Survive was asked to help spread the word on this survey. The fear of increasing burnout among journalists was a huge motivator to start this website. Unfortunately the problem keeps getting worse. Helping with training gaps is not enough to solve it.
Please share this link and weigh in. The more we talk about what journalists face each day, the better chance workloads and mental health needs will start to get addressed.
The Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri is conducting an anonymous survey of current and former United States based journalists, journalism students and journalism educators to see what changes newsrooms and journalism schools could make to help prevent professional burnout.
The TV news industry is in flux. Crisis point: finding and retaining producers. Consider this: Your job will remain if reporters are phased out in the digital age. There is always a need for content finders and editorial context. Producers must be the best truth seekers, and BS detectors in the building, every day. You are the gatekeepers of truth. Gusty journalists with a job that has a high learning curve.
So let’s even that playing field. Let’s finally put what you really need to know to kick butt at your job, in one easy-to-reference spot.
This book is years in the making. Producers and managers spoke, listing skills most have to try and figure out largely on their own while on the job. Let’s make it easier.
Here’s a list of topics covered: How to stack a newscast How to choose leads How to get your writing done in time How to time your show correctly How to write clearly How to write to video How to tease How to avoid fact errors How to showcase (describes several techniques) How to handle team coverage and continuous coverage
I don’t usually show statistics. But this number below, the impressions really set me aback a bit. I chewed on what it could mean for a bit. I know that there are a lot of journalists that lay low and do their jobs no matter how short-staffed and no matter the station politics. I know a lot of them are passionate about being journalists and put up with a lot to do the vocation they love. But to me, this reaction to the post, and reactions I have received about workloads on LinkedIn posts show many just do not feel valued.
On LinkedIn, I mentioned looking around and thanking those workhorses. Many reached out to let me know they rarely are thanked and rarely are noticed.
Two things. There are a number of managers that have been taught that your paycheck thanks you and that you show the staff they are appreciated by leaving them to do their jobs. I bring this up because it is important to know that for some managers this is why you do not hear from them. The intention is in a way to show respect. It just doesn’t fit well with a growing workforce of journalists that expect communication in the newsroom and on the news.
The other point to make is there are obviously a lot of journalists that want to know you see their efforts. That means many want to know that they are doing what you want. Most journalists are highly goal-oriented. Telling them they meet or exceed the mark is important. It helps them pull through on those really tough days.
The post hit a nerve. The idea that so many looked at this post hits a nerve. Workhorses deserve respect. They keep the news on the air. They weather the storms. So again I ask, look around the newsroom. When is the last time you thanked the workhorses?
Mental health is a growing concern among TV news journalists. Old time journalists often were told to grit it out, suck it up, understand the stress and anxiety of the daily deadline pressures and, frankly, awful crime stories are part of the job.
Surviving as a journalist should not mean constant suffering though. Yes, part of the job is seeing horrible crime scenes, covering stories that showcase the dark parts of humanity in stark terms, and uncovering corruption. Yes, journalists know that goes with the territory. But that simply doesn’t mean stations and broadcast groups should just tell staff to handle it all on their own.
I keep saying that journalists are the commodity broadcasters sell. You must realize the people covering the news are the company’s most precious assets. No journalists, no newscasts = no revenue.
Top News Talent, which I just recently co-founded, hosted a discussion on Clubhouse on mental health. Specifically the recurring dream many producers have that they cannot get their newscast done on time. This is the start of many discussions we hope have to help raise awareness that journalists in TV news do take their job home with them. It impacts their personal lives as well. From this discussion, with therapist Matthew Nordin, we learned some very valuable lessons.
These dreams can be a sign that the journalist needs a mental health break. Maybe it’s a mental health day. Maybe more.
Recurring dreams can signal that you’re struggling to cope with something you covered, wrote about or the circumstances in your newsroom.
