Attribution In The Digital Age

Honing Skills, Survival Kit, Writing Help Comments Off on Attribution In The Digital Age
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.

 

How To Self Critique A Newscast

Know Your Newsroom, Producing Comments Off on How To Self Critique A Newscast
Sep 062015

More and more news managers require newscast critiques for anyone going for editorial positions. This is great because it helps the managers “see how you think” on many levels. The trouble is many producers have no idea how to do newscast critiques. Part of this is because many never get their shows critiqued by management. They may hear “The A-Block did not work.” or “Those teases did not hit well.” But that’s not a true critique.

So let’s talk about how to practice newscast critiques with your own or your station’s work. The best part is that it will help you grow as a content manager.

When self critiquing you need to consider the following items:

Does The Subject Flow Make Sense?
Did Production Values Work?
Is Branding Clear?

Obviously, this is a broad overview to get you started. True critiques are works of art unto themselves. But everything begins with the flow of the newscast. By this we mean more than the obvious did you put a sad story next to a cheery story. That often happens especially when having to kill stories for time. For more on how to avoid those issues read Emotional Toll.  We are going super basic here. Did each story make sense? Did the order you picked make sense? When you sit and watch the show afterwards are you left with a lot of lingering questions about the stories, or did the viewer truly get the information needed? Subject flow involves correct order of stories, related content themes (crime/crime or economy/economy) and some showcasing. Did the breakout you added make sense for the story after all? Was there too much crime mentioned in a row? Sometimes what looks good in outline form, doesn’t look right on the air.

Which leads to the next big item to consider. Did the production values put in place work? With so many new fancy sets, and emphasis on incorporating more graphics, more social media references and more spots for anchors to stand/sit and present information, newscasts can look very disjointed very quickly. Then, even if your subject flow is on the mark, viewers can still come away from a show saying “Huh?” So you need to grab a newscast every so often, then sit and watch it with a critical eye. Did each production element you used, from that cool monitor graphic to that map to the pan/zoom in the middle of the A-block, make sense? (If you are working on how to even do these things in the first place check out our article Produce It Up.) When I work with producers on building their skill sets, one of the things I see time and again are periods where the producer goes from too little production value to too much. There is too much when you watch the newscast and are left thinking about all the cool looks in the newscast, but can barely remember what the content was that day. Also, when you watch, if you find yourself pulling back in your chair or whipping your neck around to keep up, that’s too much movement.

Finally, we have to talk about branding. Frankly, if TV journalists are savvy at all they realize much of their job now is selling the content. We can argue if this is right or wrong. But truthfully, most stations focus on what content makes air based on brand. So you need to know your brand and you need to watch newscasts to see if the way you presented the content is true to the brand. If you are an “Asking the Tough Questions” station, then an A-block with more than thirty quick 15-second vo’s is not true to brand. That’s the simple truth. Your brand requires more breakouts and more phrases like: “So we went to the (expert) and got you more (facts/information/answers).”

In summary, when you self critique you need to sit down, no distractions and watch the newscast as an informed viewer would. Obviously you cannot look at things just like your Mom or friend who’s not in the biz does. But you are skilled enough to watch and notice if you are missing the mark in one or more of these areas. You should be able to say “That didn’t make sense.” or “I can’t remember half of what the anchor just said.” If you do this weekly, you will quickly figure out your strengths and weaknesses so you can work on both. (If you want to get even more nitty gritty when self critiquing read Humble Pie.) So here’s to self critiques!

Making Desk Calls: The Risk To Your Credibility

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Jul 262015

Recently there was a bunch of talk on Twitter about why anchors sometimes feel the need to make producing calls from the desk during a newscast. Producers talked about ways they try and prevent this from happening by being proactive before the show. Others discussed how this really causes them to lose respect for the anchors. Mostly though, the discussion centered on why then?

