Attribution In The Digital Age

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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.

When to add “breaking” information into a newscast.

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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.

 

What happened to verbs?

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Jun 032015

I have been emailing back and forth with a former TV journalist, who noticed a trend. I am guessing you will notice the same trend once I bring it up here. Verbs have largely disappeared from news copy. Now, I know many of you will dog me for this and go off on conversational writing. “People speak in phrases.” But do they really? And do they as often as you hear it in news copy?

I am going to make the argument that leaving out key verbs is not done to make copy conversational. It happens for two other reasons more often:

1) To avoid using past or passive tense
2) Because you cannot answer a key part of the fact being presented and are doing a work around.

We delved pretty heavily into the first reason, avoiding using past tense in an article on faking the present.

Some examples sent by this former journalist include: “Today investigators trying to piece together what happened.” and “Hurricane Bob approaching the coast tonight.” Both of these are avoiding “to be.” The reason likely is that the information is not new. The other reason, is to avoid passive tense. We delve into how to get around that in our ultimate writing challenge.

But one thing we haven’t delved into quite as much is the whole, I don’t really know the facts issue. Sadly, this is all too common, especially because journalists are facing huge increases in workload, with little to no support. The former journalist I have been emailing with mentioned that “the most challenging part of writing in active tense was knowing who or what was the “subject” of a subject-verb-object sentence should be. If, for example, a writer knows that a person was accused of something but the writer does not know (and is perhaps too time-pressed or lazy to find out) who did the accusing, writing in active tense is difficult.” So true! And as a journalist who was asked to crank out insane amounts of copy with little to no help, repeatedly, I cannot completely fault writers for this. I understand the “Too time pressed” argument. Leaving these elements out of the story until you get them cleared up isn’t always possible. But there can be a couple of work arounds to help you in this time of fact checking need. Have an assignment editor or manager you trust read over that particular story and ask what they can do to help you fix that fact. Have an anchor do the same. And then tell your EP that the following stories could be written stronger but you don’t have all the facts you need. Yes, share the pain and burden with others. If they blow it off and the copy stays passive, you did all you could. If they just take out the “is”-“ing” combo and dump a verb, at least it wasn’t you. You tried to get all the facts. But keep asking. Hopefully at some point the assignment manager and/or EP will start to see that there is a hole in the system. Too much is getting by with too little information being confirmed. Then, who knows, you might get more support.

Do I think that I will hear more verbs soon? No. The trend is likely here to stay. But I do think that many journalists really want to write things concisely, clearly and knowing they have all the facts. That is why I have to challenge you to demand more. Pick one or two stories a day you call on, to clear up the confusion. It will make you a better writer, better journalist and give you a sense of accomplishment that sometimes is lacking in the daily grind. You cannot fact check all the stories as a producer. There’s not enough time. But you can and should point out the ones you feel could be stronger. After all, your goal is to provide the most information the best way possible. The anchors deserve that. They want to be the most able to explain the information. The newsroom deserves that. It will be noticed for its ability to clearly explain stories the other stations “cheat” on. Most of all, the viewers deserve that. They count on you to have the facts. They make or break your success, so spoil them rotten. Give them more sentences with verbs, in active voice! Don’t take the easy way. Do it the right way. Everyone wins.

Is That Really Breaking?

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May 182015

With another sweeps period ending, this is a good time to talk about branding coverage with the all too often touted claim of “Breaking News.”

This term is used so loosely industry wide that it is a common brunt of jokes. Even if you think the jokes are funny, there’s a lesson behind the laughs. The phrase “breaking” is losing its meaning. Stations are showcasing with bold graphics, strong phrasing and 16 boxes in which they are happy to manipulate time in order to fit the station brand. Harsh? Not when numbers of viewers continue to decline. Making everything “Breaking News” is one of the reasons viewers are looking away.

Consider this, “Breaking” has a new call to action for viewers now. For arguments’ sake, just think about when you hear there is breaking news. My guess is you the journalist, immediately hop on Twitter to see what people are saying about the story. Then you do a Google search. Guess what? Viewers do the same. And I am going to argue that TV stations using the term “Breaking” now just encourage viewers to check and potentially call your bluff. The natural reaction is to want to know all you can about the story happening right now and hopefully be the first to learn something you can share with others. This is not just a journalist’s desire. Viewers do the same. That is basic human instinct.