For those of you having these recurring dreams, some crucial takeaways:
There are coping mechanisms to help you distance yourself a bit from the daily stress. A big one Matthew mentioned is “soft belly breathing.” It sounds too simple, right? But it’s based on science. Your mind is powerful enough to use this simple technique to reset your stress levels in a powerful way. Here is a video showing you how to belly breathe. And an audio version and interview.
If you ignore the dreams, the stress usually increases. There is a risk of developing actual PTSD.
Journalists and managers also need to be aware of secondary trauma. Let’s define it in simple but crucial terms: by covering traumatic events regularly, the journalist also becomes impacted by the events. Over time this can lead to PTSD if not addressed early and often. Partner this with newsrooms that are understaffed, work hours that make it hard to sleep at night (overnights), keep a regular sleep schedule (covering for sick calls on different shifts), and 10 hour shifts on average with little to no breaks, and the journalist is already more prone to anxiety overload.
Companies offer EAP programs. This allows anywhere from 4 to 6 visits with a therapist, for free, depending on your company’s plan. A crucial thing here, when you call to set up the visits, know your station, your boss and your parent company do not know you are seeking therapy. Some employees really worry about this. It is truly anonymous. When you call to use this valuable benefit, have your health insurance card handy so you can ask them to look for a therapist who also takes your insurance in case you end up needing more than the standard sessions alloted. If that is not possible, ask for some names, then you can look them up. Matthew tells us Psychology Today is a great resource to check out potential therapists. From here you can find out if they take your medical insurance for after the EAP alloted sessions.
Matthew also told us there are ways to get therapy and not have it cost a fortune if you do not want to use your medical insurance or you cannot find a therapist who takes your insurance. This is key, the services we are listing here, link you with therapists that essentially donate their time to give back, in a sense. They passionately want to help more people afford therapy, Here are the two links to these services: https://www.opencounseling.com/ and https://openpathcollective.org/.
A last note to individual journalists: PTSD can set in within a month of suffering trauma. So if you cover a story that really seems to impact you more than most, it’s preferable to not wait and see what happens. Get counseling quickly to try and prevent PTSD from setting in. That said, Matthew points out that if you’re already a mindful person who’s really in touch with your body and emotions through yoga, meditation, etc. you may not need a therapist. This is where knowing yourself and your limits are really important.
For managers and broadcast group leaders, try and create an environment where staff can tell you the stress of the job is getting to be too intense, before it gets to the point the person must quit their job. Ask regularly, how staffers are doing. If you can bring in counselors not just when something tragic, like a school shooting, standoff or death of a staff member happens. Offering a chance to talk with a counselor more regularly, can help immensely. It also could show that you value mental health and might lead to more staff telling you if they need help. If you can advocate for more mental health coverage, including HSA $ for mental health treatment or mindfulness coaching, you not only prove you care for your staff, you have a powerful recruiting tool.
I posted a question on @Survivetvjobs Twitter line. Within 24hours it had more than 29 thousand impressions. Talk about hitting a nerve. It was “Hey TV news journalists what do you do to relieve stress?”
TV News is a stressful career no doubt. Now with more MMJ’s, less writers and more responsibilities than ever before it can sometimes seem unbearable. So let’s talk about how to survive your daily shift better.
Getting a good routine down as best you can is number 1. You want the grind to sort of become normal in a way. So the first few months, you should keep a journal on what worked and didn’t as you try and navigate getting through your shift. Also use the search section of this website to look up producing and/or reporting for all kinds of articles on how to make your job easier.
You need to focus on hobby’s that give you joy when you are not at work as well. Many of you listed great options there.
I also want to give you some simple, easy to implement stress relievers you can use each day, at work.
Practical things you can do, right away to add calm to your day
Schedule breath breaks. Then actually take them
Mini lap break
The running joke is very important
Random acts of kindness to your coworkers
Celebrate little victories
Realistic goal setting
Write down the small things eating at you, then throw the paper away
Use EAP plan
Let’s dig in. I know many of you are saying you do not have time to run to the restroom most of the time. But breath breaks can be super short. Set up “times” for these like once I finish stacking my rundown I will do this for myself. Once I finish this interview I will do this for myself. Make it a habit.
