Time to question, all those questions!

You would think asking questions would be the easiest part of a TV journalists job.  We are paid to ask them all day long, so we should be experts, right?  Yet it is nearly impossible to watch a newscast and not see very strange and uncomfortable Q and A’s.  We recently discussed those pesky consultant/management mandates that say you must have the anchor ask the reporter a question going into a live shot (see “What’s with the question”).  Now let’s talk about required questions in live tags.

First a comment to managers and producers that think this must happen after every live shot no matter what:  Is this a cheap copout?  Yes, there is a tone in my question.  There is good reason.  The nature of many news philosophies is to exploit, and I would argue create, tension in Q and A.  We want spirited debate.  We want to expose the swindler.  We want to play out the anger in the situation.  We want to separate fact from fiction.  These are great elements to make great TV, no arguments there.  But what is the point of Q and A between anchors and reporters?  It’s team building.  Here is a wild and crazy idea:  Could these mandated questions actually make it seem like the team is working against each other?

To clarify, I am talking about Q and A out of basic news of the day stories.  I’m not talking about breaking news.  Q and A is very natural and frankly expected by the audience in breaking news.  In this article we are talking about Q and A found at the end of live reports about school budget cuts, ongoing court cases, follow ups to yesterday’s big fire.  These are the stories that can really be bundled up in nice little packages.  The facts are not changing minute-by-minute and therefore do not need clarifying.  In other words, the reporter doesn’t really need the anchor to back them up and make sure the information was clear because new facts are constantly coming in.

We’re talking about Q and A scripted after the event that the reporter is covering is finished.  Stories that give viewers insight into what happened.  In these run of the mill situations, the questions often come across as forced and, if you really think about it, often make either the anchor or the reporter seem clueless about a given fact.

In order to script effective Q and A in the tag to a live shot, you must first really understand the role of both the anchor and the reporter TO THE VIEWER.  The anchor must be more than the “pretty” person sitting on the desk, telling the reporter what to do.  This is how many Q and A’s come across:  The boss (anchor) is quizzing to see if the worker (reporter) did his/her assignment and understands the material.  Is this team building?  What is the anchor to the viewer?

At stations where the anchors are very highly regarded, you find that viewers consider the anchor to be their voice, their advocate.  Viewers say, “The anchor looks out for my community. He/she asks what I am thinking.” Reporters are the eyewitnesses that show viewers what’s happening in their town or neighborhood, and demand the truth.  So when you have an anchor ask a reporter a pointed question that can seem adversarial toward the reporter, you lessen the credibility of the reporter a bit.  Then there’s the other common type of scripted question:  the softball.  Since many producers and reporters are under intense time constraints, the mandated questions are often after thoughts.  They become trivial questions that make the anchor look like he/she isn’t paying attention to the issue being discussed.  No, you don’t want the anchor picking a fight with the reporter.  You also don’t want the anchor coming off as having sat in “la la land” for the last 2 minutes and being clueless about the issue.  The viewer assumes the anchor has a clue about the story being discussed.  Remember the anchor is the viewer’s advocate.  So asking, “Hey Joe Schmo when’s the next council meeting if people want to attend?” is a throwaway.  It’s information that’s too basic.  If you are required to script a question, have the anchor ask something like, “Joe, if people really want to speak before council at the next meeting on the 7th, what do they need to do?” This shows the anchor knows there’s another meeting, and is thinking about concrete facts the viewers need to know to have a voice.  Then the reporter, who demands truth, has the answer.  The question is in no way adversarial between anchor and reporter.  Each role is clearly defined in the exchange.

That, my friends, is the key to scripting Q and A in live tags.  First and foremost remember the role of the anchor to the viewer and the role of the reporter to the viewer.  It will help make sure mandated questions do not come off seeming forced as often.  Have the anchor ask questions so that the viewer can gain more control of the situation or move forward with the facts presented.  Have the fact finder, eyewitness reporter, show the viewer the situation or explain the fact.

*Anchors if you are told to “just put questions in” you need to actually call the reporters.  Don’t assume you know the story.  Often you are wrong and the reporter is trying to keep you from looking like a moron. (Check out the Art of ad-lib and On the spot, when anchors put you in uncomfortable positions articles.)

