Emotional Toll: How to design rundowns

Producing, Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on Emotional Toll: How to design rundowns
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.

Are we too forgiving of mistakes? A call to demand credibility.

Social Awareness Comments Off on Are we too forgiving of mistakes? A call to demand credibility.
Apr 242013

I keep watching the debates, and heck throwing up questions to encourage debates about the swearing anchor who got fired right after his first night.  Many brought up the fact that EVERYONE knows (or should know) to assume a mic is always hot.  Some say management essentially set him up.  Many thought it was wrong that he ended up being essentially celebrated on the morning show circuit.  At the heart of all of these debates is a simple, yet crucial quality all journalists must possess to do their jobs: Credibility.

As a rule of thumb, I try not to throw up a strong opinion about the industry much on survivetvnewsjobs.  Frankly, who am I to say much, right?  I’m just another longtime journalist who worked hard and had a mostly rewarding career in the biz.  BUT, when I do editorialize it is consistently about one issue: Credibility.

I could go off on the fact that each time a new anchor debuts on-air, stations should require run throughs to prevent confusion and calm nerves.  I could go off on the producer and/or director for not personally counting down the brand new anchor coming out of each commercial break so he would not get confused.  Or I could go off on the anchor for not assuming the mic is always hot, even when he walks down the hall after the flipping newscast. (By the way, reading scripts and adding pronouncers so you can get through tough names ahead of time is very helpful)  I could also go off on the industry as a whole for continuing to give very inexperienced journalists, roles that are simply too big, do it too quickly and with no training to get them up to speed.  The sink or swim mentality has always been a part of TV news that begs for this kind of scenario.  That’s why I constantly write articles about training issues.

But my focus in this article is this:  How many industry leaders, from local news to network, are flippant about mistakes.  I get “Live with Kelly and Michael” throwing this guy on TV.  It’s a pure entertainment show.  But the anchors on the Today show appealing to people to give him a second chance?  Despite Today leaning more toward infotainment, many still consider it a news program.  What does that say for their anchors’ credibility?  It’s crazy,  but not surprising.  After all a CNN internal note and spokesperson’s statement  hit the web essentially stating “So what if we screwed up on huge facts during the Boston marathon bombing.  It’s ok because we then corrected the gaffes within the hour, so it was an excellent job.”  In another memo, the AP reminds its staff about it’s one source policy. (Get another source too and really verify first source’s credibility) How about industry analysts using the same excuse:  Consumers have a “responsibility” to know the information they are being given may be unverified when following Twitter and online websites. I get that this meant to include an average joe’s blog or twitter feed, BUT it’s too cavalier an attitude about news people online. How many stories has your station or network aired obliterating a doctor, company or law enforcement office for serious mistakes that resulted from lack of training or resources?  Do we accept cheap excuses from them when we cover their mistakes?

So let’s get to the core of the importance of credibility.  Everyone from the swearing anchor, on his first day, to the high powered execs at CNN and AP needs to understand that the entire industry’s future is on the line.  It is an honor and a privilege to report news.  This is not a reality TV show.  Communities depend on the information.  And they depend on it being right.  If you want to be a star, go to hollywood or your local theater.  You impact people’s daily lives in crucial ways.  When will this industry openly admit this behavior is shameful?  It is against everything a journalist is supposed to stand for.  Make fun of that all you want, (many of you will) but I know a lot of journalists who still believe in the institution.  Show pride, join them.  Networks: Could you set the standard again?  Is that really asking too much?  Let’s start with this:  Have two credible sources verify information before you run it?  Is that really so hard to do even during breaking news?  Is that really such a novel concept that you have to send out a memo saying it needs to start happening again?  If a journalist tweets supposed “facts” without verifying information and running it past a manager, there should be discipline.  Make it crystal clear that the errors will not be tolerated.  Is that really so hard?  It shouldn’t be.

I would love to know why the swearing anchor went into news.  Does he feel a sense of social responsibility?  I am calling him out because he seems to be eating up the publicity and seems unconcerned about the potential ramifications for the business he represents.  I felt a little bad for him until he hit the talk show circuit.  Now, he’s opened himself up for analysis and critique.  I have also invited him to join our community and support network so he can grow with us, if he is a dedicated journalist.

Now I ask you:  Is it better if he just wants to be on TV?  Will he thrive more, because so many higher ups obviously view the biz as a type of entertainment or at least something you just throw on the air and hope it works?