If you are religious, think breath prayer. It is amazing how taking 30 seconds to do one can help. If you are not religious taking three long breaths and imagining letting go of the stress in part of your body can really help. I love the Calm app for this reason. Check out the breath bubble video on YouTube since it can be a game changer during work. Sneak into an edit bay and try it.
Mini lap breaks are also really important. You need to get the blood flowing to keep a clear head. So standup and walk a lap around the newsroom or better yet around the station. Even if you have to be on the phone. If you are a reporter put the phone down and walk a lap. You need to reconnect with your environment. Producers need to disconnect from theirs.
Running “inside” jokes among your shift are important. If you don’t already have some, try and foster that. They need to be kind and silly, not picking on a staffer. I had coworker who loved a certain salad with chicken. We would sing silly song about 15 minutes till salad time (usually sung right after a manager yelled at us for something) and would put pictures we printed off the internet of salads with chicken to set on her desk. An anchor I worked with loved Halle Berry. So we would tape pics of her up on his computer monitor before he got to work. It became a competition of who could find the most random pic of her. Things like that. A director hated the easter bunny but in a silly way. So we would put pics of bunnies up on his monitor in the control room. He would then write silly notes on them like “nope” and then repost the pic on someone else’s monitor.
Some companies have also started chat lines, because of COVID. A chance to have some sort of running dialogue like you used to have sharing pods with others. This can be great too. Take turns picking a topic for the day that is light. You can do this with group texts if need be. Who can find the silliest dog meme of the day? (See now my pic above makes sense lol) Subjects like, who really drank from the water hose? What is the worst vacation you’ve taken? Did you try the latest viral recipe on Tik Tok? This quick connection can help keep tension down for the entire group. Just make sure everyone knows this line is for small talk only.
For years I have kept some inspiring quotes that resonate with me on sticky notes either on my desk or in the notes section of my phone. They also really help. Especially if it is one of those days when it all seems to pile on. These quotes provide a quick reminder, this too shall pass.
When is the last time you did a little something to cheer up your coworkers? Simple things, like leaving a piece of candy on their desk? A quick text saying the MMJ’s live shot rocked, or the producer had a killer cold open really helps ease your stress and the other person’s as well. It also fosters a newsroom where people support each other, and frankly the staff has to do that most of the time. Newsrooms are not naturally positive environments. The deadline pressure and competition to be first etc goes against that principle a bit. If you foster mutual respect with simple gestures, it really can help bring everyone’s stress down and increase the “We are in it together” bond.
An anchor I worked with used to bring a cake in once a month to celebrate all the birthdays of the month in the newsroom. It was a huge hit. An EP I had used to leave me silly sticky note messages randomly on my desk. A director I worked with used to leave me copies of articles about gardening, since we shared that hobby in common. It has been years, and I remember each of these simple acts of kindness. The gestures matter. Do them, and hopefully over time you will start a phenomenon in your newsroom.
Celebrate the little victories. Did you consistently finish your newscast an hour early this week?Treat yourself. Did you break two stories this week? Time to spoil yourself. Did you notice a coworker had an awesome week boosting ratings, owning a story etc? Tell them awesome job. This reduces stress immensely. Honor your goals, and honor the hard work of those around you.
Set realistic goals. Working in news will always be messy. It will be hard consistently. Once you accept that fact, then decide on simple ways to improve your work, your attitude and even your stress level. One step at a time is key here. Saying I will take a newscast from worst to first in 6 months for example is too much. Fixing a section of the newscast where ratings consistently dip, is more realistic at first. Reporters, you might not lead the newscast every night, but aiming to be one of the promotable stories for the day each day is a realistic goal.