As for producers or managers who mandate these Q and A’s every time, without fail, there are other ways to build team.  And, keep in mind, viewers like variety.  Too much scripting becomes too formulaic and makes your newscast look tedious.  In conversations, there are times to ask questions and times to shut up and just listen to take it all in.  The anchor’s conversations with reporters should reflect how we actually communicate with others in “the real world.”  Sometimes we ask a question.  Sometimes we don’t.

Developing your interviewing skills on the beat.

It can make or break a story if it isn’t done correctly.  It can also capture the essence of what you’re trying to convey and draw your audience in like the earth’s gravitational pull.  Interviews are the foundation of good reporting.  They are the best way of understanding a situation and seeing the story from someone else’s perspective.   Most importantly, a successful interview requires strong people skills and technical ability.

As reporters, you’re constantly working under deadline pressure and the first thing you think about is, “Who should I interview for this story.”  As you know, finding someone to talk on camera is half the battle.  So when you do find them, and get ready to push record, make sure you don’t waste time by asking meaningless questions.  Those questions are anything you know you’re not going to use to get your story on air.  This is usually the small talk or chit chat that helps warm up your subject.  Take it from me; this can really slow down the logging process when you’re under deadline.

Even though you’re getting to the point, don’t forget to be conversational.  What I mean by this is, don’t ask one question, and then immediately think about the next question we’re going to ask.  At this point you’ve lost. Your subject may say something that could lead to a much better story.  Listening closely and intently will help you uncover any possible hidden details of the story you’re trying to cover.  My advice is to have just a couple of questions you really need to ask, but “play” off the conversation.  I find this will help you write into, out of, and around your sound bites.

Depending on the rapport you’ve established with the person you’re interviewing, many times you can ask your most poignant questions first and get to the heart of the matter.  Time is money, (well for you it’s precious seconds so you don’t miss slot.)  Remember, it’s most important to ask questions which are relevant and revealing about the participant’s character and opinion.

You never know what you’re going to get when you interview someone.  Hopefully, you’re getting raw emotion like anger, sadness, enthusiasm, excitement…etc.  Whatever you’re getting, don’t be afraid to let that raw emotion breathe. The toughest thing to do for reporters and anchors is to be silent and let the interviewee say what they have to say.  Don’t cut someone off in mid-thought or sentence.  Let them stay in the zone until it’s appropriate to ask the next question. This is the hardest to judge and will take time to develop.  All I can say here is…it’s about feel.

When you’re done getting that great interview, don’t forget to tell your producers.  They can really help setup your story and help you hit the story out of the park.

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Kennan Oliphant is a morning Executive Producer at WMBF News in Myrtle Beach, SC. He started his career as a anchor/reporter. He’s won numerous awards and loves to connect with people over social media. Follow him on Twitter: @TVNewsGuru or facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Kennan-Oliphant/313726945344980

“To be or not to be” The ultimate writing challenge.

When I ask journalists what they want to improve on most, I am usually told writing.  Yet the more newscasts I watch, the more I am struck by the sheer number of basic mistakes that make it on air. (Don’t feel badly, this even happens on the network level)  One cannot help but wonder if people are either that clueless about grammar and basic rules for writing to the ear, or if journalists are so overwhelmed they simply write anything and put it on air just to make deadline.

I understand no one is perfect (I’m not). That’s why so many of us have goals to write better.  But how do you actually improve your writing, especially when it’s obvious from watching newscasts, that there is next to no feedback on your work?  We will continue to provide ways to help improve writing. (Here’s a link to other writing tips in case you missed them.) Now let’s focus on “to be” and all of its forms.

Next time you have a few minutes print out several recent scripts you wrote and grab a highlighter.  Take that highlighter and mark off every time you use a version of “to be.”  Chances are your scripts will have a bunch of highlights. Here are some examples: “He was hit by a car.” “Protestors are being heard inside council chambers.” “He is facing murder charges.” “She was being given a plea deal.”  When writing conversationally, using “was,” “being” and “are” becomes a real crutch.

Now take a look at those sentences with a form of “to be” in them. When you read those sentences out loud to yourself, do many of them seem exaggerated or just silly?  How do you face a murder charge? Be active.  He is charged.  A car hit the man.  Protestors spoke during the council meeting. Prosecutors offered her a plea deal.  Hear the difference? Here’s another common example to explain what I mean.  Usually you will hear this phrase in news copy, “The investigation is continuing.”  Either it is, or it is not. You should say, “the investigation continues.”  The “is –ing” combination is among the worst you can do.  It is sloppy, wishy washy, and passive.  Anchors and reporters do not need to come across that way. Period.

