How to break down a lot of information.

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Mar 302016

Lately this question has come up a lot in my coaching role. The journalist has complicated stories that seem like they should make air. But it is so hard to boil the stories down, they try to avoid the content. This is a natural phase in learning to be a journalist. Let’s talk about some basic guidelines to help you put that story in the newscast, without lunch bagging it with too much information to understand the point. First let’s talk package techniques.

Simplifying Package Information
Think Set Up
Package focuses on impact and video support
Substantive tag of key facts you need to report, but that don’t work well in package

Unfortunately, many news managers need to read this section as well. They often insist on lunch bagging all the information into the reporter package. Then, they get ticked when the package is long, repeats video and seems hard to understand once it airs. So let’s really walk through these steps and the key reasons each step exists so all can see the benefits.

First, you have to start at the beginning. (I know that sounds ridiculous, but if I had a dollar for all the times this hasn’t happened, I would be rich.) The beginning means two things, today peg, and key background as to why this today peg matters. For example, state lawmakers decide to allow guns on college campuses. The house voted yes, now the senate has too. So you start the coverage of this story with a historic vote today in the state senate. Lawmakers voted to allow guns on college campuses. The senate just passed the measure by a vote of… and last week the house voted in a similar plan. If the governor signs it… this would mean people on college campuses could carry a gun with a permit. This sets up the story, it may or may not have video that usually is boring, and it gets the viewer thinking of questions about impact. You can use video as a set up, or graphics or a combo of both. The point is to lay out why the viewer should watch the upcoming package.

You will then pick one or two key elements describing impact for the package focus. The reporter does not need to tell the viewer that the house voted and the senate voted now because the set up took care of that. The package needs to center on what will this mean when it goes into effect. Is law enforcement ready for this change? Will campuses put in metal detectors? Are professors signing up for classes to learn how to use a gun and get a permit? Pick one of these ideas and package it.

The tag then needs to have key facts to sum it all up or move it forward. When will this go into effect? How long does it take to get a permit? Think really useful information you can quickly summarize.

Now let’s look at how to breakdown a very complicated story as a producer. Sometimes you have to update a complicated court case for example, and it needs to be short and sweet. Many producers just write a 50 second vo and hope that’s ok. This is a key area where you can segment a story out, so it has nice flow and you keep things simple. Think 1 main point per vo. Today Joe Smith will be sentenced for the murder of Sue Smith. Smith was murdered by her husband three years ago. WIPE VO You might remember this case because the kids spoke out that Joe Smith abused their mom for years. (kids crying) Their testimony set off discussions nationwide about domestic abuse. WIPE VO The murder happened as the couple’s oldest child called 911. The 911 operator could hear the shooting.
ON CAM TAG Now the kids are being cared for by relatives. The Smith children will not be in court today, relatives fear seeing their dad again will cause too much pain. This kind of story can really bog down a producer. You don’t want to leave out the emotional pull of the story with the kids and the 911 operator. But you are told to keep stories short and sweet. By sectioning each part out, it feels like several stories in terms of pacing, increases the writer’s chances of keeping each part short and sweet and gets all the information in the newscast in a more compelling way.

You can apply this principle to all kinds of complicated stories like tax reforms, school testing results, updates on cold cases and economic stories. Think 1 idea per element you are using. You do not always have to wipe among vo’s. With on-set video monitors so prevalent now, sometimes the first element references a wall image or vo, then you take the next element full etc. The bottom line is think visual pacing, it will help you really boil down the elements and get to what matters.

The other big takeaway to remember when boiling down a complicated story, is no matter what format avoid lunch bagging all the facts. You have to give some sort of visual cue, for each main point you make. Complicated stories have multiple main points you feel you must cover. So think of the story as several mini stories in one, so you can make sense of the most important information and clearly present the facts to the viewer.

How to brand throughout the newscast

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Jan 202016

It’s no secret that writing for TV news nowadays is as much about marketing as writing clearly and concisely. You are expected to sell the news philosophy for your station as much as time out your newscast correctly. In fact many stations require you mention your station brand at least 5 times a newscast. Many producers just write in the pitch line as you introduce live reporters to get it over with. Joe Smith works for you. Joe Smith is on your side live in…. Joe Smith is your eyewitness tonight. There are other ways to brand, that are less throwaway. You can even do it in a way that enhances your coverage and benefit for the viewer.

