The One Criticism You Never Want To Be Told

Getting Along With Peers, Political Hotbed Comments Off on The One Criticism You Never Want To Be Told
Feb 132014
It’s a fact of life, in news, that your work will be criticized a lot.  It can be hard to take, but you must if you want to succeed in the business.  However, there is one criticism you never want to be told:  That you blame others for your mistakes.  If you do, you will quickly be labeled a  complainer, trouble maker and bad at your job.  You cannot afford to have this label.
So what do you do to get around?  For starters check out our recent “Take Ownership” article.  Next, do not complain, about how the newsroom runs, to other staff members.  I recognize this is a tough one, because news people are infamous for their after hours gripe sessions.  It is VERY hard not to engage in the complaining and you may even feel alienated at first.  But believe me, it is worth it to not get involved.  Remember a key staffer will be at the gripe sessions:  the newsroom snitch.  Any complaints you make will be reported, and if you directly complain about how others are doing their jobs, and that it’s keeping you from doing yours, I guarantee that it doesn’t matter whether you have a valid point.  You will be labeled a complainer who passes the buck.  Also, there are many times your coworker is not your friend, says a few more generic complaints to get you rolling, then uses your words against you later in front of management.  End result:  You look like a complainer.
Blamers do not get as much leeway.  They do not get a benefit of the doubt.  If you are known for passing the buck, management will build a file on you quickly and work to get you fired or banished to the one shift no one wants, so that you hopefully just go away.
The final thing you can do to avoid this horrible label is this:  When you have a complaint in your mind, think of proactive solutions you can help implement.  That way if you get cornered at the station party or management backs you into a corner with an intense line of questioning, you can try and deviate the attention away from you and toward a solution that builds team.  If my EP just disappeared when I had to make key decisions, and I got called on the carpet, instead of saying “Joe EP is never around to ask.”  I would say, “I think I need to go over potential pitfalls in my rundown a little earlier when Joe EP is less busy.”  This raises the issue that Joe EP is not around, without me calling the person out as slacking off.  If management asks “Where is Joe EP?” say “Not sure, at that time of day. I just try to execute what I am asked as best I can.”  Let the managers duke it out.  Meantime you look like a solution finder instead of the dreaded blamer.
If you sense you are already labeled the complainer, stop your gripes immediately and have a clear the air session with your immediate supervisor.  Look that person in the eye and say, “I am here to help this newsroom by doing my best each day.  I want you to know I am glad I am here and will do all I can to help.”  Then do what you are asked and keep your mouth shut.  You can turn this reputation around as long as you do not let it linger long.  It is worth the extra effort, remember being labeled a “complainer” can be a career killer in this ever competitive business.

I’ve been traveling and one market I was in, is really putting heavy emphasis on its late  newscasts.  Competition is tight, a new broadcasting powerhouse just bought a station and it’s ready to make a big play.  Veteran journalists know what this means.  More live, more often, even if it’s in the pitch dark.  So I sat and watched the new competition come in and make it’s presence known.  The takeaway, live shots in black holes.  Live for the sake of being live.  Showcasing that the reporters are everywhere with a simple word, in an upper corner of the TV screen, repeated over and over: LIVE.

As a former nightside EP, I get it.  I remember the countless strategy sessions about the importance of live crew placement.  The incredible marketing involved with people driving by your station’s microwave or satellite truck for hours on end.  Then there’s the promise that you will deliver breaking news.  That means night crews are working out of live trucks no matter what.  You must be ready to jump!

But here’s the thing, shooting a lovely reporter whose face glows in the dark like a street lamp against a pitch black background is not acceptable.  So let’s break down why these live shots happen and alternatives to the glowing head in the black hole.

So, why do those “work you to the bone” nightside managers require you to go live, even when the story is “over” and there’s nothing to see in your background?  For two reasons:  Breaking news and marketing.   Here’s what I mean by that:  If you have two crews, and four counties in your DMA you need to spread everyone out.  If everyone heads back to the station with look lives, you could end up screwed.  That’s when the huge breaker will happen on the outer fringes of your DMA.  You must cover the bases. So if the crew is out in a live truck anyway, you might as well get that live super up.  That’s the thinking.