Let me quantify, this is not in reference to anchors who also produce the show and have no choice. We are talking about anchors who sit on the desk and ask the producer to move things around in the rundown or say they aren’t going to read story such and such or are going to mention a breaker next. This is a slippery slope. The biggest reason may surprise you. In today’s “everything has to be automated world” it can be very hard to just move things around on the fly. The anchor could be setting him or herself up for a major live mess up.

Some anchors make the argument it is worth the risk because they are seasoned journalists and the producer is green. I totally see that. Understand there are likely times the anchor is absolutely making the right call. The issue here is the timing.

Possible technical snafus aside, anchors making quick on desk decisions exposes something anchors should never want discussed. Lack of dedication. That newscast was not put together in a vacuum. Chances are high the story you want moved was in the rundown for hours before the newscast. Even if the producer writes copy late, you can at least check to see what each story is about based on slug, so you are informed of the subject matter. That is part of an anchor’s prep work before a newscast. Just sitting back and waiting for the scripts to come in is never a good way to gain credibility. If you want it moved up, you better know the facts of the story very well. You are taking a big risk that you will be ad libbing. You want to make sure you absolutely know what you are talking about.

Then there’s the issue of who’s really in charge during a live newscast. There needs to be a clear chain of command. Too many decisions are made on the fly. It needs to be clear to all involved who is making the call. No hesitation. Bottom line, even if that producer is half your age, management gave that producer that designation.

One last clarification. If the producer is trying to throw in a breaker, and the anchor doesn’t know what is happening, he/she may be forced to “make a call” on the set. This is more of an extreme circumstance and should not be lumped in with the points being made in this article. The anchor has to make sure fact errors do not come out of their mouth during breaking news. There is no time to check ahead of time in this case. But if the story has been in the newscast, even as a slug for hours, the producer should be the only voice making decisions to move things around during the live newscast.

Is That Really Breaking?

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May 182015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why You Should Always Have Extra Stories In Your Rundown

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Jan 072015

One of the most challenging parts of producing is making your meter points.
Some stations even penalize if you go over or under time by as little as 15 to 20 seconds, per block. Even if your station is not that picky, you have to make time at the end of your newscast.

The problem is, between chat, reporters turning in packages late or providing the wrong TRT and adding live shots and breaking news, it can be hard to time. That’s why you need escape routes for each meter point/news block.

So here’s a secret veteran producers know, that helps make sure they hit those key times, every time, no matter what. It all begins with putting extra stories in your rundown. You ideally want to put in 2 or 3 vo’s, some vo/sots and even a pkg just in case. Different producers do this different ways. But, I find, the easiest is to put them at the bottom of the rundown with the times zeroed out in your timing program. Then make sure they are edited right along with the rest of the newscast and ready to go.

Before you say “that’s just extra work and I do enough already” consider this. I did not say NEW stories. These can be alternate versions of stories in the newscast. Just make sure there is at least one “go to” option per block to add or shorten time. Veteran producers often add a line or two or a sidebar type story that gives depth to at least one story per block for showcasing opportunities. If you get heavy, that can go. Some write a vo/sot version of a vo in a block, so they can just sub out the longer version if they are suddenly really short during their newscast. Frankly, you are already going over the material, so writing a second version is fast and pretty painless.

These can also be stories from earlier newscasts that you flirted with putting in the newscast, but ran out of time or decided something else was more relevant. Every producer has those stories you initially will run, that get pushed out for something else. Just keep them at the bottom of the newscast, and zero the time out. Sometimes these don’t even mean more editing. They can be real life savers.

In terms of a backup package, this is something on the feeds that makes sense to put in your rundown lower down or at the end of a block. This precaution is great if you suddenly cannot get a live shot or a big breaker falls through. Always have vos and vo/sots first. This is a good last resort option if you are really light. But it can save you on and off and is worth striving for daily.

Just remember, time block-by-block. Have backups for each block to shorten or lengthen the segment. A little extra work, creating different versions of a few stories is totally worth it. Hitting meter points and timing your newscast correctly is expected and highly doable, you just need to do a little pre-planning.

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