This next idea is really important and really does require using a pen or pencil. When the stress is really building up during your shift, write down a list of your stressors. Get them on paper. Look at the list, then ball it up, rip it to shreds, do whatever feels right, and pitch the note. You can really digest those frustrations and look for patterns later. During your shift you need to be able to let them go, so you can focus and get the weight of them off of your shoulders.
Also I cannot implore you enough to use the EAP plan offered at work. This is the counseling service that offers anywhere from 3 to 6 free consultations with a therapist. This is anonymous. Your boss will never know. Every company offers this and frankly with the stress of TV News jobs every journalist should use this service. You deserve the chance to tell someone how you feel and why. It really can help you cope with everything you see each day. Especially now with so many heavy topics to cover constantly.
Please know you are not alone in this journey. Many of us understand what you are experiencing and there are ways to make your job more manageable stress wise. Try and foster connections with your coworkers who are living it too, and be kind to yourself as much as possible. If you need help, reach out.
Survive is full of articles about how to write more conversationally as well. But this article is going to talk about a simple technique that frankly I am surprised hasn’t already come up in an article about cliche writing. It’s as simple as asking “Would you say that to your Mom?”
Yep, this question when writing, then scanning over your copy will catch so many errors, and especially cliches. It is a real tried and true technique veteran journalists have used many times over. And it bares repeating in an article on to itself. It is that effective.
You would not call your Mom and say “Hey there was a brutal murder and some residents nearby are scared.” You would not call your Mom and say “A blaze broke out two miles from the house.” Go down our cliche list, none of the phrases would be good for talking with Mom. None.
So let’s thank our parents for giving us a huge gift, teaching us the art of straightforward, conversational non cliche writing. They don’t use it on you. You don’t need to use it on the audience. So glad we had this talk 😉
This is a million dollar question in a lot of ways: How do I figure out what should be in a TV story vs a digital story? There are teams of researchers, consulting groups, and higher ups in the broadcast industry weighing this question every day. But you are a journalist, and you have to turn stories everyday right now while they ponder the future digital universe. So let’s lay out some common sense ground rules.
Necessary TV Elements:
Strong visual and/or emotional elements
Timeliness, especially if ongoing
Necessary Digital Elements:
Strong visual and/or emotional elements
Great Why or How elements
Great extra nuggets of information surrounding ongoing story
These lists look awfully similar right? The key differences are subtle but important.
Let’s jump into the TV elements list first. Wide Impact tops the list for a big reason, TV viewers are getting more finicky. We used to be able to just grab hyper local elements to fill up our local news sections and be fine. Not as easy now though. Viewers are likely two screening when watching TV so if a story or two bores them, you lost them to the other screen! So while remaining largely local, the story has to impact a lot of people. Let’s discuss the meaning of impact. That doesn’t mean a direct effect on the person watching necessarily. It can also mean a strong universal type tie. Think heartbreaking stories. My family isn’t impacted, but I sure care about the other family. Or I sit and thank my lucky starts that’s not my family. Just getting nitty gritty here. That’s why emotional elements are so crucial.
TV news needs strong visuals in its stories. The goal is for every story. That’s not always realistic, but try as much as possible. Especially in this day of big monitors and telestrations and 2d graphics. Discussing the visual impact of the story is as big as the community impact when considering a TV news story.
DMA impact is a little different but very key. There are times especially if you are the third or fourth place station that you want to cater to an underserved audience in your DMA. This helps serve the community better as journalists, and can help bring up ratings. These are important discussions to have to make sure TV stories are truly considering the entire audience, not just a chosen few. (Which can get into the whole idea of not just choosing stories you personally care about to cover. Your opinion is one opinion. Never forget that as a journalist.)