As for marketing, if your crew is parked in a busy section of town or better yet in a part of the DMA you know brings in a lot of viewers, or is full of opportunities to grow viewers, you want the exposure.  That huge mast or beautifully painted satellite truck is a mobile billboard.  That advertising is priceless.  Billy drives by the truck and calls Bob to say, “Hey channel 8 is here.” Bob calls Sam and so it goes.  The nightside managers task is always to grow audience.  You can bet this is on that managers mind every night.  We ask ourselves “Where can I send the truck that will get the most eyeballs and then new viewers?”  It’s the simple truth.

So now that you know why the nightside crews get “stuck” live all the time in the dark, let’s talk execution strategies.  The crews need to avoid black hole live shots, and the managers need to help.  Yes, that’s right:  The mangers need to help you avoid black holes.

First let’s talk about what nightside crews can do.  I used to get into it with photojournalists all the time for refusing to set up a frigging light on the background behind the reporter.  I get that it’s a little extra work.  I get that it’s just an empty building. Personally, I hate that kind of live shot background image also.  But, if you are in the part of the DMA I’ve been told to increase viewer numbers in and it’s ratings and I have a HUGE lead in, I may feel I have to showcase that we have a crew there RIGHT NOW.  The station is deeming a particular community important.  We are there watching out for you.  And whether you the crew or I hate the dark shot, there are payoffs sometimes.  So get out the light kit and make the effort.

That said, if you don’t have spare gear, or if you have an imaginative look live option, call it in.  Nightside managers, remember you can still have your cake and eat it too. Let the crew feed in the great look live elements.  But keep them parked in the truck during news time.  You get the marketing exposure and the ability to jump on breaking news if needed.  Sometimes it is worth losing the live super to avoid the black hole.  When you really think about it, you could get to a breaker even faster if the crew does not have to break down a live shot.

But, news crews, if the nightside manager gives you this option, that doesn’t mean you “cheat” and head back to the station a little early.  When you get busted, you will ensure yourself a set lot in life:  Live shots in a black hole each shift for as long as you are nightside.  The strategic planning cannot be sacrificed just to make your life easier.

 

Reporter Photographer Harmony

Know Your Newsroom, Videography Comments Off on Reporter Photographer Harmony
Oct 102012

The reporter/photographer relationship is one of the most unique dynamics in the newsroom setting.  Sometimes it’s the most joyous.  Sometimes it’s the most volatile.

Sometimes being on assignment feels like being with a “working wife/husband” while other times the thought of spending an entire workday with that person is unfathomable.  But, finding that happy medium and really jelling together as a team can help to produce some fantastic stories, the kind that make it fulfilling to be a journalist.

This is a little perspective from the photographer side, a look at how that guy/girl with the camera on their shoulder (and hopefully on a tripod) sees those daily assignments.

Every shop I worked in always claimed how much they valued the photo staff, but in the end, most of the higher ups see that value in a technical sense, not editorial, leading to a lower link In the newsroom food chain.

But, just like everyone else in the newsroom, photographers have egos too.  Getting the most out of that photographer for the day may not be too complex and involves a few simple steps

Each day brings a new assignment.  Once the crew leaves the newsroom, the first task the reporter faces is how to engage the photographer and get them onboard for the day.  And it does not matter if it’s a double package/double live shot day or one of those rare times when you actually have a little time to craft a package.

Here are three simple tips to hopefully get things headed in the right direction so those “human mic stands” can get the most, visually, out of photographers.  In return, the photogs can offer some simple things to shed the image of “camera guy.”

These may not be the most intricate points and can seem basic, but not starting off on the right foot can doom a story before that camera is ever fired up.

What the photog can/should expect from you?:

1.  An introduction:  Wow, this seems simple.  Introducing the photographer to the people being interviewing.  It’s a team effort, right?  A simple, “I want you to meet ________”, seems pretty standard and just plain polite.

For me, no introduction meant game over, that easy.  I checked out for the day.  The job was still done to a solid standard, but nothing more.  And the best part, the reporter would never even know.  It was a simple matter of respect.  If a simple courtesy couldn’t be extended, there was no extra effort from me.

