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)

Safety First!

Recently I stumbled across an important post to the “Storytellers” group on Facebook. (If you are in the TV news business and are not a member, here is link to join https://www.facebook.com/groups/TVNewsStroytellers/?epa=SEARCH_BOX.) One of the members told the story of recently having to tell the newsroom that, as the field crew, they did not feel safe doing a live shot in the location requested and that they then moved to a safer location. He asked members of the group what they thought. I was so happy to see that everyone who responded did so with the message of safety first. While I believe that this is the overall attitude in local newsrooms, but there can be exceptions.

I spent the final 16-years of my 28-year daily TV news career in Central Florida. Before that, I worked in the Cleveland, Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville, Columbia, SC and Savannah markets. There are some universal truths no matter market size. The struggle over crew safety is one of them.

In Savannah, back in the early 1990’s, crew safety was often a concern because of the high rate (per capita) of violent crime. Crews were often asked to do live shots at the scene of volatile crime scenes. In my stops in the Carolinas, weather coverage, including hurricanes brought up the subject almost every year. In Cleveland, it was weather and crime.

Central Florida is no stranger to violent crime and associated live shots. But, in my experience, the overwhelming majority of crew safety issues have to do with weather coverage. The corridor along I-4, from Tampa to Daytona Beach is among the most lightning-prone on earth. During storm season lightning is a near daily occurrence during early evening news time. And as we all hopefully know, if you can hear thunder, you can be struck. The general lightning safety rule dictates staying indoors for a half hour after the last clap is heard. And, no, it does not matter if you are not in a live truck with a giant metal lightning rod sticking out the top. You can just as easily be struck if you are standing in a storm while live via a backpack unit or even just your smartphone.  

While I was still working, requests for live shots during stormy weather were common. To be fair, the decision makers in the newsroom often do not know what the weather is like where each crew is at a given time. So, when the request comes in, it is up to the crew to let them know. If I could see lightning or hear thunder, I steadfastly refused to go live. Much of the time, it would be met with a huge sigh and a response of “Fine.” At times I would get a call back saying something like “Well, I see that (insert name or station here) is live at the same place. Why can’t you be live?” I still refused. No assignment is worth your health, safety or life.

There are other examples, especially during Florida’s annual hurricane season. But I will not belabor the point with more stories. Nearly all of us have been there. The important thing here is how should you handle it if this happens to you? Ultimately, you have to decide that for yourself. But, here’s what I did. I would first explain why we felt unsafe in as much detail as possible and with the videographer in the vehicle listening. If the newsroom still insisted, I would say something like: “O.K., I want to make sure we are on the same page as to what’s happening here. I am telling you that we do not feel safe. You are telling me that you want us to go live despite that fact… correct?” Most of the time, that shuts it down. However, sometimes it will not.  Then offer a look live from a safer location. You have the right to flat out refuse as well. 

I can hear some of you saying: “Yeah, but if I do that, I’m risking my job!” You may well be. But your job is not nearly as important as your health, safety or life. I can hear others saying: “Yeah, but I’m not gonna let the other guys beat me on a story or make me look bad.” Really? Grow up! Again, your safety is more important.

I can also hear some newsroom-based employees saying: “This is what you signed up for. This is just part of the job.” No. It is not.  And remember radar data is often a few minutes behind, so its possible a crew sees lightning or hears thunder the meteorologist is not aware of yet. So there absolutely are times when journalists will find themselves in the middle of dangerous situations. And it happens more often than with non-journalists. However, we did not sign up to knowingly put ourselves in harms way. We did not sign up to knowingly risk our lives for a daily news story. There are always other ways to cover a story and impart the important information we did sign up to gather, without knowingly risking our lives.

To the journalist who started the thread in the Facebook “Storytellers” Group: Thank you!

To all of those who responded: “Safety first!” Thank you!

To all you who go out every day and work your tails off gathering news stories in the field: Thank you and always remember, no assignment is worth your health, safety or life!

———– Tom Johnson is a former 5-time Emmy winning local journalist who spent nearly 30-years working as an anchor, reporter, producer and videographer.

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.

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.