So if you want to look slick off the top and throw in the breaking news animation and supers package, but the story really happened an hour or two ago, your viewer will figure it out within the first paragraph of coverage. Busted! Then you potentially look behind the 8 ball. Why is station (call letters here) just now covering this story? Did they miss it when it started? What else did they miss today? Welcome to what viewers say. Or this: Here goes station (call letters here) calling a story “Breaking” when it’s not. What else do they exaggerate about to try and trick me into watching?

Viewers are not as gullible as you might want to think. Especially in this day where everything you want to know is a Siri question or few taps away. Show the respect of calling something breaking only when it truly just started happening. Old timers had an hour or less rule. I think you can get away with that if the standoff is still underway. But if the manhunt is over, the person shot is at the hospital and the scene is being cleared, then no, it’s probably not breaking news.

If you have “breaking developments” they better not be something you saved for the TV part of the three screen equation all day. Again, chances are high you will be outed as fudging the timeline.

For those of you who are shaking your heads saying “We’ve called everything breaking for years, our numbers are solid and we love our slogan” here’s one last thing to consider: “Breaking news” is quickly becoming less crucial to gain viewers. Three screen news gathering means an event that just started is likely going to be seen “live” through social media first. Now TV stations need to focus more on “Breaking” great additional details and separating fact from fiction in these fluid situations. That is where your expertise can be counted on. And, if you lie and tell viewers everything is happening right that second when it’s not, you are no longer an expert, just another person with a camera, and an outlet to share.

What if TV stations got bold, and stepped away from the time crutch associated with “Breaking News.” What if instead they focused on what journalists do best, sort out the truth and explain it easily, so everyone can understand what is happening. Talk about a powerful brand. Talk about “breaking” information. Redefining the term breaking news in a clear way could reenergize TV news. Instead of defining that type of news by timeliness of an event, focus on exclusivity of details. Then those tried and true “Live Local Late Breaking”, “Your Breaking News Station” and even “Where the News Comes First” slogans are legit credible assets to your station. Not the brunt of jokes. Dump the timeline references. Use breaking news they way the old timer’s did. New crucial information about an event. New information. Not a right now event. Then watch the viewers check Twitter, and head to your websites and newscasts in droves. They know the story is happening now, but what’s the truth in it? What news really “broke?” You’ll have the clear answers.

Apparently, Reportedly and Allegedly Are Not Conversational.

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Apr 122015

Recently on the @survivetvjobs Twitter line, there was a rather intense conversation about the words “apparently,” “reportedly” and “allegedly.” A journalist argued that these words are fine to use instead of attribution. In fact he argued they are necessary to be conversational, so the copy will not be boring and make viewers turn away.

This debate symbolized a big reason why I created “Survive.” It signaled a lack of training, and a lack of checks and balances in newsrooms across the country. Bottom line, no journalist would think that way and we would never see these words in copy, if they clearly were banned in newsrooms. But they are not. I hear each of these words more times than I can count when surveying newscasts, nationwide.

I can and have discussed why these words do not protect you. For this article I will simply say that if you really think about it, you do not need “apparently,” “reportedly” or “allegedly” if you know the facts are true. For facts we do not know yet, or have partial information about, you attribute to whomever was the expert or authority who told you the partial information. These words are most commonly used in crime stories. You’ve heard them a million times. The robber apparently broke into the store around 3 AM. Does it matter exactly when? The robber broke in before dawn. The robber broke in before the store was crowded. See how I got around apparently easily, with facts I knew? Apparently, allegedly and reportedly tell the viewer you are unclear and are guessing. If the unclear facts seem relevant and you do not know all the details, just say so. We don’t know how this fire started yet. But when we find out we will let you know. That is conversational.

And speaking of conversational, do you walk up to a buddy and say, “Sue allegedly dumped Bob last night?” Nope. Or how about this, “The track shack is reportedly setting up another race?” I don’t think so. Sometimes someone will say “I hear Sue is dumping Bob” and the other person says “Apparently.” That I will give you. But what does it add? How would that improve news copy and keep it from being boring?

