What’s with the question? Make sure there’s an answer.

We recently got a Tweet from a frustrated journalist who had just watched a live shot from another station in another market.  In that live shot the anchor asked a question to the reporter, and the question was not answered until the tag.  The story came across as oversold and uncomfortable.

Sound familiar?  The flow from anchor intro, to reporter live shot, to pkg, to live tag, to anchor tag is delicate to begin with.  Then a whole bunch of writers step in, each with their own voice and tweak.  The finished product often becomes forced and everyone looks uncomfortable or worse yet, detached from the information described.  Then comes the big kicker: The consultant comes to town and tells the ND that the field crews and anchor desk must interact and seem engaged with each other.  So what is management’s solution?  Require anchors to ask reporters a question going into live shots.  Then comes situations like the one at the start of this article.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  There are solutions.

First, the one question you never want to ask: “Joe are you live at the scene now?”  Before you chuckle and roll your eyes, I lost count of how many times I had to copy edit that type of pitch question out of intros.  It was constant, in every market size. Also, make sure the reporter knows the question is coming and what it is. That way the reporter doesn’t seem clueless. Remember, IFB can and does go in and out,  you want the live shot to start out smoothly. The reason managers ask you to use a question in the pitch line is to make the interaction between the anchor and reporter seem like a conversation.  When you think about it, most conversations do begin with a question and an answer.  The person answering expands on the answer then, asks another question to move the conversation along.

With that in mind, here are some techniques to keep anchor questions required in the intro from seeming forced:

  • Reference live surroundings in the question
  • Provide perspective through the question
  • Write what a viewer ask

Now let’s delve deeper, so these are clear.  Remember this exercise is supposed to help the anchor and reporter talk with each other, instead of at each other.  It is one of the many ways you create flow within a newscast.  So when writing the question in the pitch line, a natural way to transition is to ask about why the reporter is live at a particular place.  Things like, “Joe can you walk us through the situation where you are?” makes the anchor seem authoritative and the reporter seem like an expert eyewitness.  Another way to reference live surroundings is to give anchors the freedom to know they can ask about what they see in the live picture with the reporter.  This is effective during fires, standoffs, fairs, holiday parties, political events… you get the idea.  You can also have the reporter tell the producer if something interesting is going on, right before taking the shot.  Then the anchor can ad lib with that information.  Something like, “Joe, we’re hearing another fire truck just arrived, where is it and why was it called in?”  If the live surroundings are stagnant (which is often the case) you can have the anchor ask something informative about the area like, “Joe, that’s usually a quiet neighborhood how are families there reacting to this situation?”  All of these scenarios give the reporter a reason to reference why he/she is live.  That is part of the natural flow of a conversation.  Think of it like this, if you bump into a friend at the store, you often say “Hey, what are you shopping for today?”  The person answers usually by pointing to the aisle he/she either just went down or will head down next.  The key for this type of pitch question is to transition to what is immediately next in the live report.

Now, let’s talk about using questions for perspective.  This is where pitch questions can often go wrong, like the scenario at the beginning of this article.  You must ask a question that provides an immediate answer.  No waiting until the package or tag.  If your reporter is at a boring scene and is doing a story that’s been done over and over, use the pitch question to help show what’s new.  Use something like, “Joe, before we were told the tax cut would be small, why is it possibly going up now?”  Or “Last night we were told this was an accident, why are investigators calling it intentional now?”  You are showing that the anchor remembers what he/she tells people and that there is something new.  Again, before you snicker, sit down and watch a newscast.  It is excruciating how often anchor intros are written in ways that make the anchor seems clueless about the subject, especially when it’s an ongoing story.  The cheap copout way to write an intro is to fake that the subject is new by providing no perspective.  If you are struggling with ways to justify why this information is being given to the viewer again, let the anchor be the antagonist of sorts and ask that very thing of the reporter.  “Joe, we’ve been talking about this political issue for a week, why do families need to hear about it tonight?”  That’s a natural question someone probably asked in the editorial meeting when you decided to cover the story.  So let the anchor ask it of the reporter in the intro.

Which leads to the kinds of questions viewers would ask:  Put the viewer benefit, front and center.  (If you don’t know what viewer benefit means read “What’s in it for me.”)  Now consider this:  Anchors are considered the voice of the audience.  They are the people who can ask what viewers want to know, but don’t have the means to ask.  Use that connection between anchor and audience to craft questions to the reporter.  Let your anchor be gutsy with questions like, “Joe, a lot of people think this tax cut is a joke, is it?” Or “Joe, does this really mean (star player) is walking away from the team?” Or “Joe, there have been a lot of break-ins in this area lately, what makes this one different?” Again, think about bumping into a friend and briefly catching up.  Most of us have similar things to say each time, so our friend prods with questions to see if there are any changes.  People expect to hear some of the same information, but appreciate anchors asking what is different.

Finally, understand that questions can be a crutch.  It is such a common technique, that it can be over used.  But if done correctly, it will not seem forced.  Remember, asking questions is human nature.  So don’t fear questions, just make sure the reporter gets to the answer right away.