Timeliness is also very important. But this is going to sound half crazy to some, it needs to emphasize more developing type stories, instead of just breaking news. Why? Because digital does breaking news better unless it is a HUGE event in which you are in continuous coverage. Admit that and you will start to produce more relevant stories for your viewers. It is too hard for TV to beat digital. Breaking news desks need to cater to digital first. But you cannot put clearly dated stories into newscasts. That’s where strong data driven journalism is starting to come into play. You have started hearing broadcast groups mention that they want to focus on hard hitting investigative journalism locally. That’s smart. That’s going to provide the key information that will drive audiences to a TV newscast. I want to see that reporter I trust spell it out for me. Then I can research more and see if I agree. That’s what journalism was about for a long time. But TV news went too heavy into pictures and immediacy and not enough into impact. That’s what hurt TV. It’s time to go back to the basics, with a little more showcasing savvy than TV news of the 80’s for example.
Now the digital list. Immediacy is first for obvious reasons. You check your phone to see what’s happening right now. What if I missed something? Due to content constantly changing people are constantly checking. That doesn’t change for local news. You have to have new elements all the time that make sense. Immediacy.
Impact is next. Just grabbing breaking news from all over the world will not impress local audiences. Research shows this for TV viewers and it is not different for internet users for local TV news websites. I promise you do not do it as well as HuffPost/Politico etc. Focus on what the audience wants. Local stories that could make a difference for them or someone they know.
Strong visual and/or emotional elements. Think Instagram mentality here. You go on the app thinking you have 15 minutes to burn and an hour later, you are still looking at posts. Same with Pinterest. Give them great information they can relate to and suck them in with a great image or video. The human brain cannot resist.
Great why and/or how elements are crucial too. It can be really hard to catch everything stated on TV. Consumers are grabbing their phones, starved for more information. They can read the digital story more than once. They can highlight words and research more things. They can really get into the nitty gritty of stories and subject matter they want to understand. This is where we journalists can inform, teach and frankly be relevant again. Give them the facts they crave. Delve into what so many feel is so hard to get right now, understanding.
Sometimes that understanding is a whole series of special reports. Sometimes it is simply the last element of our digital story list: extra nuggets of information on a developing story. This is especially true if your next newscast is not for hours. Keep covering the most relevant stories. Add elements, even a few lines with an updated time stamp under the byline. It helps you get more clicks, more loyalty and more impact. And extra nuggets are usually easy to find and explain. These often become the old “water cooler” elements that people want to share with friends and coworkers. Especially now that everyone wants to show they are in the know and frankly relevant themselves. The psychological draws of digital are crucial to consider throughout your story selection process.
Hopefully these guidelines will make your day to day job a little easier while the big wigs duke it out over who has the big answer to digital.
At times these Facebook or Instagram pages are “locked down” meaning someone has to ask to be your friend to get access. Apparently that is leading some journalists, including very seasoned ones, to think they can post anything because its only going to be seen by family and friends. But here’s the issue, friends can fall out of favor, or have another friend who doesn’t like you. All it takes is a friend with access to your page to screen grab your post and send it to another person, and you are as good as public. Don’t believe me? Again ask some of the journalists recently called out about their postings on FTVLive.
The hard reality here is these posts can also be sought after by bosses, HR and coworkers ticked you got the shift they wanted, the position they hoped for etc. I have seen it, and had to help journalists deal with this reality several times now. You have to realize, all it takes is one person to take a screen grab and share it.
I have also seen people go through the rest of the staff’s posts when they get in trouble themselves and try and out the others for doing the same thing. Next thing you know a bunch of staffers are getting written up. And it can be more than a slap on the wrist, the post and disciplinary action can end up in your employee file impacting your ability to get a job in company in the future. Also HR will protect who “outed” your comment. So you will constantly look around the newsroom and wonder who turned you in. Who has it out for you?
I have heard of hiring managers contacting former employees at stations you apply for, to see if they can get access to your personal Facebook etc. Not to mention HR and managers having burner accounts, that seem innocent but are actually used to get access.
This is meant to make you stop and think hard about social media. Privacy just does not exist. You cannot count on private mode, when it comes to protecting your career. There is always a way to gain access if a person wants to, and there can be people you think are your friends that will stab you in the back.
