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.

Is TV news actually social media savvy?

I promise “Survive” is going to remain a website primarily focused on practical advice articles to help you get through your work day more easily. But occasionally, we feel the need to post an article meant to get the industry to stop, think and hopefully openly talk about important issues in newsrooms today. After all, that’s crucial to survive in TV news as well.

Over the last 5 years, “Survive” has watched as TV stations grappled with how to connect with viewers now more focused on digital news than TV. And after 5 years of watching, talking to key decision makers and digital users, a very important question needs to be asked: “Is TV news actually social media savvy?” Such a simple question, but a very complex answer.

I’m going to make the argument that TV News is not very social media savvy. Here’s why. It’s not truly understanding the nuances of why people use social media. We all know that social media is a connector. It helps people express themselves and find others who agree and disagree with what they say and do. But here’s the rub. Even though it seems like social media focuses on superficial things like the actual color of a dress, whether you’ve been to a new restaurant yet, makeup tips and GIFs, this is really scratching the surface. Trending topics and video going viral, while exciting and EASY to capitalize on, are just a small part of the power of the digital world. At its core, internet surfing and social media interaction have basic human desires behind them. Finding information. Understanding why.

Really stop and think about what you do on the internet. It helps me that I have super curious kids. Here are the last three searches my family did: Why is Easter Island called Easter Island? Why do you need fractions? Why are some metals harder to melt than others? Typical kid questions right? Now think about your latest searches. Some topics might be: Why is my insurance going up? Why did I pay more in taxes this year? What does (insert word) mean? And of course, a list of symptoms to see what illness you might have. You search up doctors to see if they get good reviews. You search to see if your home values stayed the same year to year. You check your bank balance. You check when your favorite band is coming to town. What’s on sale this week at the grocery store? And you also shop. All of that in addition to hitting your favorite news sites.

When you go on social media you want to see how your friends are doing and wait for it… what is happening in the world. I venture to guess that many of you look at what’s trending, get a chuckle out of some of it, then start looking for information other ways. Notice I used the word information. That’s intentional. Social media savvy viewers like INFORMATION.

I think the TV industry is marginalizing younger audiences. Yes, that’s a bold statement and I mean it. They think the average 20-to-38 year old just wants to watch crazy videos about the rat carrying pizza and near escapes. They only want to see selfies. What if that’s only a small fraction of what this mysterious new audience is looking at? What if they are also searching up all kinds of INFORMATION, looking to understand why things are happening the way they are? I get asked all the time by younger journalists, “Why does my boss think I only care about selfies?” “Why can’t they see that social media helps uncover what people really want to know about and cannot figure out the answer to?” I have viewers say to me all the time, “Why does TV news think I am stupid?” “Where can I get actual information about what’s happening?”

Now I can hear the nay sayers pointing out that hyper local news sites do ok for awhile then fizzle. I am going to counter with this. Maybe they weren’t actually listening to what people want to know, instead they were telling them what they should want to know. I recently started using the Nextdoor app. I can easily pitch 2 stories a week out of those discussion boards, that could hit broader audiences. And that’s by casually glancing. Some of the stories are obvious, but some of the discussions are a little surprising. And great topics for debate. Social media loves a good debate. You get to exchange INFORMATION. You get to try and discredit information too. Critical thinking.

What if digital tie-ins looked more like what happens on a typical tablet while watching TV. By TV I mean more than news. You’re watching a show. “Wait that actress looks familiar.” With a quick google search you find out who it is while still watching the show. Think of the shows with the pop-up facts. This scene actually took 10 takes to get right. I actually had the flu when we climbed this mountain. Extra INFORMATION.

The most digitally savvy journalist I personally know, attempts to add social media elements that contain tangible information to big stories. Factoids that make you want to delve even deeper into the topic, most often the why. Why did it get this way? Why is that the next step? Why did that happen? Then this journalist adds elements that are connectors. (Remember the other big reason why people get on FB each night.) Not cheesy “do you agree” throwaway pitches. Actual exchanges between people on social media.

I just have to say that simply deciding that you will look at the stories trending and make them the lead is not digitally savvy. It is an easy way out. Like the rip and read days. It will fail. It makes you look superficial and like you think the viewer is stupid. Do not under estimate the viewer who frankly is going digital to get information you are not providing. Do not give up on them either. Provide more information, in more accessible ways. Delve into the why in your digital elements. Give them a reason to want to connect to the story both on their tablets and on their big screens with great visuals and character development. These are just a few suggestions. But whatever you do, start with this thought: How can we give them more information? Not how can we manipulate them into watching? If you are into trending topics, you already saw it. That’s not NEWs. And frankly the audience hopes you are clued in enough to know it’s there. You do not have to prove you get them. Give them more of what they want:  Information and ways to connect the dots. Many are way more analytical than you are giving them credit for being. For far too long, editorial meetings have been centered around what a group of people think the audience should know, based of those decision makers own personal interests and biases. Now you have powerful tools to see what they actually want to know, and what they are struggling to find out. Serve that. Then TV news might prove itself digitally savvy after all.

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 to add “breaking” information into a newscast.

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.