Of course when it’s mass chaos or chasing down a hostile interview this won’t apply but, in general, the point is there.

2.  Discuss the story on the way:  Talking.  Again, seems basic.  But some reporters get busy on their phones and nothing assignment related is said on the drive.

There’s a chance the photog wasn’t in that assignment meeting and hasn’t been given much of a description about what it is you’re putting together.  Well, what is the photog’s perspective on basic story structure, both visually and editorially?

Again, at the core, it comes down to a matter of respect for your co-worker.  If my input isn’t in the end story, my effort probably won’t be there either.

3.  Involvement/Reinforcement:  Talk as the story evolves during the day.  Not only does it keep the photographer engaged, it also gives you both an idea how the story is unfolding visually long before sitting down to log the video.

What is the opening shot? What is the closing shot?  Any good nat breaks?  These questions keep the photog involved and engaged, letting them know you’re depending on them to help mold the story.

Does the photographer have a wireless mic (belt pack kind)?  How about offering to move it around for them from person to person.  What a great way to send a signal those great pictures and sounds are being counted on to put the story together.

As a photographer, I fed off of enthusiasm, even on stories that were pretty dry.  Seeing the reporter moving the mic around and getting involved in the technical end made me step up the effort, every time.

While simple, all this respect talk is a two-way street.  Reporters aren’t baby sitters and have enough to handle for the day.  The above are ways to get the photographer on-board, utilizing the “journalist” in photojournalist.  So now that you the reporter is putting out the effort, the question is……

What to should expect from the photographer?:

 1.  Return Engagement:  The job is done making sure the photographer knows the story is a team effort.   Now it’s up to the phojo to get involved.  In addition to all the technical aspects running smoothly, is the photog engaged in interviews?  Asking questions (when appropriate)?  Listening for sound bites and varying up the framing for different looks?

I have heard stories of fellow photogs being on their cells phones on personal calls, DURING AN INTERVIEW!  For any photographers reading this: Not a good way to be taken seriously.

2.  Professionalism in Dress and Attitude:  No, photographers will not be wearing suits and ties to working on a daily basis.  But for many GA stories, the people we talk to are in a business setting.  Appropriate dress and attitude should be expected.

Yes, it is up to management to make/enforce dress codes, but perception in our business is reality.  No t-shirts, no ratty jeans and good personal hygiene all go a long way.  Society has changed and there are many new ways people express themselves.  But, for photogs with excessive piercings and or tattoos, find a way to take them out/cover them up when in a business setting.  It hurts the reporter’s credibility too.

3.  Offering a visual blueprint:  Photogs, feel free to speak up as well during the day.  Let the reporter know what’s been going on behind that lens.  Any good nat breaks or sound bites you heard during the interviews?  Ideas how you can make it work visually with their words?

Most of the time the reporter doesn’t see/hear what’s been shot until it’s logging time.  During a time crunch, the chance to log all the video is long gone.  Help them out.  Know what can be weaved into the story.  Is a key shot missing?  Fess up early so a script doesn’t show up that “writes you into a hole”.  We’re in the communication business.  That starts in the field, long before the story is sent out to a television or web audience.

So, none of the above is earth shattering and most seems pretty basic.  Yet, day in and day out, these things are not done in newsrooms in all sized markets.

Of course there are variables.   Some days, and things, don’t go as planned.  But the above points are basic ones that are often missed.  When missed, they not only affect the product, they affect attitudes.  If these mistakes are made day in and day out, bad attitudes often take over.

After 20 years of doing this, I’m not naïve.  One of the questions (from either side) is probably, “I’ve tried this every day for a long time and person X just won’t respond, what should I do now?”

Honest answer, we can’t all get along and sometimes we’re just on a different page from one another.  Try to not take it personally.  Try to get a good lunch in.  Keep it simple and live to fight another day with another reporter or photog.