If you believe being a TV journalist is a calling, please do every other like minded person a favor, post this in your newsroom somewhere.  Then take a picture of the article hanging on the wall and post it to the survivetvnewsjobs Facebook page.  Let’s show some pride for the “calling” that being a journalist really is for many of you.  Who actually has the guts to demand that the entire newsroom, believe in themselves and expect more?  Make a call demanding credibility.  This industry depends on it!

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FYI, Beth Johnson, the founder of Survivetvnewsjobs wrote this article.

Making it stick: how to coach newbie journalists.

Management Issues, Political Hotbed Comments Off on Making it stick: how to coach newbie journalists.
Mar 202013

A big part of my job is coaching, both seasoned and new, journalists.  Lately I have been getting DM’s and email from managers asking, “How do you get through?  I have no luck, especially getting them to understand the importance of a fact error.”

Here are some techniques I used while working in newsrooms.  First, techniques for producers and writers.  I would print out scripts that I knew had errors.  Then I would sit down with the writer and tell them to do a couple of things.  First, take these scripts and circle the 5 w’s.  Then I would ask them to highlight the facts in the script, and the matching facts from the source they used.  This can be a real eye opener, because it forces whoever wrote the script not only to see the error, but to see that answering the 5 w’s, will help avoid errors.  Often if there is a fact error, 1 or more of the 5 w’s either is not in the script at all OR the w’s do not lead to any kind of logical conclusion.  So, the light bulb goes off.  There’s a problem.  Then when the writer looks at the facts from the source, the error often shows up plain as day.

I did this for several reasons.  It forces the writer to take ownership of the mistake.  It also helps the writer think through how the error happened.  After going over several scripts, you can see a pattern where the writer consistently goes wrong.  In some cases, the person is unclear about a legal term.  In others, the person is not clear about the background of an ongoing story.  Both of those things are easy to train and correct, as long as the person recognizes the problem with making the error.

What gets interesting is when the person sees the errors, and is not concerned about it.  I would get, “Well the anchor should have caught that.” Or “you copy edited the script, right?  Isn’t that your job, to know the facts.”  Those producers, writers, reporters etc. then step into phase two of training.  The reality check!

Here’s the biggest differentiator between a newbie journalists and a veteran.  Veterans understand that these stories we put on the TV screen actually impact lives.  We know this for many reasons, not the least being that somewhere along the way, we made a mistake that hurt someone.  In my case, my news director made me a call a family and apologize when I aired the name of a minor who was charged with a crime.  My old station used the names of juvies.  The new station did not.  I did not check the policy at the new station.  I will never forget how horrified I was when I had to call that family and explain to the parents, that I did not ask my manager if it was OK to air a minor’s name.  That reality check changed the way I wrote news.  Period.  Veteran journalists have stories like this, about omissions or assumptions that really hurt.  The wounds are still there, years later.  We never look at the box our work plays in the same way again.  It doesn’t beam into space for us.

If you can set up a scenario so the writer that made the error has to face up to the mistake, beyond saying sorry to the ND, do it.  That reality check may change that newbie’s outlook on news forever.

Now on to reporters.  The technique can be similar.  I used to have them circle the w’s and highlight the facts.  Since I did not always have access to their sources, I would sometimes ask for a name, then have the reporter call and re-verify the facts on the phone in front of me.  If the reporter made an assumption, you could see the sweat on the brow.  It is a great technique to quickly assess how sure a reporter is about a fact.  The ones that double checked, always did it, with no complaints and no concerns.

The other technique I used is printing scripts about a story from each day part.  I would include the script with the error.  Then I would hand all of the scripts over and ask the writer to show me which script was wrong and explain why.  It gets really interesting if you throw in a few wrong scripts from another day part and a writer’s correct script as well.  Then you see how comfortable the writer is with their fact checking.  If the writer figures all of his/her scripts have errors, you know that person is not comfortable fact checking.  That is trainable.

If the writer thinks their scripts are never wrong, you may find the person is more interested in how something sounds, than accuracy.  Go to the “reality check” step if at all possible.

The writer who catches the errors, both from themselves and others probably is just a little overwhelmed by volume.  Start watching that person’s time management skills. This training technique works for reporters, producers and AP’s.

Hope this helps you make it stick, when it comes to training the importance of accuracy.  If you have more training techniques I would love to hear them.  Email me or post them on our FB page.

