Crew View: Do You Really See It During Major Coverage?

Management Issues, Political Hotbed Comments Off on Crew View: Do You Really See It During Major Coverage?
Jun 162016

The mass shooting in Orlando has been very raw to cover. Mass shootings simply are.

All hands are on deck. Everyone works long hours. Everyone bands together with a passionate sense of purpose to serve the community.

The things the crews see and talk about, over and over, can be very hard to take. Some will take to FB and lay out the pain. Some will quietly seek counseling. But most just grit their teeth and say, “This is part of the job I must be strong.” That is largely true. It is part of the job. But I really do not think people choose to be journalists to cover mass shootings, or other very traumatic events like this. Furthermore, you cannot understand the effects these events have on those covering it, until you have covered one yourself.

This is not meant to offend, but it has to be said: When I say cover, I mean actually stand at ground zero. Actually hear the SWAT team bust in. Actually witness the victims families waiting and waiting, then getting word their loved ones died. Witness the families and friends wailing uncontrollably. See some of the carnage left behind. These elements are not truly understood, until experienced first hand.

I say this, because too often when watching this coverage, I notice something time and again. For the most part the same people are sent to the same scenes over and over. Part of that is logical and good. They are developing the relationships to get the exclusives. It is a tried and true technique for journalists. But in this day of mass shootings and other horrific displays I have to ask, how much would coverage actually be impacted, if you worked in a rotation? Here’s what I mean: When the attack first happens, the initial crews on the scene make sense to follow up where they were stationed the next day. Maybe even the next two days. But when you are hitting day three and on, many could use psychological relief. By that I mean, why not have the crew who sat with the victims’ families cover some nuts and bolts angles, and send the nuts and bolts crew to “story tell” one day? Now, the heavy investigative diggers are a different category because they are likely spending time in and out of these scenes and needing time to find the information. I am talking about those daily follow ups.

Why bother, do you ask? Several reasons. First, the people spending time with the victims and their families need a chance to separate. You get incredibly emotionally attached. It is very hard to re-enter your life after several days of living and breathing this with those so closely impacted. This is one reason why medical teams work to start rotations as soon as possible to give staff a day off and a chance to speak with counselors. News people need this option too. Because there is less staffing you realistically cannot give crews a day off. But you can change up the scenery a bit, so they get a mini emotional break.

It also can be good for the crews doing nuts and bolts to see the impact first hand for a day. Believe me, it will inspire more questions. It reminds crews of what this event really means to the community on a more emotional level. I cannot help but wonder if there would be less on-scene, smiling, selfies if crews are rotated and ended up spending time with a mother who lost her son, or a dad searching for answers or a person shot but still alive asking: “Why me?” It makes it damn hard to desensitize yourself from the story.

And there is another point I want to bring up. Too often managers are insensitive to what the crews are going through. They expect each crew to “man up.” While newsrooms fill up on pizzas, the crews in the field are often forgotten. They are working long hours too. And in this case I will say their job is harder.  Journalists in the newsroom still get the luxury of some degree of detachment. They are not smelling the smells, seeing the carnage, standing in the actual moment watching the chaos from every angle. They get air conditioning or heat, delivered food and a bathroom right down the hall. This is not to downplay the importance of the journalists in the newsroom. Not at all. But too often there is a lack of truly understanding what the field crews are going through.

In this digital age, I cannot help but wonder how perspectives would change if a manager came out with the crews to the scenes and worked from the field if even for a few hours? Fire battalion chiefs go to the scene. The Sheriff shows up. What if a news manager came by, to really see what the crews are dealing with? Again, in my own experience, and through hearing from crews over the years; there are simply too many times when a crew calls in with a problem and they get chewed out and told to get it done, period. I saw this during major weather events, standoffs, shootings, even major court cases. Back then, the ND or AND had to be in the building as a point person. Cell phones and laptops did not exist. But now an AND or ME could stop by and experience the actual scene, if even for an hour. I know some managers who quietly go by the scene between news cycles just to see. They do not let crews know. It is very beneficial. If you just can’t get away, at least read this and please take it to heart. The majority of the time you are only getting a glimpse of the actual intensity of the events. Your field crews are not going to talk in-depth about all they saw and experienced because it is likely simply too much to take in right away. That’s why a crew can start to act testy on day three or two weeks later “out of the blue.” They will likely have a delayed reaction. You need to protect them to some degree by being sensitive to what they are not telling you. Send food. Text “good job” more often. Call them in and ask, “Are you ok?” Ask if they need to switch up their roles a bit after a few days so they get a mini break. At least ask. The crews need you to have a firm understanding of the view they are taking in each day. They need to know that if it’s getting hard to take, they can at least talk about it, and have someone truly listen and understand the crew view. They need to know their bosses have their back. So ask yourself: Do you, really?