Branding Throughout Newscast
Story focuses reflect philosophy, even vo’s
Explain how story fulfills philosophy
Use animations for reinforcement
Limit pitch line, use variations instead

The first thing you need to do throughout the newscast is to pick stories that make sense with your brand. If your station is one that works for you (the viewer ) for example, you don’t do a lot of superficial quick vo’s with little to no reference to how this story impacts people. In other words, this is not a station that should implement a 10 second vo, 20 second vosot philosophy. This is a station that will consistently add a line to each story with either why this story is significant to people or how it impacts. When you think news philosophy you must think context. The all you need philosophy means quick headlines. Catch the viewer up. That is a very different context.

So when you consider context, you are going to naturally add lines or phrases that explain how the story fits with your promise to the viewer (i.e. – your news philosophy). The how and/or why lines are one way. You will likely find yourself adding other phrases like, we are doing this story tonight because, or we are continuing to work for you by asking.. we want you to have all you need to know on this bill… somewhere in the story. It is a natural way to tell the viewer why the story is important that can be done very conversationally.

Then you add animations with your brand line to reinforce the philosophy. Remember many people think visually, so these animations are effective. Do not be afraid to use them. They also create movement which improves perception of pacing.

The last thing to remember is if you just use the same catch phrase over and over, it is not effective. The viewer will quickly tune it out. The repetition of your philosophy and branding has to be consistent without being repetitive. So even if you are required to mention the station brand 5 times a newscast, you can do so with out saying works for you every single time. Vary that brand line with phrases like helping you, how this effects you, what this means for you to get the point across without boring the viewer with the same phrase that seems throwaway. Your news philosophy has to benefit the viewer. You need to spell out that benefit or you will not build loyalty. Think empty promises. People are conditioned to suspect that is what they are being handed. Selling your brand means showing clearly that you have the viewer in mind and will consistently provide that they need. Do it, tell them you are doing it, then show them how you are doing it. Thinking this way as you select stories and write will help you naturally brand the news throughout the newscast without it seeming as forced. And you can market without feeling like an ad writer instead of a journalist.

Are you making an assumption? A vital question most journalists forget to ask.

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Jan 102016

I am going to make a bold statement. The more news I watch, the more obvious it is that many journalists, in the rush to be first, make a lot of assumptions. If you really take a critical look at a lot of high profile TV news gaffes, you’ll see the pattern. So let’s talk about how to ask a vital question more often in newsrooms while writing stories.

How to avoid assumptions:

Where did I get this information?
How did the newsroom get the information?
List confirmed specifics
Reliability of source(s)

The first question you must ask yourself is where did I get this information. I am using the possessive term for a specific reason. A lot of assumptions are made by the person writing the story. Especially when you are rewriting from a previous version of a story or reworking a reporter package script into a vo or vosot. Anchor intros are another place a lot of assumption rewrites are made. It happens with teases too. I am listing all of this because I want to make it clear how often this can and does happen and how often you need to ask yourself where you got the information you are writing.

The natural follow up question is where did the newsroom get the information? If it is a reporter piece you are breaking down, do not just look at the package. Read the notes in the assign cue as well. If something seems a little strange ask the person who copy edited the story if they understood the story the same way. Do not be afraid to ask, where did you get this information of the assignment editor, the producer, the reporter even the executive producer. Everyone needs to get in the habit of being skeptics and double checking each other. It all starts with not just taking things at face value. Verify all information, even if it aired before.

That’s where listing confirmed specifics comes in. Take the 5 w’s and run through each story and identify them, then identify them from the assignment cue or previous version of the story. Does everything match? Is there a source tied to each of the answers? Is it clear that facts were verified?

You have to consider the reliability of sources. If a bunch of information is listed in the assign cue and there is no source listed with a time called or a news release mentioned, you have to wonder if the assignment editor is listing possible facts.  Next you need to consider the source itself. Is this an intern calling to verify information? Who specifically did they talk with? Is it the PIO who sometimes gets the facts wrong? Did someone call to verify the news release the station got, to make sure the facts are all what they seem? Again, be a skeptic. Figure what you see is not true and that you need proof. Do not just take the word of the writer who wrote it before you. Ask for clarification. Make the time.

