Lessons learned from the Flood of ’93. The crisis that seemed like it would never end.

You’ve heard it said, often, “this is uncharted territory.” In many ways coverage of COVID-19 is uncharted territory, especially with so many technological advances. But for some of us, there are similarities to an event we covered awhile back, the midwestern flood of ’93. The scale was obviously smaller than the global pandemic. But for our region it was all encompassing. Some of the lessons we learned could help you navigate this intense time.

The first thing we learned was not to overplay events. We avoided superlatives. People were losing their homes, entire neighborhoods, towns, crops and others were getting sick from the flood water. It was especially hard watching families learn they would have to give up the land that many generations before had lived upon. How to start again? The constant stories of loss were hard. There were inspirational stories too. But sometimes you really had to look. The coverage quickly became hard for viewers to watch. We had to temper it somehow. So we chose to stick with facts and not embellish. We also looked for the “heroes” as much as we could.

This time around it can be harder to tell the hero stories since it is frankly too risky to cover a lot of the stories on the front lines in hospitals. But the stories of people stepping up and helping are still important and it can be most effective to let these stories tell themselves with longer bites, natural sound or just showing the Facebook post with no commentary around it. Notice I did not say no background. That’s different. Background is information that gives context to what the viewer is seeing. But in today’s world we’ve encouraged anchors and reporters to put themselves in the stories and discuss their feelings too. We were asked to do the same in our flood coverage back in ’93. It worked at first. But as coverage continued and the damage kept coming, we felt it starting to backfire. Managers should really try and sit down every few days and gut check the coverage this way. Sometimes there’s just too much human emotion in newscasts for viewers to handle. Anchor commentary is an easy thing to reduce. The facts are craved. So, feed more of them to viewers. 

Another big lesson we learned is, the viewer isn’t with you all day consuming every minute detail of the events the entire time. They are immersed in the situation in a different way. Do not assume they know the basics.  Many are trying to work, clean, teach the kids, cook, order groceries you catch my drift. So they may not be as clear on things like, how much did the flood water rise (flood of ’93) or how much COVID-19 cases in your area have increased overnight. Don’t assume they know know when the river will crest (flood of ’93) or the latest projections for the surge to happen. Viewers like hearing that information every time. Because they are not watching you all the time. They are not reading your updates all day long on the website, Twitter and App blasts etc. In fact they are purposely taking breaks to try and escape the harsh realities. When they do look, they want it boiled down so they do not have to linger too long. The lingering causes more anxiety and stress. This is good to keep in mind for story selection, which elements to showcase and how much you push crews for new content. I am fond of the saying “this is a marathon not a sprint.” It really applies to coverage of COVID-19. Do not withhold important facts. But if you are working on a lot of sidebars and a huge development happens you can hold the sidebars for a mini lull in coverage. It’s better to eat a huge meal in courses rather than shoving it all down your throat at once.

The next two nuggets are for crews braving it in the trenches each day. First and foremost, big gets are great, but safety is more important. This kind of coverage really dictates that you give relevant information that can get your viewer through the day well informed. That means practical elements. Did cases go up overnight? Is Lowe’s closing tomorrow? Is toilet paper finally in plentiful supply? If not, when? There is a place for big gets like a company hiding supplies, people stockpiling items for black market sales etc. But the daily, practical, very useful information will more than satisfy the viewer starved for information and clarity. And you can stay safe. Going into hot zones just to show what is happening and that you were there, is just not smart. Ask people in the hot zones to send you video from their phones. Set up a Zoom session with someone. But make sure your safety is a high priority.

During the floods I drove into a rural area where the flood water was about to crest. My car got stuck. No cell phones back then. But, luckily, a farmer with a tractor came by just in time to save my car and drag it to his house. I filed my live report from his kitchen phone, while his wife made dinner. I made deadline. But my manager was furious. All he kept saying was that the perspective was nice, but it was not worth possibly loosing me! I never forgot that lecture. Please heed that advice. Especially MMJ’s. I was one for part of that flood coverage. It was scary and lonely and I got into a few tight spots. I could have played it safer and brought viewers the same relevant information.

On your days off try and take a break from the story as much as possible. It will not be hard to catch back up and you need to feel that life can go on without the story. When the floods finally tapered off, many of us really came down hard from the intensity of the coverage. Those that took mental breaks on their off days seemed to bounce back faster. You have a right to nurture your own mental health too. 

