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.