 

Recently I was struck by conversations I was having with a series of news directors who are looking for morning EPs.  Each mentioned, the line “the morning show sets the tone for the day.”  No, this isn’t a new concept.  Morning producers all over the country are yelling “DUH” to their computer screens right now.  But there is a key part to this, that simply doesn’t happen in most newsrooms.  Each news shift needs to have a system of checks and balances with all the other shifts.  When they do, you return the favor by watching theirs.  In Meet My Conscience  we talked about having a specific set of eyes to help watch your back.  Well, simply put, this needs to happen in all newsrooms at shift change.  It also needs to be more than the assignment desks’ role.  Producers know to sit down with the producer who just wrapped up a newscast and ask if there is anything to worry about.  But the conversation needs to go further.

What if every shift, had a check-in with the morning staff?  The reason:  Often the late night newscasts do very targeted coverage to appeal to very specific audiences.  This is much more extreme than other day parts, especially certain nights of the week with huge lead-ins.  In essence, the key audience changes dramatically.  So morning producers come in, and see that most of the stories do not transcend well.  BUT there could be (and often is) a wealth of wonderful potential follow-ups from the early evening news.  Problem is, the morning producer doesn’t know that a court hearing is scheduled tomorrow, or that the video in the package is all you have, because the rest is blue.  What if dayside crews updated overnight counterparts, in addition to nightside?

Chances are you would prevent a lot more inaccuracies if this dialogue is developed.  Think of the children’s game telephone.  Morning tells dayside about a story, who then tells nightside, who then updates morning (if nightside covered it at all).  Odds are, by the next morning, you’re missing a lot of potential angles that legitimately advance an interesting story.  If dayside, let nightside and morning know, then the options that nightside passed on do not get buried in an early grave as easily.

So how do you develop it?  Email.  After all, daysiders are already working when most nightsiders are asleep. Or if a nightsider is up for the earlies, call and get the scoop before the producer leaves.  Employees themselves can take control and set up a system of communication between the assignment desk and producers. Then you will have a good chance of getting all the facts straight.  It’s a shift in accuracy, that could have a lot of people’s backs.

 

The Devil in the Details: Why getting it right matters.

Honing Skills, Survival Kit Comments Off on The Devil in the Details: Why getting it right matters.
Feb 112013

I hear the excuses from journos all the time:

“No one needs a lecture. We get how to put good TV on the air.”

“It is the system’s fault.”

“Social media is corrupting how news is done.”

“The J-School did not emphasize enough.”

There are all kinds of reasons given for why the facts are wrong.

It would be easy to list all kinds of ways to double check graphics.  How to fact check scripts.  How to conduct interviews to lessen the chances of missing key facts.  A great list for articles to come.  But right now, it is time to take a breath from the frenetic pace of TV news and stop and think.  What really is the point of putting news on the air every day/night?  Is it to feed a corporate machine?  Is it to make yourself money?  Is it to help the community?

To see the devil in the details, we have to begin with the question of why we even do TV news.  The reason:  If you do not feel that you are called to help others by sharing key information that can alter lives, you simply won’t understand why getting it right matters.   TV news is so full of competition, so full of the need to be first, so cutthroat, that we can forget the point.  We serve the community.  If we don’t explain what is happening, where are people getting their information?  Snarky comments, like “well the newspaper and the internet” show you are not a serious journalist.  This is a calling.

Getting the facts right matters because that is the reason you have a job. You are paid to get the facts right.  Whether you are a high priced anchor, an assignment editor, a writer or even a video editor.  You are paid to get it right.  You are responsible for a certain set of facts.  You are the keeper of details.

The devil of it all is, the more we get the details wrong, the more we destroy our calling. Credibility is not a given.  It is earned each day.  It is tested with each story that airs.  And when you lose credibility you never get it completely back.  It is the most precious thing a journalist has.  It defines your worth, even more than your paycheck.

The TV news industry has cheapened itself.  Not necessarily by hiring younger journalists.  There are plenty of newbies who are saving veteran journalists skins each day.  The TV news industry cheapened itself by throwing it’s money into glitz instead of it’s core.  You can dress a lady up, make her look good with the right makeup and clothes, but if she’s a nasty person, the ugly will show through.  Our ugly, nasty secret is coming out more and more.  We are so concerned about volume, that we put quantity over quality.  Then a “Snow Storm” becomes a “Snot Storm” on a fullscreen graphic.  A “Singer” is declared dead instead of an “Astronaut.”  We condemn a man for a shooting rampage, when he was actually far away from the scene.  We misspell the president’s name on chyron.

So it’s time to pay attention to the devil in the details.  Double check.  You owe it to the viewer who counts on you.  And fellow journalists, you need to have each other’s backs. (see “Meet my conscience”).  Every mistake prevented, extends everyone’s contracts.  TV news needs you to get it right, so everyone can continue to have a vocation.

 

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