Finally, if the facts seem strange or unlikely, they probably are. Too often a producer or reporter doing a follow up will report something that just didn’t make sense but ASSUMED the person before them did the fact checking. If the facts do not pass the sniff test, demand to know where the information came from. If you are being asked to provide the information do not get offended. Make the time. Appreciate the skepticism. It could keep both of you from making the trades and being publicly humiliated. Even more important it could keep you from continuing to make a factual error that erodes credibility and/or negatively impacts people’s lives. It is your duty to ask twice. Demanding two sources, verifying what you are told and saying show me are all key elements of being a journalist. Do not let yourself and those around you make assumptions.

How To Speed Up Your Writing Time

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Dec 032015

A common discussion I have with news managers and universities looking to place recent grads, is the huge workload journalists face today. It is becoming more of the norm for reporters to barely make deadlines not because they are lazy, but because there is so much to get done. Scarier yet, there are producers in top 5 markets, still writing in the booth during newscasts. And not because of a breaker. Why is this getting so common? Two reasons. First, the workload is truly much larger. Producers for example are now often editing vo’s and vosot’s in addition to writing them. Producers are also making their own maps and graphics for air. And that’s not even getting into all the responsibilities they have on the digital side. Reporters are turning more than one piece, on completely different subjects, often on different ends of the market. And the social media expectations for them are often even higher.

The other reason why a lot is being pushed to the last minute, is that journalists are not taught tricks on how to speed up their writing time. They spend too much time prepping for writing instead of just getting the stories done. Bottom line, in a tight deadline situation, you will have to do some calculated short cuts when gathering information in order to make it. So let’s talk about some of those shortcuts.

How To Speed Up Writing Time For Producers
Focus on the W’s
Think summary
1 line = 1 idea

When writing a story from scratch, (as in not rewriting from a story that aired the newscast before) you need to condense your information quickly. This means focusing on answering the who, what, when, where, why and a little of the how when researching the story. For example if you are writing from a crime report read for these elements. Throw those facts into your story page, then go back and scan for that little nugget that makes the story a bit different (Often the how). If you approach it this way, you won’t slowly read every little bit of information and end up getting confused and re-reading the crime report 4 and 5 times. I am not saying give a quick scan and be done. But by focusing on what you really need to have as you read, you can better focus your attention and get to the core of the story quickly.

Which leads to the next point, think summary. News releases and crime reports tend to have about triple the information you need for a 15 second vo. So remember, you don’t have to memorize every detail of information, you are giving the viewer a summary of the story. This tends to help you more quickly outline the story in your head and then quickly write it.

Finally, 1 line equals 1 idea. This keeps you from “lunch bagging” a ton of information into the vo, then killing yourself to try and shorten it down to that required 15 second or 20 second mark. Think outline, 1 idea per line. Then if you have time you can flesh it out a bit after you have this skeleton script.

How To Speed Up Your Writing For Reporters

Sum It Up
Write As You Go
Know Details Before Camera Rolls

Reporters can also speed up their writing a lot by also thinking summary from the beginning. Chances are by the time you leave the editorial meeting, you know why you are assigned a certain story, and the specific point your station wants to make about that subject. Do not go out of your way to deviate from this. Sure, as you gather information sometimes the point of the story can change. If that’s happening immediately call and explain the new main idea. Again, keep thinking summary. This will help you not get bogged down in extraneous details that will never make air.

Once you have your interviews set up, write an outline of the story as you head to the scene. You should already have enough background information that you can walk into your first interview with an outline in place.

Pre-interview the person you are talking to as the camera is being set up (or as you are setting up the camera if you are an MMJ) so you know what 3 or 4 questions you actually want to get the answers for on camera. This helps you avoid scrolling through tons of video making the editing process more efficient. It will speed up your writing and editing.

The biggest takeaway from these tips is simply this: think summary. Too often journalists want to spend a lot of time finding that unique element or finding the perfect sequence of events or stories to make their package or rundown rock. If you spend too much time looking you will not have enough time to finesse. TV news is all about the packaging: Make the facts easily understandable for the ear and eye, in short order, so you don’t bury yourself in detail. You need to give a broad understanding of the story, and pick a key element to add that character. That means thinking overview from the get go. Otherwise you won’t get it done, and won’t serve the viewers at all.

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.

 

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