With this reality in mind, let’s talk about the never post list you need to memorize.
Sexual comments, innuendo
These are your danger zone topics. Can you post a bible verse for inspiration on your personal account, probably, but be careful. You can also say you just got back from service. Other than that, keep any opinions to yourself. You are a journalist, you are very vulnerable and under scrutiny.
Politics is just a no. Sorry the world is too polarizing. Pass. Talk with your friends and family. Otherwise. No.
What are compromising selfies? The specifics vary depending on CoVid. Right now if you go to a social gathering, do not post a picture. If you are out drinking do not post a picture. If you are flying somewhere probably should not post a selfie from the plane, airport etc. Non CoVid times, do you look drunk don’t post. (As in you do not want any pics taken when you are drinking that could end up on social media) Would you wear that outfit in front of a religious leader or your parents? If no, then no selfie online. Sorry, America still can have very puritan like values.
I know that there is a push to feel good in your own skin. And you should. If you work out and love your toned body, that is not a bad thing. But you have to be careful about mistaken impressions. You might think that bikini is ok, but I promise most of the hiring managers are not thrilled. Those that are frankly are likely not thinking of you as a good journalist, but eye candy they can use to get numbers then dump when the awe wears off. Sorry but someone has to say that bluntly. Too many people are not understanding it. There are a very few hiring managers who will not judge and will just focus on your journalistic integrity. To assume most will is just plain over estimating their goodwill and maturity. Also, think of all the memes out there, do you think most Americans are mature too or will pick apart your “assets” and objectify you. Is the risk worth your career? If you are in journalism to be looked at, you still have to keep the job, to get that attention. Remember that too.
Now sexual comments and innuendo. Sadly, I see a lot of this when screening journalists myself. I get that social media can be a way to hook up or find the love of your life. But again, you need to think about all the stories covered when politicians sext etc. Same applies to you.
Also seriously consider whether people at work should have access to your personal accounts. A lot of people choose to keep work and home separate, including their personal social media accounts. It is a valid idea. One I would encourage while you work in the industry. Once you leave a station maybe you invite a select few of your closest friends to have access. Maybe. Again, I can promise you, when you see a personal Facebook reference on FTVLive, in most cases someone that person trusted shared that post with someone else, possibly including FTVLive directly. Having limited access, where you approve the friend list is not enough.
Finally a word on social media policies at work. All of them have some language that allows the staton to come after you for personal pages. That includes, personal Facebook with limited access, personal websites, etc. They keep the language fluid enough to be able to come after you if they so desire. Bottom line, most journalists do not have the cash flow to fight them back, and the companies know it. So they issue blanket statements about types of unacceptable posts (see list above) and they remind that everyone, even those of you behind the scenes represent the company at all times on social media. All times. If you are online, you represent the station you work for. Period. That has to be ingrained in your mind as you post. Every minute. Every day. You just need 1 person to dislike something you post to potentially seriously damage your reputation and cost you your job. So never forget your social media connections could cost you your job.
This isn’t easy to admit. I get that. But if you keep writing fact errors, you need to own up to it and do these things to stop. In newsrooms nowadays, prevention techniques are not being taught much, and many times scripts aren’t being reviewed for accuracy. So you have to take ownership if you are writing errors, and fix the problem. Here’s how.
Look at multiple sources
If a fact doesn’t match ask for help
Copy paste the key facts
Make sure video fits
First and foremost, DO NOT JUST PASTE THE EARLIER NEWSCASTS SCRIPT AND REWRITE IT. Sorry to shout at you but this is a cardinal sin in TV news. Do not do it. I don’t care if everyone else does it. Do not do it. Here’s why. If that script has an error, you will repeat it. Even more important, if that script doesn’t have a fact error, your rewrite can easily create one. Its just the simple truth. Do not do it. I know it saves time. I know it means if you don’t get your writing done you still have a script there that can be read during the newscast. Do not do it anyway. I will explain why when we get into context.