Finally, this one is for the bosses. If you have the resources try and have someone looking for non COVID-19 stories each day also. There are plenty. And some could be very important. Even one strong non COVID-19 story every few days can make a huge difference to your staff and your viewers psychologically. It also gets you geared up to start thinking about how to transition out of this coverage when the time comes. (More on that in an upcoming article.)

We covered the after effects of the flood of ’93 for years. It eventually became half of each newscast, then a section, then a story and finally an occasional look back. But at its height it was all encompassing. You literally lived and breathed the stories. Many of us were canoeing to places after our live shots in order to help people sandbag. We helped with fundraisers in our off time. We got attached to families we covered and did check-ins. It was one of the most draining, but also gratifying, times in my career. It was excruciating to sit by unable to help as the raging water took another house, town and person’s dreams. The illnesses from the water spread and we had to get Tetanus shots. You never forget the smell once the water recedes and the mud sticks to walls like cement. Then as the cleanup began we were able to help people find hope with information on programs, support groups and even Army Corps of Engineers designs to prevent another breach in an area that often swelled. We dealt with the swarms of mosquitos and fears of the diseases they carry. Being a journalist who could help provide key facts at key times was extremely hard, but also very rewarding. Hopefully many of you will be able to look back and know you helped a family, a business, or a community survive and prosper because of the hours you put in, the extra fact checking you did and the stories you shared. Good luck and Godspeed. (FYI Image used was taken by Sam Leone and used in newspapers across the country in mid July 1993)

How to tell if you are putting too much information into a story.

Writers are being asked to write more, in different formats and faster than before.

You have to decide what is better served on a digital platform (more on that in an upcoming article), or shown on a big monitor. You are told the pacing has to be high, but still understandable. You need to showcase. You need to think of your audience. No mistakes. The list goes on and on.

But with all the talk of transforming graduates into the digital age and futuristic journalists, there are still glaring issues in newsrooms today; very little writing training and often even less copy editing. You are thrown into the fire quickly, and you simply must perform.

One of the biggest challenges is learning how to write a relevant story, concisely and with the correct facts mentioned. This can be really confusing when being told to write quickly, to the video and saving a nugget for digital. We need to start with the basics. What does a well written story look/sound like?

Let’s delve in and help lay a strong foundation with a simple formula that can help you with a clear outline for your stories, no matter the format.

ELEMENTS OF A STRONG STORY

The sell

Video available

Facts explaining the sell

(ie relevant information so viewer can understand the story)

Looks simple right? Well its not for many until they practice a lot and get the hang of it.

So let’s start breaking things down.

VO’s.

When you title a story in your rundown, even a vo, you should aim to put the sell in the story slug or a unique element. Yep you read that correctly. But you only have a few words to work with, right? Keep in mind, you also will use that slug to find the story from now until the end of time. The slug cannot be a throw away. 

Let’s go through some examples:  House Fire is too generic. Think about it, you will have to scroll through dozens to find it for a follow up later. Child escapes house fire is better.  Or fire on Smith Street. Fire downtown can sometimes work but try and get even more specific. That’s part of the relevance. Fire in BBT Building, is likely how you will refer to it in the future. That’s why you hear things like Parkland shooting or Pulse shooting for example when discussing ongoing elements of these stories. The location helps to immediately identify the story. Some Tampa journalists will know this slug too; lobster man in court. The case was covered extensively in part because of the defendant’s deformity.  It was a unique element that caused viewer interest. The sell.

Once you have boiled a story down in the slug it is easier to write the story, no matter the format. The second thing you should immediately consider is the video. This is important whether you are writing a vo, vo/sot or package. Heck it is crucial when writing teases and opens as well. What image depicts the story best? Is it a static image or moving? If it is static you might want to put it in a monitor and have the anchor directly reference it in the first line or anchor intro. If it is moving, do you need to take it full natural sound up for a few seconds? Is the video itself your sell? Ask that every time.

Now that you defined the sell, and referenced an image right away, explain what the viewer is seeing and why they should care. This should play out easily. The fire is still burning up this house on this street. This family barely got out. This neighbor helped or watched terrified. Firefighters are still on the scene.

Let’s take one of the hardest subjects to boil down, a court case. When using the outline above it gets easier to boil the case down.