An assistant news director I worked with years ago, would put together amazing writing seminars.  He would get you pumped to go write, then lay down this law:  “From now on, you cannot use any form of “to be” in your copy. No exceptions.” Think about that for a minute.  Look at your news copy.  Could you pull that demand off every day under intense deadline pressure?  That’s what my co-workers and I had to do.  Yes, it was extreme and very challenging!  But it made us all much stronger writers.  Eventually he did ease the mandate.  But by that time you were used to avoiding “to be.”

By doing this he forced us to use active voice. He forced us to take a stand in our news copy.  No room for winging it.  You had to know the facts. Think about it, you cannot really “couch it” much without using “to be.”  Our scripts were clear, concise and consistent.

So if you want to challenge yourself as a writer try to avoid or even drop all forms of “to be” even if it’s for one or two news blocks a day.  Reporters, try it once or twice a week when you are less slammed to ease into it if you must.  If going “cold turkey” scares you, at least dump the “is –ing” combination.  See what an impact it really makes.

 

How to get the most out of consultants when they come to your station.

At most stations where I worked, people dreaded when the consultant came to town.  The seminars, extra meetings, temporary changes in news philosophy and execution just seemed to be a waste.  But I really liked when the consultants came to town.  It was a chance at perspective.  The consultant knew my station’s philosophy but could also tell me about what other stations were doing.  Since early in my career, many newsrooms where I worked had no EP or a weak one, so a consultant visit was my chance to pick someone’s brain a bit.

Here’s what I did to use a consultant visit to my benefit, and here’s what you can do as a reporter as well.

Since my I was a producer, I would dub a newscast I liked and have it ready to hand over.  I would also ask management for a preview of what the would be in the seminar the consultant had planned.  Usually it was writing of some sort.  So, I would print samples of my work that related to the subject.  Then after the seminar I would mingle a bit and ask if I could have the consultant look over my work.  Now, I did not hand over a huge pile of papers, just a small handful or one section of a newscast.  Often the consultant would look over my work and give me critiques.  I would also ask about trends in larger markets so I could try to “practice” more sophisticated elements in my own newscasts.  Occasionally the consultant was really snooty and would blow me off.  But most of the time the person was very approachable and willing to share information.

This is good in terms of pushing yourself to the next level when you aren’t getting training elsewhere.  There is another benefit to also consider.  Never forget who hired the consultant.  It’s either the GM or corporate.  It never hurts to have a consultant tell those bosses that they met a very conscientious producer (or anchor/reporter etc.) that seemed driven to push him/herself.  Let’s face it, the only time I saw a GM for any length of time was a quarterly meeting, previewing a big political special for the station or being told the numbers in the newscasts sucked and we better kick it into high gear or else!  So it’s nice to have someone like a consultant tell the GM you are eager to do your best.

As I got to know my station consultants better over the years, some also started giving me career advice.  The kind of advice you rarely get, unless you have am agent who’s really on the ball.  I got calls sometimes when a job came open at a station the consultant called on.  It was a consultant who sat me down and told me I was ready for management and to aim for a medium-large to large market when I did apply.  A consultant reviewed my writing samples to make sure I was well rounded before I made a large market jump as a producer.  When I went to a large market, the consultant there (he was with another agency than my previous station FYI) worked with me on the side to get ready to become an EP.  Why?  It makes the consultant look good to be able to place you in a good fit and help you move up.

Reporters, don’t overlook this option for yourselves as well, especially when talent coaches come in and work with you one and one to improve your look and performance.  Most of the time you are given a business card and told to call with any further questions:  Do it!  Yes, your current station will probably hear that you called.  Don’t bad mouth the place.  Do ask if you can send more current work samples to find out if you are on the right track.  Again, these consultants meet a lot of big time bosses.  They can and sometimes do put a word in about the talent they get to know.

It should go without saying that you don’t want to badger these potential mentors and ask too many questions or get too many reviews of your work.  Once in a while it is okay, and might even help your career.  So listen to the seminars, ask questions, show you are committed to the station where you work and improving your own worth.  That consultant could help your career in ways you’d never expect.