When you start writing stories, read several sources first. If its a wire story, also check online publications to see if the facts match. If you see several versions of fatality numbers, different spellings of names etc, red flag, someone is wrong. Now you need to figure out the truth.
If its a local story, pick up the phone and call an expert. Call the PIO. Call the hospital. Do what needs to be done to check the fact. If its a national story, call your affiliate feed line or a station in that DMA. If you are in the weeds, ask the desk for help or an anchor. Tell your EP there’s an issue. Raise the red flag high in the air and get backup.
As you see matching facts, copy paste those, and only those into your script. That way you don’t accidentally type the name in wrong, or any other fact. Before you start writing you should have a little bullet point list like this:
Police say accidental
Now write. Starting with something as simple as this outline should help you stick to the point and not embellish. Writing from another script tempts you to put your creative stamp on the story. Often that’s when context gets messed up. Seemingly subtle changes can really screw up the point and facts of a story. Remember as you write, keep it simple. One sentence per idea. One fact at a time. Short sentences. What’s the video showing? Reference.
Video counts as a type of fact. Often fact errors can occur because the wrong video is shown, or assumptions are made about the video that are incorrect. You need to know what you show.
This system will take a little longer initially, but the payoff is worth it. And once you get the system down you will write as quickly as if you duped a script and did a rewrite. Best of all you will be factually correct. You will be credible. And you will have more job security.
Writers are being asked to write more, in different formats and faster than before.
You have to decide what is better served on a digital platform (more on that in an upcoming article), or shown on a big monitor. You are told the pacing has to be high, but still understandable. You need to showcase. You need to think of your audience. No mistakes. The list goes on and on.
But with all the talk of transforming graduates into the digital age and futuristic journalists, there are still glaring issues in newsrooms today; very little writing training and often even less copy editing. You are thrown into the fire quickly, and you simply must perform.
One of the biggest challenges is learning how to write a relevant story, concisely and with the correct facts mentioned. This can be really confusing when being told to write quickly, to the video and saving a nugget for digital. We need to start with the basics. What does a well written story look/sound like?
Let’s delve in and help lay a strong foundation with a simple formula that can help you with a clear outline for your stories, no matter the format.
ELEMENTS OF A STRONG STORY
Facts explaining the sell
(ie relevant information so viewer can understand the story)
Looks simple right? Well its not for many until they practice a lot and get the hang of it.
So let’s start breaking things down.
When you title a story in your rundown, even a vo, you should aim to put the sell in the story slug or a unique element. Yep you read that correctly. But you only have a few words to work with, right? Keep in mind, you also will use that slug to find the story from now until the end of time. The slug cannot be a throw away.
Let’s go through some examples: House Fire is too generic. Think about it, you will have to scroll through dozens to find it for a follow up later. Child escapes house fire is better. Or fire on Smith Street. Fire downtown can sometimes work but try and get even more specific. That’s part of the relevance. Fire in BBT Building, is likely how you will refer to it in the future. That’s why you hear things like Parkland shooting or Pulse shooting for example when discussing ongoing elements of these stories. The location helps to immediately identify the story. Some Tampa journalists will know this slug too; lobster man in court. The case was covered extensively in part because of the defendant’s deformity. It was a unique element that caused viewer interest. The sell.
Once you have boiled a story down in the slug it is easier to write the story, no matter the format. The second thing you should immediately consider is the video. This is important whether you are writing a vo, vo/sot or package. Heck it is crucial when writing teases and opens as well. What image depicts the story best? Is it a static image or moving? If it is static you might want to put it in a monitor and have the anchor directly reference it in the first line or anchor intro. If it is moving, do you need to take it full natural sound up for a few seconds? Is the video itself your sell? Ask that every time.
