically. They do understand and will forgive as long as you don’t compound the problem by stammering on and looking unprepared.

One quick aside. When something goes wrong do not refer to your story as a “package” or a “VO/SOT” or talk about “sound bites.” These are the terms WE use in the industry. Viewers do not talk like this and do not know what these terms mean. It will confuse them and then you have lost the battle.

Legendary writer Ernest Hemingway once said: “Courage is grace under pressure.” Use these tips to sharpen your basic live shot skills, then when the pressure is really on, you will come off looking courageous indeed!

For more advice on how to ad-lib read “Art of Ad-lib” written by veteran anchor, Cameron Harper.

How To Define Your News Philosophy

Honing Skills, Survival Kit Comments Off on How To Define Your News Philosophy
Mar 122014

When journalists contact me, one of the first questions I ask is “What is your news philosophy?”  Most cannot tell me clearly.  I end up having to ask a series of questions, then define it for them.  (This, by the way, includes many news managers who call me looking for employees.)

Now I know some people are already rolling their eyes at me mentioning news philosophy.  The naysayers response:  “Your philosophy is the boss’s philosophy.”  My counter.  Exactly.  If you do not know what type of news you love to do, and you do not define your own mission statement to serve the community, you cannot connect with a manager who thinks the same way.  Want to know why so many journalists burn out in the first 5 years?  This is a big reason.  You and the boss don’t think alike.  The job is simply too intense, too all encompassing not to believe in the message.  Journalism is a vocation in many ways.  You do it because you just don’t know what else you can do.  It is simply a part of you, so you need to define it for yourself.  Personal fulfillment often replaces the great paycheck in those first key years.

O.K., lecture over. Now let’s talk about how to define your philosophy.  It requires exploring a few questions and truthfully answering them instead of saying what you think others want to hear.

What types of stories make you proud to be a journalist?

What issues do you read about in your spare time?

How do you visualize stories?

What news do you love to watch and steal ideas from?

How do you serve the community in your reports/newscast?

Really think about these questions. They are a great guide to helping you define news philosophy for yourself.  Also try and throw away stereotypes. (See article “What is Hard News”) You need to define your philosophy in clear terms a viewer could relate to, not a fellow newsy.  For example, the “New, Now, Next Philosophy” has different meanings depending on what broadcast entity is executing it.  So just telling a prospective boss, I am a “new, now, next broadcast journalist” is only a small part of the picture.  You need to have more detailed discussions.  How will you do this with graphics?  Standups?  When deciding what stories are live?  Do you like a lot of 20 second vo’s or do you like to really delve into an issue and pick apart what’s new, now and next?  Make sense?

Let’s get back to news as vocation for a minute.  Sometimes journalists need to be reminded that the news they put on the air, and over the internet, actually impacts people’s lives.  You have incredible influence over issues, sometimes arguably too much influence.  You owe it to yourself and those you serve to know why you dedicated your life to doing the news.  If you cannot do this, you need to go into PR.  It’s a simple truth.  Call me an idealist, a purist, a fool.  But news philosophy is crucial to excel at this vocation you have chosen.  Don’t shortchange yourself.

 

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