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.

When Is It Time To Stand Up To The Bully Boss?

Management Issues, Political Hotbed Comments Off on When Is It Time To Stand Up To The Bully Boss?
Apr 232015

We all know that newsrooms are politically dicey. Tensions often run high. Pressure is intense. Frankly, a lot of bully type personalities fill many newsrooms as well. So it is inevitable that you will end up with a bully boss at some point in your news career.

Over time and through a lot of trial and error, I have learned an important lesson about bully bosses. They can torture you only as long as you let them. So it is crucial that you stand up to the bully at some point, in order to get the person to back down. (If the bully is a screamer read this). The big question is when?

First you need to see if the bully has a valid reason to pick on you. Are you late feeding your package every night? Are you still writing in the booth during the newscast? When the EP asks you to change something in your rundown do you roll your eyes and say no? When the ND tells you not to wear red, do you do it anyway out of spite? If you are truly just coming in and doing your job correctly, and still face unreasonable wrath, it is time to document.

By document I mean write down times when the attacks were unwarranted and any witnesses. You want to be able to, if needed, show a pattern of being singled out unnecessarily. Once there is a clear pattern to show, it is time to stand up.

How? You need to ask to speak with the bully and let the person know, the treatment is coming off as attacking instead of managing. You want a witness when you do this, but do not single the manager out in front of the entire staff. That will just create more issues. 1 person, who is a credible witness is all you really need. State that you are there to be a team player and that you value the managers opinion. But make it clear that the delivery methods are making it hard for you to glean the information you need to do what the manager wants. In other words, you are firing a warning shot that you are not being managed appropriately, but you are not being threatening when you do. If you just put the bully completely on the defensive, you will just face more wrath. So choose your words carefully. Document this conversation as well. Often most bullies back off if you have the guts to talk with them directly about the issue. If not, you have documentation to back up the conversation. If the bully asks for examples, give a couple but not all that you have documented. This let’s the manager know you are serious and likely keeping score without you saying it flat out. Again, the bully tends to shut down a bit. But if he/she does not, you will have examples to make your case later.

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.

A common issue I coach producers on is how to handle it when an anchor decides to “call out” mistakes in front of the staff. Too often, producers have to sit and listen to anchors going off on the set about something that did not work. The comments are often not constructive. Live TV is tense. Everyone’s anxiety is up, no matter how seasoned they are. That said, making fun of the writing, or complaining about mistakes on set, is not necessarily going to help you get the help you need later. We addressed some of this in “Why don’t you show us how it’s done then.” Now let’s focus on how to get the message across, and have it actually be heard.

If your station holds special discrep meetings when the ND is visiting the morning or nightside shift, keep in mind that tensions are higher than usual then. The producers feel like they are under extra scrutiny (frankly, anchors probably do too). This is a good time to have an open discussion. But you do not want to create an environment where the team is turning on each other. This cannot be emphasized enough. When the ND and/or AND attend the discrep meeting, and the staff starts complaining and/or putting each other on the defensive, it gives a bad appearance. It makes it look like this is a group that either needs more monitoring or could need changing up (as in some of you may need to go).

These meetings go south fast, when an anchor says “That story on (fill in blank) was awful.” or makes fun of a story. The producer, gets embarrassed and will either shut down or lash out. So how do you bring up issues without setting off a firestorm? The head of the meeting has to set the right tone and has to phrase things better.

Let’s start with the leader of the meeting, which is often an EP. Start the meeting off by asking your producers what worked and did not. This allows the producers to take ownership and makes it psychologically easier to take the criticism still ahead. Producers feel more willing to do things like say, “Hey, was the end of the A uncomfortable?” Then a discussion can happen. If the producers do not do that, then the EP should. This keeps the anchors from having to bring the issue up first, and come off as defensive or attacking.

Anchors, if that doesn’t happen and you feel you have to bring an issue up, just think about your phrasing a bit. “Maybe it was just me, but the end of the A block felt a little uncomfortable. I know we are supposed to get more creative. But can we talk about why we did what we did, so we can figure out if there’s another way?” This gives the producer (who, remember, is likely extremely passionate, a bit of a control freak and THRIVES on problem solving) a chance to “save face” and bring up ideas as discussion points. Then you can add to those ideas. Everyone gets what needs to be said out there, and the message is more likely to be heard.

