Meet my conscience: The importance of setting up gut checks.

Recently in Chicago, there was a drive by shooting.  A freelance photographer got an interview with a 4 year old who mentioned when he grew up he was going to have a gun. The sound bite aired.  Trouble is, after that bite the child added that he wanted to become a police officer.  The police officer part did not air during a morning show at a local station.  The breakdowns in ethics in this case are numerous. Did the photog get the parent’s permission?  Did the person who wrote the vo/sot watch all of the interview before writing?  Why were the boy’s words taken out of context?  Why air sound from a 4 year old at all,  especially in a vosot?  This wasn’t a perspective piece.  It was a quick pacer story.  This is not an isolated case of something that is clearly dicey, ethically, ending up on the air.  Recently a station in Bristol, RI admitted it aired video from a golf tournament without explaining the video was a staged reenactment.

Ethical issues like this do happen and some would argue they are getting more common as stations grind more news out.  A recent RTNDA/Hofstra University study shows nearly 35 percent of stations added newscasts in 2010.  With more news churning out and smaller staffs to accomplish it, more ethical mistakes will happen unless there are systems of checks and balances as well as continued training on how to effectively write under intense deadline pressure.  Sometimes even the news managers are so tied up just trying to churn out the news, they cannot truly serve in a supervisory role.  University newsrooms cannot replicate this type of environment.  It is simply too dangerous to do while also teaching the basics of being a broadcast journalist.  But once you get your first job you are often thrown in, and there may not be set checks and balances to review your work.  For example, in several shops where I worked there was not an EP overseeing shows.  In fact there wasn’t a news manager at all during several shifts.  There was no one with clear editorial control.  You would write, the anchor would rewrite then, maybe, an associate producer would rewrite the copy again.  In other shops there was a manager (usually an assistant ND) who was ostensibly overseeing the daily mix.  But that manager was so swamped you could go all day without seeing the person.  Even if there is not a set system of checks and balances at your station, you need a personal one.  That means setting one up yourself, and leaning on fellow staffers.

So let’s talk gut checks.  In each shop I set up a relationship with several co-workers where we could give quick calls and exchange thoughts on issues that would come up.  This usually was not someone with the same job as I had in the newsroom.  I wanted someone with a different perspective and different crunch times.  Remember it is easy to armchair quarterback, but when you are standing in the pocket with a nasty linebacker bearing down, you just want to get rid of the ball!  As I mentioned, often there was no EP on staff to help oversee and check my work.  Other producers would think more like me or possibly have bad habits like watching raw video only until they heard a “good” sound bite, then starting to write without watching the rest of the video.  As a producer I leaned on my anchors for help.  If a story just didn’t feel right, or children were mentioned, I asked for a gut check read from an anchor that I trusted.  If the anchor was an attacking type personality, then I went to veteran reporters in the shop instead.  I even had my associate producers and editors watch raw tape and tell me what stood out as possible ethical issues on sensitive stories.  Notice some of the people had more experience, some less. All of us had enough ethics training that someone’s gut check would go off.

Reporters, your photogs are a great resource you probably have already considered.  Here’s another great resource, anchors.  They tend to have a little more free time to brainstorm with you.  If you are lucky enough to have an EP on staff, lean on him/her.  That person is paid to help you gut check.  Don’t let him/her off easy.  Call in.  If you do not trust your EP, or there isn’t one on your shift, lean on the anchors more.  Depending on the time of day, your producer is also an asset.

It is also critical that you set up a person with final say on rewrites.  If there’s no EP, then a producer or veteran anchor should have final say.  This should be clear to everyone who copy edits for the newscast on your shift.  That includes reporters.  That way if a fact error or ethical dilemma comes up there is a clear cut person who either makes the call or is in charge of contacting management so the bosses can make the call.

