It was early on a Saturday morning. But weekday anchors up and down the East Coast were in their respective newsrooms waiting on a big story to arrive named Hurricane Irene.
As I waited for my on-air shift to begin, I was multitasking as usual: reading over the scripts the producers had written, watching a stream of storm updates cascade down Tweetdeck, and listening to a friend’s broadcast over the internet as he prepared the viewers in his market for what was to come.
Then it happened — that cringe-worthy moment all of us anchors dread. The voice on the phone stopped talking. But my friend was caught off-guard and had no idea what the man had been saying. Producers were talking in his IFB at the time and he was caught with his proverbial pants down on live TV.
What’s worse is that all that chatter over the IFB prevented him from doing his #1 job in a time of crisis: being a reporter. Yes, he was chained to the desk. But that phone was his — and his viewers’ — lifeline to late breaking information about a story that was changing minute-by-minute.
If an anchor isn’t able to hear a phoner or a reporter on a satellite shot in a breaking news situation, he quickly falls behind. In subsequent ad-libs, he can sound disconnected, out-of-touch, and out-of-date.
Unfortunately, it’s not a rare occurrence even on network television. And it’s just as likely to happen during a satellite interview any day of the week.
There are no easy answers for how to make sure the magic happening behind-the-scenes doesn’t intrude on the viewer who’s just trying to find out what’s going on and whether her family is threatened.
But let me throw-out some ideas:
Bring in the interns! It’s the excitement they’ve been waiting for anyway. All those mornings of filling-up the printers and opening the lobby doors for studio guests should at least have this payoff. For goodness sakes, let’s ask them the day before if they’d be willing to help us with our breaking news coverage. I bet they’d love it. (And if they don’t show much enthusiasm they should find another career.)
Use them as runners. To reduce the amount of chatter producers engage in over IFB, I say go old school. Station at least one intern right next to the producer in the control room. Arm them with a stack of paper or a small dry erase board. Have them run routine messages (like the names and titles of guests coming up or the latest statistics on the story you’re covering) to the anchor desk. As an anchor, I want my mic to be hot so I can interrupt or question the person on the phone or the reporter out in the field at any time. So I can’t talk. And I really need to hear what’s being said over-the-air. But I’ve still got my eyes and my hands. When I see I’m off-camera, I can look at what the intern is presenting me, write down any questions or concerns I have for the producer, and send the intern back into the control room.
If your station doesn’t usually have interns, consider an associate producer or the news junkie on the sales staff for this role. If the breaking news comes out of nowhere and you had no time to plan for it, consider the options below.
Text messaging over teleprompter. It’s breaking news. Your anchors aren’t using the teleprompter all that much anyway. Write a message at the top of the story that’s currently cued-up. “***GM has canceled ALL breaks. Stretch. Ad-lib at will! ***” It’s especially useful when you need to quickly convey street closures. “City closing these streets: Broadway from 3rd Ave to 9th Ave & Water Tower Road from Main to Robinson.” Most of us in television are visual people. We digest information easier if we see it rather than if you’re trying to tell us the details over IFB — especially if we’re in the middle of an interview.
And anchors, don’t be afraid to write down this information on-camera as you’re delivering it. The viewers know it’s an extraordinary time and you’re trying to make sure the information is accurate. So write it down. Set it aside. You’ll need to come back to it throughout your coverage. (And your producers have a lot more important things to do than regurgitate information they’ve already given you once.)
Instant messaging/“Top lining.” We have ENPS at my station and my producers are great at doing this. If my co-anchor and I are busy talking and interviewing people on-air, they’ll send us information in an instant message, which appears as the top line in ENPS.
Anchors, the judges will not deduct any points for reading detailed information off of ENPS on the computer screen on your desk. Again, it’s breaking news. They’ll understand.
Any more tips for creating smoother communication during breaking news coverage? Be sure to let us know by commenting below.
Matthew Nordin is a morning anchor and investigative reporter at WMBF News, Raycom Media’s NBC affiliate in Myrtle Beach. You can follow him on Twitter @MatthewNordin.