Better yet, wait until the end of the meeting and ask for a sub meeting with only the people directly involved with the issue, to bring up the subject. This isolates the potential for public humiliation. Then the producers can hear what you have to say better, because they are not being put on the spot publicly. You also will not have to worry as much about phrasing because it is a smaller group. So if you accidentally come across as a little harsh, it will be easier for the producer to give you the benefit of the doubt.

If you are going to bring up an issue, that involves a section of the newscast the producer asked you to look over ahead of time, better make sure you mention that as well. Producers hate proactively asking your opinion, having you seem to ignore it, then getting bashed for the decision later. That is a fast way to guarantee the producer will not have your back when you really need help.

The biggest thing I can emphasize is that producers in their own way, are as sensitive as anchors. The newscast is a part of them in many ways, just like it is for anchors. So you have to think about how you want to be told things. It would be humiliating to walk into the newsroom and hear the producers gathered together saying “Nancy looked like an idiot when she said …..” and then start cracking up. Or “Joe looks like he’s getting goosed the whole show, what a dope.” No one wants to be publicly humiliated. Just because a producer or EP’s face is not seen during the newscast, does not mean that their heart and soul is not attached to it. In many ways, they feel as tied to it as you do.

Producers, a big thing to consider is that anchors do not always mean to come off as insensitive or like they’re trying to “get you.” Even if they sound callous or just plain rude in a public critique, many are internally struggling with how to bring the issue up. Many try to use humor, and fail miserably, so it becomes a case of making fun or picking, instead of lightening the blow. So even if it stings, try and discern if the anchor just really doesn’t know how to bring the issue up well. And once the sting wears off, there could be great constructive criticism in the comment that will help you grow.

One last point to anchors: If you routinely make fun of things the producers do, or make you say on the set, whether during commercial breaks or after the show in discrep meetings or in the middle of the newsroom, you are setting yourself up for a world of hurt. Even if pay structures do not always seem to reflect it, producers have a lot of power in newsrooms and often have more say in your future than you might want or like to admit. Picking at that person, or making fun of them is asking for them to point out to the bosses every time you screw up. So unless you have achieved daily guaranteed perfection while on set, you are going to get burned.

What is a teaching newsroom?

Management Issues, Political Hotbed Comments Off on What is a teaching newsroom?
Oct 182014

I was thrilled when an EP recently asked me to write an article on what makes a teaching newsroom. The more I talk with news directors, EP’s and AND’s the more I realize this is not well defined in TV news. Everyone has their own take on what it means. I think the reason is the concept of teaching or training means “time consuming” to many. While that can be partly true it is also crucial for television news to remain relevant. As we ask journalists to do more and generate different types of content (on TV on website on social media.. etc) we need to help them get the basics down pat and quickly. While this is a career where you must learn by doing, there’s no reason why sharing the wealth should be de-emphasized.

So let’s begin with the fact that teaching newsrooms need a blend of veteran journalists and newbies and/or up and comers. Frankly, this can apply to every market size in the country. Where the points of difference come in, are whether those veteran journalists are empowered to be mentors, or advisors to the up and comers. In many newsrooms managers do not want veteran journalists to help train. This can be a wasted resource. A teaching newsroom partners those veterans with the up and comers to help provide support. You can do this without giving the veteran journalists too much editorial control.

Teaching newsrooms also have well defined news philosophies. You have to in order to teach. Many times the ND loves to find the next star journalists and genuinely enjoys creating a mentoring environment with clear expectations. Teaching newsrooms also usually have very communicative EP’s who are eager to sit down with producers and reporters to look over newscasts. They are passionate about helping their staffs grow and allowing their producers to push themselves to see what they can become as writers and showcasers.

This requires an understanding of the EP’s own strengths and weaknesses. I just love when EP’s compare notes on the “Survive” Twitter handle. Many are so eager to help their producers and reporters grow. Some do it with weekly meetings, some grab newscasts and sit down in edit bays and talk through shows with the producers. Others hold regular writing workshops for reporters and/or producers. A truly strong teaching newsroom has to have at least one of these elements happening regularly. EP’s are in the trenches. They need to be the day-to-day instructors in many ways. Management needs to help them do this, and provide backup so the time can be carved out for these crucial “sessions.”

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