What if you do have an EP or assistant ND on staff monitoring things during your shift?  Set up a gut check system with other staffers anyway.  No one is perfect and managers are often pulled away or distracted by other duties.  It is good to have other staffers to lean on in case you feel like the manager is too distracted to help.  In the end, if you wrote the story you will be held accountable.  If you end up making an ethical mistake, and we all do at one time or another, you need to protect yourself by being able to say you took steps to check your work.  This should not get the other staffer you consulted with in trouble.  At least that never happened with me.  If I wrote the story, I was held accountable.  Showing you made efforts can make the difference between a stern scolding or suspension or being fired.  These gut checks will also help you grow as a journalist by seeing other perspectives and staying on your toes.  So ask someone to be your other conscience and return the favor.  As you can see from the examples at the beginning of this article, our industry needs more gut checks.


Road trip! You can cover us, right?

No way around it.  This is an uncomfortable trend in many newsrooms right now.  In fact, some companies are making it written policy.  The good part:  You get a sweet out of town assignment!  The bad part:  You have to pay the travel costs upfront, fill out an expense report when you get back, then wait for reimbursement that can take up to 6 weeks.  And, by the way, your credit card bill will come due before that 6 weeks is up and you get your money back.  It’s a problem a lot of news employees are wrestling with these days.  I recently read a forum entry on from a photojournalist asking how to approach this subject during salary negotiations.  Here are some ideas to deal with this road trip trend.

So what if you are asked to go out of town and just cannot front the money?  You need to tell management flat out.  Yes, it could mean losing out on a primo assignment.  Better that than not paying your bills though.  In many cases, if management really wants you on the story, there is a work around. Sometimes the boss pays the hotel, or perhaps the business manager ponies up some petty cash.  It really depends on the station and the individual managers.  Does saying you cannot pay upfront make you look bad to the bosses?  That depends on the manager.  But even if they seem upset, they usually understand.  Most often it’s more a case of managers being frustrated because they know asking you to pay upfront is unreasonable and the boss is stuck with a policy that stinks.

If you decide to front the money, get a description of any limits for certain expenses ahead of time in writing.  (i.e. – How much per meal?  How much for parking etc.?)  Be firm on this.  Trouble is, some of these policies are so rigid, the limits can be highly unreasonable. For example, some companies have a maximum amount to be reimbursed for hotel stays.  Depending on where you are going and what you are covering, hotel costs can vary greatly.  This can put a crew in a really rough spot especially if the limits were not checked ahead of time.  The last thing you want is to pay $150 for a room only to find out the company policy is a maximum of $100.  That’s your credit card and, therefore, your financial worth on the line.  If no one can provide you with written limits, think hard before agreeing to the assignment.

If you are headed out of town on a last minute assignment you need to ask about clothing and equipment reimbursement limits.  You never know what’s going to happen, and you want to be prepared.  Also, in an open ended return kind of scenario, set a limit as to how much you are willing to pay out of pocket before you go.  Make sure management and the business office are clear you will not front a single dollar more and there needs to be a backup plan everyone is aware of in case you have to stay longer than your money will pay for.

Also ask how far out of your market qualifies a trip as “out of town.”  You don’t want a scenario where you decide to push it driving home, then stop for dinner somewhere too close to your ADI to count for reimbursement.  Yes, you were miles and miles away on assignment, but the button pushers will only look at the location of the purchase if there are ADI restrictions.  You will either get stuck covering the meal or have to go several rounds with the boss to make your receipt an exception.  If that happens it could be held against you later.  Remember, a case like this makes the boss look disorganized.  Even if the boss is sloppy, you don’t want to be the one who makes it obvious to the world.  Asking for those policies ahead of time will avoid the mess.

What if your contract requires you to front the money ahead of time?  The only practical advice we can offer is to keep a credit card that can “cover you” until you are reimbursed.  A contract is a contract and if you signed it, you’re going to have to live up to its terms.

This is a complicated and emerging issue in TV newsrooms.  There may be more ways to deal with it than we’ve listed here.  So, please, if you have other ideas let us know.  You can leave comments below.  Many of us are facing this type of situation for the first time in our careers and need to bounce ideas around about covering that sweet road trip upfront.


Storytelling on a dime.