A court case story should start out this way:   Now an update on this case (that surprises, captures attention or fascinates viewers for a specific reason). Court video rolls… (since you defined the case and sell summarize the latest) today the person accused of stealing money from the company said it was a lie. The attorney for the company said that’s not true because of this and this fact (two most interesting/relevant ones). We have more on the court hearing on our website. Why did I mention that? Court hearings are the number one story overwritten in newscasts period. So the writer whether it is an associate producer who drew the short straw or the reporter stuck sitting in the courtroom all day needs to know right away that explaining everything will only confuse the viewer. You must boil down the highlights. Then do not be afraid to add more details on the website for people who love all the nitty gritty.

One other important note, yes, the video is mentioned early in the court story even if it is static. Why? It is part of the sell. The case is in court. You cannot make up more than is there, and you need to reference reality. You can use file from the scene if you like at some point too, but reference it directly. That is part of showing the relevant information in the story.

A final note, the outline above for how to write a good story does not have the five w’s and the all important how mentioned. Why? Not all will fit, or be relevant information at that point in the description of the story. That’s why the sell is the most important part of what you write. Sometimes the sell is we finally know why something happened. Or how. Sometimes we only know where, what and when. Trying to answer all of these elements every time, every story causes the copy to get bulky and increases the risk of fact errors. Especially when covering  breaking or developing news. Be clear about what you do know. Be clear about why you are reporting on the story (the sell). Do not make assumptions about facts. Only state what you absolutely know. If you find that you are writing and writing and the vo is 50 seconds long chances are you either do not know the sell of the story and are adding elements hoping to find the point, or you do not understand the facts well enough to tell the story yet. Same thing with long packages and/or long anchor intros into your package. If you have a really long story, you need to step back, look at our checklist above and start again. 

Hope this helps you boil your stories down more. You can even take past copy you’ve written and then put it to the outline test. By doing that you should quickly see where your writing crutches and/or pitfalls are so you can eliminate them. 

I keep having to write in the booth. What am I doing wrong?

More and more I hear producers say they are writing portions of their newscasts in the booth. I have to tell you, that used to be a big no no, unless there was breaking news and you had to write it, to get the breaker on the air. Otherwise, no excuse. In fact, you could’ve lost your producing gig if you were still writing in the booth, a lot.

Nowadays I often hear from producers who say things like, “I do alright. I only have to write 4 or 5 stories in the booth.”  Not okay. I understand staffing is tight. I understand some are making their own graphics and editing their own video. I don’t want to sound harsh, but I had similar duties “back in the day” before digital editing allowed you to drag and drop VO’s very quickly. You can get your work done before you head into the booth and you need to. A huge part of producing is being a critical set of eyes to help prevent fact errors, misspelling and incorrect video from rolling during the newscast. If you are looking at your screen, writing copy, you cannot do this effectively and your newscast will suffer. It may not happen today. But it will happen.

So, if you are still having to write in the booth, it’s time to keep a log of how much time you spend on various aspects of putting your newscast together. You also need to ask yourself if you are delegating. If you have a bunch of breakers, and it’s time to head to the booth, assign the next producer up to help you. Notice I said assign. Don’t ask. Tell. If you have an EP at that time, tell the EP which stories still need to be done. I know this is hard to do. It seems like a failure for some. But being distracted in the booth fails the entire staff who are part of your newscast that day. That is just the simple truth. After your show offer to write some stories to help that producer who bailed you out. It’s the right thing to do and the next time you may not have to tell them. They may just pitch in and do it.

Another hard truth: Most of the time, when you are writing in the booth, it’s not because a few stories came in late. It’s because you did not effectively use your time earlier in your shift so that you are prepared for the few late stories that happen every single day. In other words, late breaking news is not an excuse. You have to structure your day to be ready for it. Get it done early so the daily “surprises” become no big deal.

When you log your day, you need to take a hard look at several key deadlines. Do you spend 3 or 4 hours designing your rundown before you start cranking your writing? Do you spend 2 hours looking for stories and sources before you start loading your rundown? Do you write top down in your rundown? The answers to these three questions are crucial. If you spend 3 or 4 hours designing your rundown before you start cranking your writing, you set yourself up for failure. You need to focus on sections of your rundown. The news keeps changing. Look at segments like consumer/health/regional news and start with those. Yes, a new and better story could show up later. But it is easier to write one more story and kill something else, than to slam write several things, just to fill your newscast, while you are on the air.

