I am at a serious story and have to post on social media. How can I avoid seeming insensitive?

 

If you read industry blogs, you have seen plenty of cases of reporters tweeting a smiling face at a murder scene, natural disaster or some other similarly toned story. Facebook postings about meeting the national correspondent hero and taking a selfie get plenty of critiques too. This occurs often enough that one has to ask why? Why do so many continue making this mistake? 

The answer is two fold. First, many think in order to show they are at a scene, they have to show themselves in that scene. Second, like it or not, many journalists become rather immune to the scenes around them. In a sense you become less sensitive while in the middle of the moment. Part of this is a survival tactic. The stories covered are often hard to take. This is a natural human reaction. But it is a part of the biz, that the viewer does not want or need to understand. If they do get a sense of it, it comes across as trivializing the story, its impact and the viewer.

Many stations provide little to no guidance on how to handle sensitive issues while on social media, even though you are required to post. So let’s create a checklist you can have on hand to help yourself navigate a tough situation when you are emotionally impacted, the deadlines are intense and you are trying to fulfill your obligations without a lot of time to stop and think.  

Before you post ask yourself:

Does a selfie help cover this story?

What is the tone of my coverage today?

How will this tweet/FB posting define my image as a journalist?

Yes, these questions are heavy. That’s why we are going to look at how to answer each one before you are at a serious story. If you know how to quickly gage the answers then this list is a simple reminder that could keep you from making a big mistake that hurts credibility. 

Let’s tackle the first question. Does a selfie help cover the story? Why do you want to put yourself into the image in the first place? Again, we are focusing on a serious story. Did you just meet the hero who saved the day? Do you want an image of you talking with that person? Did you just get an exclusive look at an element? Do you want to show yourself getting a tour of the crime scene for example? A look at the fire line? Then ask, is the image as effective if you show just that hero, or just that fire line and you are not in the image at all?  Again, a lot of reporters innately think they have to show that they are on the story to really be on the story. But I am going to ask you to consider a social media selfie the way you should consider the use of a standup. If there is a way to let the story tell itself with images alone, then you do not need to be part of it. If you are describing something, pointing something out or connecting two things and your physical presence adds to understanding, then having you in the shot is appropriate. But that doesn’t mean a selfie. Have the photographer you are working with take a pic of you talking to the subject or being given that tour of the scene. If you are an MMJ, consider asking someone you trust to snap it for you. If you must show yourself at a scene, it should be a shot that shows you actively engaged in covering the story. When is the last time you saw a network 2-shot with the correspondent and the interview subject standing side-by-side, grinning? Selfies send a very different tone when you really think about it.

Speaking of… What is the tone of my coverage today? Often the answer to this is going to rule out selfies. If the tone is to show the intensity of the shooting scene, how does a selfie convey that intensity appropriately? If the post celebrates a rescue in flood waters, what will your physical presence do to make that more clear in a still shot?  

Then there is a question of your legacy. That might sound corny, but it is true. Really every FB post, serious story or not, applies. The industry is small. It can be ruthless. You do not want to be the subject of this comment: “Wait that person looks familiar. Oh, that’s the genius who smiled at the mass murder scene.” Every post, every tweet, every Instagram image has to portray you as the type of journalist you want to be. That is hard. You will not get every posting right. But you want to avoid major gaffes. Especially when covering a serious story. The two questions above should help you, so that by the time you get to this question your gut knows what to do.

If you get to a large scale story and meet your mentor, take a picture with the person if there’s down time. Just don’t post it. It really only matters to you anyway. Why take the risk of putting it on your work accounts, and have some think you are insensitive? In terms of your private account, just remember no account is truly private when you are a journalist. Check your privacy settings and know you could still take some risk. 

Bottom line, serious stories are hard enough to cover in a Tweet, Facebook post, or Instagram image. Unless your presence in the shot is really crucial for the viewer to understand the story, the best option is to avoid a selfie. The fact that you are posting is enough to show you are there. You have to do all you can to protect your credibility. Selfie’s often just are not worth it while on a serious story. Better to go conservative, and decrease your risk of seeming insensitive. Now am I saying never do a selfie? No. But this article is about serious stories. Stories that stir intense emotions of sadness, fear, anger, pain or frustration. Happy stories, inspiring stories and some stories discussing challenges could open the door to selfies. The litmus test above will help you know when. 

I keep having to write in the booth. What am I doing wrong?

More and more I hear producers say they are writing portions of their newscasts in the booth. I have to tell you, that used to be a big no no, unless there was breaking news and you had to write it, to get the breaker on the air. Otherwise, no excuse. In fact, you could’ve lost your producing gig if you were still writing in the booth, a lot.

Nowadays I often hear from producers who say things like, “I do alright. I only have to write 4 or 5 stories in the booth.”  Not okay. I understand staffing is tight. I understand some are making their own graphics and editing their own video. I don’t want to sound harsh, but I had similar duties “back in the day” before digital editing allowed you to drag and drop VO’s very quickly. You can get your work done before you head into the booth and you need to. A huge part of producing is being a critical set of eyes to help prevent fact errors, misspelling and incorrect video from rolling during the newscast. If you are looking at your screen, writing copy, you cannot do this effectively and your newscast will suffer. It may not happen today. But it will happen.

So, if you are still having to write in the booth, it’s time to keep a log of how much time you spend on various aspects of putting your newscast together. You also need to ask yourself if you are delegating. If you have a bunch of breakers, and it’s time to head to the booth, assign the next producer up to help you. Notice I said assign. Don’t ask. Tell. If you have an EP at that time, tell the EP which stories still need to be done. I know this is hard to do. It seems like a failure for some. But being distracted in the booth fails the entire staff who are part of your newscast that day. That is just the simple truth. After your show offer to write some stories to help that producer who bailed you out. It’s the right thing to do and the next time you may not have to tell them. They may just pitch in and do it.

Another hard truth: Most of the time, when you are writing in the booth, it’s not because a few stories came in late. It’s because you did not effectively use your time earlier in your shift so that you are prepared for the few late stories that happen every single day. In other words, late breaking news is not an excuse. You have to structure your day to be ready for it. Get it done early so the daily “surprises” become no big deal.

When you log your day, you need to take a hard look at several key deadlines. Do you spend 3 or 4 hours designing your rundown before you start cranking your writing? Do you spend 2 hours looking for stories and sources before you start loading your rundown? Do you write top down in your rundown? The answers to these three questions are crucial. If you spend 3 or 4 hours designing your rundown before you start cranking your writing, you set yourself up for failure. You need to focus on sections of your rundown. The news keeps changing. Look at segments like consumer/health/regional news and start with those. Yes, a new and better story could show up later. But it is easier to write one more story and kill something else, than to slam write several things, just to fill your newscast, while you are on the air.

Same with spending two hours looking for stories before designing your rundown. Some days great content comes in slowly. But there will be some content you can start writing earlier in the day. Again design sections if you need. Focus on the rundown coming together 3 hours before the show. This may mean stories you wrote move around in the newscast or get killed. But it’s better to have more written early if you can. I’m talking about things like memorable moments and required segments. Crank them out. For more help on how to speed up your writing time check out this article.

So by now it should be clear why you do not focus on writing the newscast from the top down. Think about it. The top of your newscast changes constantly. The lower sections much less so. If you can have your newscast mostly written by three hours before air, then you have 2 hours to fine tune it, and an hour to add breaking news at the last minute. This is an achievable goal. It will take work and it will take discipline. You need to give yourself deadlines each day. But you will get a rhythm down and your newscasts will improve greatly. Best of all you will no longer have to ask yourself: What am I doing wrong?

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.