You hear it all the time.  Reporters and photographers say something to the effect of:  “Storytelling is great and all, but I’ve got too much to do and I don’t have time for that stuff.”  And while I understand where those comments come from, I don’t buy it.  TV news today is filled with more deadlines and “side work” than ever before.  Often your day starts with:  “Welcome to work, now get out the door we have a story we need you live on at noon.”  You knock that out and then it’s on to your “real” one or two stories for the evening shows.  Then there are the standup teases, vo/sot’s and versions of your story(ies) for your station’s website.  Most of us also, blog, tweet, and possibly  take some still shots for the website.  No doubt it’s a LOT of work!  But I promise you, storytelling does not have to add extra work to that pile.  It really is easy to pump out good storytelling “on a dime!”  It’s just a matter of shifting your way of thinking.

Typically, the toughest stories to get your storytelling mindset right, are the so-called “boring newspaper” stories.  These are the stories where you have to interview some sort of “official” and, because of deadline demands, no one else.  So, how do you “tell a story” when all you have is an official and their boring “officialese?”  First off, while the photog is setting up for the interview, talk with the interviewee about anything but the story you are covering.  Take a look around the office if that’s where you are talking.  Often, you can find some great tips into who this person really is in “real life.”  When you find something, chat him/her up about it.  I remember one recent interview where I thought I was dead in this respect.  The guy was nice enough but not the most personable and clearly not comfortable about being interviewed on camera.  Then I noticed a photo of him with one of the most well-known politicians of the last quarter century.   It turns out that he once did security work at a very high level.  I asked him about it and it eventually led to some common ground between us.  That little nugget helped immensely.  First, it loosened him up for the interview and allowed me to pull some bites out of him that had a little personality.  Secondly, it gave me a way to make this “official” more of a “real person.”  I started the piece by talking about how this man had once protected some of the powerful people in the country, but now helps offer a different kind of protection for this small town.  His past really did not have squat to do with the story of the day, but it gave me a way to turn this guy into a “character” in our story.  When you can do that, you give viewers a reason to see that person as more than just some “official.”  You have them interested in watching.  Remember, good stories have characters.  Turn your subjects into characters, not just officials who give you sound bites.

Nat sound is another area where you CAN add to your story without a ton of extra effort.  It comes down to this:  Shoot (and use) just about anything that makes sound to give your stories some life.  Seriously use just about anything.  Nat sound that is integral and directly related to your story (the power saws in a story about construction or crackling flames in a spot news fire story) are always the best.  But that kind of sound is not always there.  If it’s not, look around and try to find something else.  The idea behind nat sound is getting people engaged in your story.  Read any study or talk to any consultant about what people are doing when the news is on their TV.  They are normally doing everything but “watching.”  In the morning they are making breakfast, getting dressed for work or getting the kids ready for school.  The TV is on, but it may as well be video wallpaper.  So, your job is to give them a reason to stop what they’re doing, turn around and watch.  Nat sound is a way to do that.  Say you’re on that story about construction.  But, in the time you’ve been given to shoot it, the crew is on a lunch break.  You are stuck right?  Nope, you can overcome.  Look around, are there people getting in and out of cars (car door sound)? Maybe there’s a fire truck or ambulance going by with a siren on.  Sometimes using seemingly unrelated nat sound is just the trick.  Think about it.  You’re at home with the news on but aren’t sitting and watching.  You know the reporter is talking about construction and all of a sudden you hear a siren!  What the…?  You are probably going to turn around to see why.  This is why you shoot and try to use any nat sound you can get.  You want to make viewers turn around and pay close attention.  Again, it’s really not any extra work.  But it will add immeasurably to the quality of your stories.

When it comes to writing, try to use a piece of that nat sound off the top.  Failing that, make sure you start by establishing the character you’ve easily uncovered using the tips above.  Fill in the middle with the meat of the story you’ve been assigned.  Then end it with another tidbit that makes your subject a “real person.”

All stories have a few basic things in common.  They have a beginning, a middle and an end.  They also have characters.  Shoot and write with these things in mind and you cannot go wrong.   Turn these things into habits and suddenly your “reports” turn into “stories” and your work begins to stand out from all the “Just the facts, Jack!”, boring, information presenters.  Quickly you will establish yourself as a “storyteller.”  Your producers, EP’s and News Director will appreciate you more and your resume reel will become stronger and more marketable.  Suddenly the next chapter in your personal, career story becomes much more interesting with minimal investment from a little storytelling on a dime!