Same with spending two hours looking for stories before designing your rundown. Some days great content comes in slowly. But there will be some content you can start writing earlier in the day. Again design sections if you need. Focus on the rundown coming together 3 hours before the show. This may mean stories you wrote move around in the newscast or get killed. But it’s better to have more written early if you can. I’m talking about things like memorable moments and required segments. Crank them out. For more help on how to speed up your writing time check out this article.

So by now it should be clear why you do not focus on writing the newscast from the top down. Think about it. The top of your newscast changes constantly. The lower sections much less so. If you can have your newscast mostly written by three hours before air, then you have 2 hours to fine tune it, and an hour to add breaking news at the last minute. This is an achievable goal. It will take work and it will take discipline. You need to give yourself deadlines each day. But you will get a rhythm down and your newscasts will improve greatly. Best of all you will no longer have to ask yourself: What am I doing wrong?

Mass Shootings: How to determine what to cover and how much?

Unfortunately covering mass shootings keeps happening. I might even argue that journalism schools should seriously consider offering courses or at least workshops on the ethical challenges of covering these types of events. Journalists need guidelines. The coverage of these events can truly make or break our credibility with the audience long term. The subject matter is getting harder and harder to take as an audience. They are all too happy to be done with you and your coverage.

In my current role, I am finding myself having to train producers and managers on how to cover these events not only as they happen, but in the days after. RTDNA came out with an excellent article that everyone should book mark with solid ways to check the ethics of your content. But this Survive article is going to focus on different types of litmus tests that you need to start implementing.

RTDNA article mentions that stations should have breaking news coverage plans and guidelines. I whole heartedly agree. BUT I worked for several companies over the years that REF– USED to make these types of plans because they feared someone would not follow the plans. A mistake, when there was a guideline or perceived guideline, could make the company more liable. Yes you did read that right. Nothing in writing. Just whispers among managers.

And there is another big issue we have to consider: These shootings often happen when managers are not in the station and are hardest to reach. You know the middle of the night and the weekend. Guidelines would be fantastic. But for those of you stuck in the same world I lived in, you likely will go through the beginning part of this coverage basically alone. Most staffs on the weekend are simply a producer, a reporter, hopefully a photojournalist and the assignment desk person (If you don’t have to double duty and answer the phones while you produce.) doing the best they can. The anchors come later. So this article is geared more toward that bare bones team. It also is geared toward when the story hits and its not in your DMA but you have to put it on the air. This is the kind of training that just doesn’t happen much. You do the best you can and hope you don’t screw up.

The biggest things to consider as a TV journalist when these stories hit are as follows:

What does the scene look like (as in can I show anything)?
How reliable is the information I am getting?
Could this situation keep changing?
Is this too hard to take as a viewer?
When do we stop covering the story?

Now this list looks weird and I will fully admit on the surface is nowhere near as ethically clear a set of questions as the RTDNA article I referenced above. Remember, have that handily bookmarked ok?

This is the list though that any producer in any size market is IMMEDIATELY faced with solving. Remember, I am writing this article as though it is not happening in your DMA. I mentioned the other players in the newsroom because they will become your co-gut checkers throughout this list as you design coverage. This will make more sense when you read some previous articles on gut checking.

TV news is visual. You have to consider the scene images IMMEDIATELY. I have this idea listed first for a very important reason. Most often we lose credibility with the viewer over HOW we show the story. Yes. SHOW. That is even more impactful than what we say. Why? Because of how people take in information fundamentally as they learn. Look at this interesting set of facts about visual learning which sites many sources. Common thought is 65 percent of people are VISUAL learners. So they are watching that video and teaching themselves about it as they watch. Just stop and really think about that for a moment. Survive has long preached the “show it explain it” idea of writing to video. This is why. People turn on the TV to SEE what is happening. So you have to first and foremost think about how that looks to them. I am going to take the Las Vegas shooting video as an example. Hearing the rapid fire and seeing the people running and ducking for cover was INTENSE. It was hard to take. We can all agree on that. It was very important to show. But it was hard to take. And you had to immediately ask, “How often do I want to play this in my newscast?” “What do we say as we show this?” This is where your co-journalists come in handy. Ask them to scan your rundown (since hopefully everyone is mobile enough to take a peek). Ask them to watch the video. How many times would they want to hear those gunshots an hour? Is that interview just too hard to watch? Gut check each other.