Let’s just be straight with each other. “Apparently,” “reportedly” and “allegedly” are not put into news copy to be conversational. They are used as crutches to couch that you do not understand something in the story, or just do not have the information. The use of these words says you are guessing. Educated guess or not, it just sounds sloppy. It’s not conversational. Conversational writing is clear. There is no room for a guess.

Just because you can get away with these words in your copy in your newsroom does not mean you should. Be better than that. You deserve it. Your viewers really deserve it. Attribute or say, we don’t know everything about the story yet. But as we learn new facts, we will tell them to you. Viewers like when the story is still ongoing. They like feeling they are the “first to know” about things that are happening right then. You do not have to know all of the story. But what you do tell, you need to be clear on. Dump the catch phrases, and be direct. Your writing will rock and your viewership will too.

Emotional Toll: How to design rundowns

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Jul 162014

My guess is Gary Vosot has a whole line of comedy about this common faux pas in newscasts (if he doesn’t, he should!). The anchor reads a heavy story that involves death, then either the same anchor or the other anchor has to read a story about something warm and fuzzy, like bunnies. (Yes I am exaggerating, but only slightly.)

Producers have so many decisions to make when designing rundowns. Length of block, not too many packages or chunks in a row, hitting key audiences, not too much crime.. and something positive to balance out the hard to take news. What often happens is, producers trying to jam it all in, end up putting stories next to each other that simply do not carry the same emotional weight to the viewer.

We know facts are extremely important to share with viewers. But we forget that, because we present our information with images, we naturally play on viewers emotions and, at times, intensely. This even happens with vo’s and vo/sots. Do not assume that storytelling only happens in packages. That is the first mistake that leads to these very uncomfortable, mass murder to a story about a cute puppy rescue, scenarios.

Remember that your ultimate goal is to have your anchors be the “tour guides” for your viewers, taking them through the stories of the day. When you think of it this way, you have to think about step one leading to step two.. etc. By the way, this type of “stacking” or designing your rundown will not only prevent a lot of these uncomfortable emotional clashes, it will also help prevent all the other issues you face when stacking… like too many packages in a row, too much crime, too many stories from the same part of the DMA etc.

When putting together your rundown, you need to gradually lead your viewer through emotions as well as subjects. You need to identify the less emotionally taxing stories that are good transitions, in your tour. On an actual tour you have rest stops. This needs to be true of rundowns too. Just remember to include those quick breathers. Then you can go from one strong emotion to the next. And try to end on a thoughtful or happy note. That is naturally how most conversations end. At least conversations that will lead to more talk later. That’s obviously what you want to create.

Here’s an example of types of stories that can come after highly emotional ones: white collar crime stories, political news like updates on city council plans, roads, tax increases etc. You want stories with high impact, just not such intense emotion as to trivialize the story before. This is why many places do crime stories in threes. The first, very emotional, the second a little less, the third either more white collar in nature, or where the good guy wins in the end. That allows you to switch gears completely and talk politics, education, economic news, health news etc without the viewer sensing a rough transition.

Finally when I mention ending on a thoughtful note, or happy one that doesn’t just apply to a kicker. It also applies to these series of three. Do not do three stories in a row about children being killed, then just transition to a political story. You need to button up this kind of coverage, with some perspective that allows the viewer to emotionally catch up and frankly feel like there is control of these situations. Maybe it’s a vo on an initiative that’s preventing other crimes against children. Maybe it is a graphic showing less children are actually dying overall. Something thought provoking to help the viewer emotionally transition. Then you pick some more neutral stories, then a warm fuzzy to end the block. This type of flow, heavy emotion, thought provoking, neutral, thought provoking, then uplifting can really make your newscast feel powerful and easier for the viewers to take. Especially when you have a lot of emotionally taxing news to report. Break it up. Many just throw it all in at the top, and reward the viewer for getting through it. The problem is the viewer will likely tune out before you get to the “reward” or feel emotionally drained and think the “reward” is trivial in comparison. Better to ease the message throughout. When you think of times you have “tough” conversations with people, we naturally mix in a little of the bad, some neutral, some good back to neutral then to bad and so on throughout the conversation. Do the same with your rundown. Your viewer will appreciate it and notice.

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