Now that you defined the sell, and referenced an image right away, explain what the viewer is seeing and why they should care. This should play out easily. The fire is still burning up this house on this street. This family barely got out. This neighbor helped or watched terrified. Firefighters are still on the scene.
Let’s take one of the hardest subjects to boil down, a court case. When using the outline above it gets easier to boil the case down.
A court case story should start out this way: Now an update on this case (that surprises, captures attention or fascinates viewers for a specific reason). Court video rolls… (since you defined the case and sell summarize the latest) today the person accused of stealing money from the company said it was a lie. The attorney for the company said that’s not true because of this and this fact (two most interesting/relevant ones). We have more on the court hearing on our website. Why did I mention that? Court hearings are the number one story overwritten in newscasts period. So the writer whether it is an associate producer who drew the short straw or the reporter stuck sitting in the courtroom all day needs to know right away that explaining everything will only confuse the viewer. You must boil down the highlights. Then do not be afraid to add more details on the website for people who love all the nitty gritty.
One other important note, yes, the video is mentioned early in the court story even if it is static. Why? It is part of the sell. The case is in court. You cannot make up more than is there, and you need to reference reality. You can use file from the scene if you like at some point too, but reference it directly. That is part of showing the relevant information in the story.
A final note, the outline above for how to write a good story does not have the five w’s and the all important how mentioned. Why? Not all will fit, or be relevant information at that point in the description of the story. That’s why the sell is the most important part of what you write. Sometimes the sell is we finally know why something happened. Or how. Sometimes we only know where, what and when. Trying to answer all of these elements every time, every story causes the copy to get bulky and increases the risk of fact errors. Especially when covering breaking or developing news. Be clear about what you do know. Be clear about why you are reporting on the story (the sell). Do not make assumptions about facts. Only state what you absolutely know. If you find that you are writing and writing and the vo is 50 seconds long chances are you either do not know the sell of the story and are adding elements hoping to find the point, or you do not understand the facts well enough to tell the story yet. Same thing with long packages and/or long anchor intros into your package. If you have a really long story, you need to step back, look at our checklist above and start again.
Hope this helps you boil your stories down more. You can even take past copy you’ve written and then put it to the outline test. By doing that you should quickly see where your writing crutches and/or pitfalls are so you can eliminate them.
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 put this post up on LinkedIn and want to make sure it is here on the website as well. When I started this website 10 years ago the goal was to help with training. I still want to focus on that primarily but over the last several months I have felt called to also bring up important issues facing the TV News business as well. I hope the time is right for more to hear the calls and actually start to make changes many veteran journalists can tell you are long overdue.
Here is the post:
Now that we know producers can get some signing bonuses, let’s talk EP recruitment. Just this week I have seen EP job postings that state you will produce a newscast every day and still need to coach other producers and oversee the daypart. Can we just unpack this a bi
In order to really protect the brand and quality, executive producers need to oversee not do then check in between. It’s hard enough when they are the chronic backups for anyone who is sick or on vacation.
There simply is no way an EP can truly train, recruit, showcase, punch up daily writing, oversee coverage decisions, monitor live decisions, and protect the station’s newscasts and brand for quality and credibility and produce each day. That is like asking an assembly line manager to work the line at the same time. Things will slip through the cracks and the line will clog up.
For the last several years the job I get calls about the most where there are either no applicants or none qualified is EP. Setting up EP jobs so they can truly learn how to think bigger picture, attend management meetings and learn how to lead a shift is monumental for the future of this industry. These EPs are your future NDs.
It is cheaper to hire another producer or writer to ease the workload and invest in growing EPs in the long run. Your current newsrooms benefit. Your future newsrooms benefit.
To all the EP’s right now braving producing newscasts and leading dayparts especially those who sometimes are the ONLY EP for the whole newsroom, you are strong. You are courageous. You have a right to stand up and say when the workload is too high and ask some be delegated elsewhere. Do not forget you can be the future ND. So you need to try your best to pace yourself and advocate to protect your team in any way you think will work.