Can We Rethink Live Shots?

It is time to talk about live shots: Why do them and how do they benefit the viewer? This is not the first time Survive has talked about live shots, (You know our logo shot!) including how to make a boring location more compelling, especially at night. But this issue keeps cropping up, so let’s focus on it again. Live shots are such a tremendous part of the day-to-day news cycle. Yet they are misused much of the time. They really are.

Here’s why I say that. Live shots which are just “live for the sake of being live” used to be a common marketing gimmick in the 90’s and had a real, beneficial purpose. First, it’s hard to believe now but, back then not everyone could go live everywhere. Also, if people could drive by the truck with your station logo on it, they would know you are live, in their neighborhood (or hot zip). See the station cares! But let’s think about how most live shots are now being done. Many are using backpack live units. Some newsrooms use cell phones or tablets to go live. The marketing/PR benefit of the big live truck with its mast up is really not as relevant.  

So let’s talk about why so many managers still push live for the sake of being live. (In case that term is confusing, that’s when there is no active scene or anything else to show viewers. You are standing in front of an empty building, or at the location of a scene that has been cleared.) These managers think that putting up a live chyron makes it seem like the story is immediate, relevant and therefore worth putting down your phone or tablet to only watch the television for a moment. That is wrong. Period. It also is lazy.

Live shots are effective in this digital age when you can actively show something happening. Viewers are used to seeing people live in front of action. A live chyron is simply not good enough to make something seem important or relevant, when it is not. It looks stale, feels like a trick or has no impact at all depending on how observant a particular viewer may be. Most don’t even notice the live chyron unless there is action in the shot. Go through viewer diaries and focus groups and you quickly learn this. The live chyron is just not that impressive. The action is the attention grabber.

Now, managers, I know what you are thinking: “But we have to have our crews spread across the DMA in case of breaking news. So why not also get a live shot out of the deal?” I am going to argue that it would be more effective to have those crews stationed around the market, turning in packages with interesting stand-ups which showcase and interacting with viewers on social media. Now that doesn’t mean making them do a Facebook live hit at the empty building. I mean actually interact. Look at posts from viewers and like ones that are appropriate. Look for something that might be a story for tomorrow. Try and get some facts. Be ready to take off on that breaker. Bottom line: Instead of standing in front of an empty building or a dead, boring scene, waiting on time cues, it would be far better to focus on providing extra information on digital platforms and/or find the next good stories to cover. Staffing is not getting any larger, and reporters could use extra time to search for stories, talk with sources and showcase more information online. How often do you lament the fact that reporters do not have good pitches in editorial meetings? This is an opportunity to give them some time to find the good stories. Yes, this is a big change in thinking for some of you. But it could revolutionize how you gather information and make your news gathering better and more efficient. 

If there is an active scene, of course, show it off. Do multiple hits if there is new information. To be clear, if a court hearing is about to wrap up, that’s an active scene. If people were just taken to the hospital and you are at the hospital waiting on condition reports, yes, that is an active scene. Sometimes you cannot get around being live in front of a building. But far too often there is no point for a reporter to stand somewhere live, other than the EP said the reporter “has to be live.”

To wrap up,  live shots are a great part of television news when done correctly and in a way that has impact. That means showcasing an active scene, being at a scene because new information is imminent or being able to walk through the remnants of a scene and visually showcase what happened. All of these examples help the viewer gain greater understanding of the story. If there is nothing to show, and no new information about to come from the scene, skip the insistence on the live bug. Instead allow the crew to focus more on digital coverage, source building or story gathering for the next day. That’s how the TV industry should rethink live shots. Viewers will reward you for it.

Are Facts The “New” TV Stars? Thank Millennials.

In the past two weeks, the TV news industry has taken a very bold stand. The fact that both Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer where fired over sexual harassment allegations is huge. Many old timers are shocked that it was not just swept under the rug or they were told, “Hey just don’t do it again (wink wink).” But I am going to argue that these firings are not necessarily a symbol that harassment is no longer acceptable in the workplace. Instead I am going to say this: Content managers just got a lot more power. Use it wisely.

NBC and CBS did not do this completely to be PC. While these moves are bold and could represent big profit losses short term, I think they’ve banked on a trend that’s been building for awhile. The audience they need to reach wants facts. The content is becoming more important than the person delivering it.

We’ve seen this coming for awhile. But the slow trend just sped up. TV news is refocusing on strong content generators, not just pretty faces. This is key to understand for a couple of reasons. First if you just like being on TV and could care less about what you read and report, your career may be a lot shorter than if you started 10 years ago. Secondly, producers and managers can finally start demanding more money because they have more of a clear cut impact on the success of a newscast. NBC would not have put the entire Today Show brand in jeopardy if it felt the show was being led by a bunch of morons. That’s the simple truth. NBC obviously has confidence in the content leaders on staff at Today to put together compelling shows that will continue to draw audience. Same with CBS and it’s rising star CBS This Morning.

I have said this before and will say it again. In order to gain millennials as fans and viewers you need to stop talking down to them. You need to stop focusing on just the “look” of the newscast. Millennials want substance. Tell me something I don’t already know or don’t waste my time. That phrase should be printed out and placed on top of your computer screen if you are a journalist. And this should be your other mantra: be right or don’t do it at all. NBC and CBS also just showed that they think they have diversified enough they do not have to depend on newscasts being their main profit generators long term. Otherwise Charlie and Matt would have been reprimanded only. When there was a risk reward analysis both were considered expendable. That is shocking for industry old timers. We watched these types of “icons” literally play god in newsrooms across the country. They could do and say whatever and it was allowed. Not anymore and that’s because the audience has sent a message. Facts are more important than messengers.

If TV news wants to stay relevant and profitable, it is time to focus on good journalism. Get to the root of why there were newscasts in the first place. Tell me something I don’t already know or don’t waste my time. Its time to demand that managers, producers and writers are paid better. The trend toward bulking up investigative units will continue in 2018. If you love “doing good journalism” now is the time to shine. And you just might save the industry to boot. Thank you millennials for demanding to know more. And please TV news industry leaders, wake up and realize millennials don’t like stupid gimmicks. Give them more credit. Provide the facts, spell out details and give options to learn even more. You heard some of the message. These two firings are proof. Now be brave and act. Truly make the facts the stars of TV news again.

 

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.

 

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.