Now because you are focusing on video first, it can be easier to sniff out information that just does not make sense. Too often you look at the breaking alerts and run with the information, then tell the editor to just slam down whatever video is available. This is one of the areas that causes not only fact errors, but also shows a detachment to the coverage of the story that viewers sense and find annoying. I cannot tell you how many times I hear anchors say one thing, and the images seem to show either nothing even close to that description or the opposite. You have to consider images first if they exist. And nowadays the wait time for images is usually short. You cannot take video at face value for sure, but images partnered with fact checking will help you root through information that doesn’t match up. It just sets up your brain to be more discerning from the beginning. Also remember if something you read or hear just seems weird to you, trust your gut, double and triple check.

Could this situation keep changing is something you need to constantly ask yourself. This will help you design the coverage in a way that allows you to change things up more easily. Whether it is determining how often to show a piece of video, or to hold off a bit on that sheriff soundbite or witness testimony. Are you expecting more sound in 15 minutes? It also helps you look at your chyrons with a more critical eye. Remember, visuals imprint on people’s memories more than words. When you super how many dead, knowing there is a good chance the situation could change, it is harder for the viewer to discern this is fluid information.I t doesn’t matter if there is a breaking news banner. Viewers tune graphic packaging like live bugs and breaking news banners out way more than journalists often realize. In their eyes, you could be putting up an error, and keeping it on the screen. When you are trying to understand something of the magnitude of a mass shooting, the simpler the better all around: Your graphics treatment, what chyron says, your full screens lines and images. Everything. Keep it simple and clear. Asking will this change will help remind you to look closely at what you are writing right then. Will it stand up to the test of time or are you assuming things?

 

You will not get all the facts right likely because these situations are fluid. But too many newsrooms accept “oh well it was breaking” as an excuse not to be critical over every element and look ahead for possible discrepancies, changes and frankly facts that seem a little off. You have to question everything you see and hear. Do not just assume it was fact checked. Asking “could this change“ helps you see possible holes in the story as it develops.

The next question delves into designing a newscast that viewers can emotionally handle. When something intense like this happens it is hard for you to emotionally detach from all you are seeing and hearing. Many feel an INTENSE need to cram every little element in and really play up the emotion of it all because you are saturated by it yourseld. Frankly it can become very all consuming. Now let me say, I am not encouraging you to downplay anything, but keeping it simple, sticking to what you really need to know about what’s happening right now, helps you decide what to include and what to leave out. A lot of coverage now is getting preachy.  If we can agree to focus on showing what is going on and letting the events play out without adding additional commentary, it will greatly help you put a newscast on the air that the viewer can emotionally handle. When we insert our own emotions heavily into the copy, or add a lot of adjectives and adverbs it can actually make the viewer detach from the intense reality of this. 9/11 coverage was very impactful because there was very little of the anchors and reporters talking about their feelings on air. They let the people in the middle of the events talk. They literally opened a window for us to experience what was happening. You could keep watching or turn away when needed. The commentary came later. With such an emotionally charged nation right now, its really important that journalists focus on the 5 w’s first. Your emotions are important as a person. But let viewers have a window into the event that is not clouded by your opinion of the events. This is where those gut checks with coworkers is super important. And this is where you try and wake up your manager in the middle of the night to ask, “Is this enough coverage or too much?” If they do not respond, just ask these questions repeatedly of yourself and do the best you can.

The final question to ask when designing coverage is when do we stop covering the story? The answer is really almost too simple. When you run out of new information to share. Not a new video or soundbite that is similar to the last 10 you ran. New information. When you run out of the facts, and have allowed viewers to witness some of the event with good use of video and sound, then recap and move on for a bit. Viewers appreciate you not droning on and on. They understand this is a big deal. Frankly all of us sometimes need to “turn off” the event for a few minutes to let it sink in. Droning on and on with nothing new actually causes people to emotionally detach and lose interest. Again, I think we can all agree these events are too large scale to risk alienating the audience. Remember, this article is focused on when the event is not in your DMA. When to stop covering an event gets more complicated when it is in your DMA. Do not fear waking up your bosses to ask if this is enough coverage as well. Especially if there’s no guidelines to go by. If you cannot get a call back, focusing on not repeating information over and over, will help you make this key decision.

I sincerely hope this article helps you be able to discern what to show, what to report and when to take a break from coverage. These events are not as clear cut as most breaking news, so you have to remember question everything especially hard. Really look at your sources. And lean on fellow journalists to do the best you can to give the most accurate information. Once coverage ends, write down what worked and didn’t. Over time you will have a more established outline for coverage of mass shootings to go by as a frame of reference.