One thing I do know, is that when the opportunity to really produce that special story comes along, it takes a team effort.  Teams aren’t built overnight.  It takes time and effort.  Yes, there’s a lot more that goes into to hitting home run-type stories.  But one thing for sure is if there isn’t a mutual respect from the beginning, it will be a struggle just getting up to the batter’s box.

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Andy Benton is a  20 year veteran photojournalist who’s won 2 National Murrow Awards, 3 Gabriel Awards and 25 Regional Emmys.

Yes, you read the title of this article correctly.  If you want a really great writing critique, ask the guys and gals who focus on the images.  Why?  Because, in television news, the words are dependent on the images.  The video and sound should truly tell the story.  This is even true when using graphics to explain a subject.  The visuals, combined with sound and words, are what makes this medium such an incredible pull for viewers. (despite the smaller screen you are using to read this article.)

Photojournalists really understand the powerful connection between the images and the words.  They also know a lot of tricks to help you work around it when the stories are not as visually appealing as you would like.  If you ever get a chance, sit down and watch a newscast with a photojournalist.  It is fascinating to hear their rants vs. the rants of non-photogs in the business.  Will you agree with everything?  Probably not.  But you will gain a lot of insight from the thought processes of a very visual mind.

So while you listen to the critique, keep an ear out for how many times the photojournalist mentions that a story did not make sense.  My guess is you will hear that pretty often.  Then take a closer look at the story.  Chances are your copy and the visuals do not mesh at all.  It really is fascinating to watch how often that happens in TV news.  There is a large disconnect, especially in vo’s and vosots between the visuals and the words being used to describe the story.

Photojournalists help you understand just that.  Your words describe the story.  They don’t simply tell it.  There is a difference in TV news.  Let a photog help you see that for yourself.  Get a critique.  Who knows, the insight could make your writing style even better.

 

By now you have read plenty about this case.  You may have even written and/or voiced over stories about it.  There are a lot of compelling articles that explain what we TV journalists have done right and especially wrong while covering the Martin shooting.  I am not going there.  Instead I am going to explain why this case can and more than likely will end up defining your career in some way.

This is the type of story and event that truly tests the limits of journalism.  It tests the ability to be objective.  It tests news philosophies.  It tests personal ethics while on the job.  For this reason, I strongly encourage you to keep a file of everything you read, watch and write about the case.  Just file it all away.  Write notes about any conflicts within you and add these thoughts to your file.  Keep copies of your favorite stories you watched, and the ones you liked the least.  Write notes on what you like and do not like about the coverage.  The reason:  As this case plays out, your views on ethics and philosophy will likely change a lot.  So will the critics.  We will talk about how this case was covered for years to come.  Professors worth their salt are already beginning to track and possibly discuss it with future journalists.

The Martin case will become a litmus test for many news companies and news managers as they continue trying to shape what television news is becoming.  There are too many hot button issues in it for the case not to become more than a story that simply comes and goes.  Those issues will come up as managers consider newsroom policies on everything from fact checking affiliate copy to social media policy.  For this reason, it will serve as the perfect talking point when feeling out the news philosophy at a station where you are interviewing.  This case is so big, every news management team has likely had to make some sort of ethical call on it already.  It will not be the last time either.  Asking pointed questions about the Martin case to a news director or AND when you are job interviewing will be a good way to feel out their personal journalistic integrity also.  Are you both in sync?

The Martin case is also a good litmus test for you to gauge your own value system and journalistic work.  As you go into difficult scenarios in the future, draw on what you thought was done correctly in the Martin case.  Remind yourself of the ethical issues that arose when coverage was less than thorough.  It is a good reminder to us all that we cannot ever get too comfortable or too numb while covering stories.  There are often many layers.  Do we get to them, or leave them buried?  Do we jump to conclusions?  Have you?  Really asking yourself and current and future news bosses these questions will help you define yourself as a journalist.  It will help you brand yourself.  It will help you weed out stations that may vary too much from your news philosophy.  With examination, personally and as a professional group, the Martin case could help us define what TV News should be, and will become.

