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

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?

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

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.

Calling out mistakes publicly: delivery is key

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?

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.”