Can you really tell the difference in news philosophies during daily coverage?

When I talk to journalists, one of the first questions I always ask is what is your news philosophy? It is pretty surprising how few can actually give me a defined answer besides, “I love breaking news” or “We do new, now, next” at our station. Some even go on to say, “Does it really matter if I have one? “

You can work at places with different news philosophies. I did. But I stuck to stations that had the same basic core beliefs in what journalism means. The one time I did not stick to that, I was so miserable I literally hated work. You need a news philosophy to help guide your writing style, and how you look at content. It also needs to align with your own moral compass.

Which gets to the title of this article. Can you really tell the difference in news philosophies during daily coverage? Yes you can. This is important because news philosophies are supposed to help prevent bias from playing into your coverage. At least that’s how “Big J”ers see it. That’s what you should be learning in journalism school. But the reality is this: News philosophies dictate the spin you give your audience to try and disseminate facts. They just do. And there are spins more often than not in coverage.

I am going to take the GOP healthcare bill coverage from last week as an example. The links I am providing are from news organizations that operate with a news philosophy centered in advocacy; giving people the information they need to know about issues that directly impact their lives. So the GOP healthcare bill is the perfect litmus test. First browse these articles all aimed at explaining what the bill entails:
CNN http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/04/politics/health-care-vote/
NBC http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/here-s-what-you-need-know-about-health-care-bill-n754611
FOX http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/05/04/republican-health-care-bill-whats-in-it.html
ABC http://abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory/house-republican-health-care-bill-47197063
NPR http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/05/04/526887531/heres-whats-in-the-house-approved-health-care-bill?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=politics&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20170504
Politico http://www.politico.com/story/2017/05/04/gop-health-care-bill-details-explained-237987?lo=ap_e2

Even if you just scan these articles you can see, they are using largely the same sources. Yet all are a little different. Each has some sort of spin.

If you are a journalist you need to remind yourself that your biases come out. And your bosses spins do too. That is going to become more prevalent than ever before with the way recent mergers are playing out. Determining your news philosophy is no longer a folly. If you go work somewhere that has a spin you hate, you can really negatively impact your career as a journalist. If you cannot identify news philosophies quickly, you could end up in a place where you are miserable. The industry is about to get so small that burning bridges will be a very costly mistake, more so than ever before.

So look hard at the links provided. Really define what you think a journalist is and stick to newsrooms that largely agree. Spins are becoming more and more accepted in journalism. So you need to be ready to personally live with the type of stories you do and the stations you align with as an employee. Its a survival technique I never anticipated writing about when I got into the biz. But it is a way of life now.

How to break down a lot of information.

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

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.

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.