A producer recently Tweeted me asking for an article on how to build a relationship with News Directors.  Frankly, I could write a book on that subject! But there are some basics easily put into a short blog.  First, you need to know, access to your ND varies greatly depending on market size, how many other managers exist in your newsroom and your ND’s temperament.  There are some fail safes though that will help no matter your situation.  We call them the 3 B’s:

  • Be subtle
  • Be consistent
  • Be loyal

Before we spell out these 3 b’s, let’s give you some insight into what ND’s often think.  Simply put, up to half the newsroom is “on board” helping out day to day, the rest are not loyal or don’t seem to pull their weight.  (Trust me on this one, I’ve heard many ND’s say it!)  That second group appear to fight the ND on everything by being argumentative.  The ND gives a critique and the person throws back reasons why it’s “the newsroom’s fault” something wasn’t done.  Then comes the “high maintenance” label  of being difficult or too needy.  This is especially true if you have valid points that, though probably unintentional, showcase the ND’s problem areas in the newsroom or even management style.  No one is perfect, including your ND.  We’re not saying you need to be a “kiss ass” and do whatever the ND wants all the time.  We are not saying your opinion isn’t valid.  It’s all in the delivery, which we will spell out in a moment.  The ND will have people on staff that they count on for their own gut checks from time to time.  You become one of those people with patience and by showing loyalty.  This all begins by being subtle.

Being subtle means being the person that sits back and listens to what the ND asks for.  Take, for instance, a staff meeting where the ND spells out the news philosophy of the shop.  You don’t raise your hand and ask a bunch of questions.  You want to hear not only what the ND says but his/her reaction to the flood of questions and instant critiques.  Once that’s completed, process what the point of it all seems to be.  A day or two later,  drop by the news director’s office and say something like: “So I was thinking about the meeting and want to make sure that what you are expecting is ‘XYZ’.”  Let ND answer and then thank him or her and walk out.  Then try and do what was asked of you.  After a few weeks pop your head in and ask for a critique.  Yes, you will likely get an honest answer that could be disappointing. Most ND’s recognize that asking for critiques is not the easiest thing to do.  The willingness to do so will show respect.  Now this is key:  Don’t ask for critiques all the time, just when there’s a philosophy change or change in your job assignment.  People constantly asking for critiques and therefore validation are considered high maintenance.  Remember the first B is to “Be subtle.”

Now that you have a clear idea of what the ND wants, execute it and “Be consistent.”  Strive to do it every day.  Keep your head down and just do your job.  The ND will notice.  You may not get a lot of pats on the back.  But that doesn’t happen often in TV news anyway. If you screw up one day, the ND may give you the benefit of the doubt if you’ve built this relationship.  You just might set yourself up for a promotion or at least an opportunity to ask for better assignments during your next review.  Consistently doing your job is another way to show loyalty.

That leads to the third B, “Be loyal.”  Before you start shaking your head and thinking to yourself “I’m not a kiss ass” know this: That’s not what showing loyalty is about.  Loyalty doesn’t mean planting smooches on backsides.  It means not going into the ND’s office and throwing fits when you just got royally screwed over.  That doesn’t mean you have to become the news room doormat either.  If something happens that puts you in an awful position, go in and ask for advice.  If the ND throws something back at you like “How would you fix it?” have a possible solution ready.  Spell it out, then accept the critique.  Thank the ND for listening when you walk out.  You need to do this even if the ND is a screamer.  (click here for more on how to handle bosses that scream.)  Showing loyalty means knowing your ND is going to screw up occasionally and you aren’t going to rub salt in the wound.  You will forgive it and move on in the best interest of the station.  If you see a situation that might really cause a problem, like a potential ethical issue, call the ND and give him/her a quick heads up.  Don’t call screaming about how you don’t appreciate being in this position.  The ND doesn’t care about your feelings.  You are replaceable.  (Never forget that.)  Stay humble and try to work with the ND.

News Directors can be very inaccessible and very hard to read.  You may never know if the ND likes you or thinks you are a hunk of junk.  But, all ND’s appreciate loyalty.  All types of ND’s will eventually notice if you make effort to just do what’s needed and try not to cause extra headaches.  The 3 B’s will benefit you, even if you can’t tell right away.  ND’s have given me good references throughout my career simply because I always tried to give them what they needed.

 

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