Safety First!

Recently I stumbled across an important post to the “Storytellers” group on Facebook. (If you are in the TV news business and are not a member, here is link to join https://www.facebook.com/groups/TVNewsStroytellers/?epa=SEARCH_BOX.) One of the members told the story of recently having to tell the newsroom that, as the field crew, they did not feel safe doing a live shot in the location requested and that they then moved to a safer location. He asked members of the group what they thought. I was so happy to see that everyone who responded did so with the message of safety first. While I believe that this is the overall attitude in local newsrooms, but there can be exceptions.

I spent the final 16-years of my 28-year daily TV news career in Central Florida. Before that, I worked in the Cleveland, Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville, Columbia, SC and Savannah markets. There are some universal truths no matter market size. The struggle over crew safety is one of them.

In Savannah, back in the early 1990’s, crew safety was often a concern because of the high rate (per capita) of violent crime. Crews were often asked to do live shots at the scene of volatile crime scenes. In my stops in the Carolinas, weather coverage, including hurricanes brought up the subject almost every year. In Cleveland, it was weather and crime.

Central Florida is no stranger to violent crime and associated live shots. But, in my experience, the overwhelming majority of crew safety issues have to do with weather coverage. The corridor along I-4, from Tampa to Daytona Beach is among the most lightning-prone on earth. During storm season lightning is a near daily occurrence during early evening news time. And as we all hopefully know, if you can hear thunder, you can be struck. The general lightning safety rule dictates staying indoors for a half hour after the last clap is heard. And, no, it does not matter if you are not in a live truck with a giant metal lightning rod sticking out the top. You can just as easily be struck if you are standing in a storm while live via a backpack unit or even just your smartphone.  

While I was still working, requests for live shots during stormy weather were common. To be fair, the decision makers in the newsroom often do not know what the weather is like where each crew is at a given time. So, when the request comes in, it is up to the crew to let them know. If I could see lightning or hear thunder, I steadfastly refused to go live. Much of the time, it would be met with a huge sigh and a response of “Fine.” At times I would get a call back saying something like “Well, I see that (insert name or station here) is live at the same place. Why can’t you be live?” I still refused. No assignment is worth your health, safety or life.

There are other examples, especially during Florida’s annual hurricane season. But I will not belabor the point with more stories. Nearly all of us have been there. The important thing here is how should you handle it if this happens to you? Ultimately, you have to decide that for yourself. But, here’s what I did. I would first explain why we felt unsafe in as much detail as possible and with the videographer in the vehicle listening. If the newsroom still insisted, I would say something like: “O.K., I want to make sure we are on the same page as to what’s happening here. I am telling you that we do not feel safe. You are telling me that you want us to go live despite that fact… correct?” Most of the time, that shuts it down. However, sometimes it will not.  Then offer a look live from a safer location. You have the right to flat out refuse as well. 

I can hear some of you saying: “Yeah, but if I do that, I’m risking my job!” You may well be. But your job is not nearly as important as your health, safety or life. I can hear others saying: “Yeah, but I’m not gonna let the other guys beat me on a story or make me look bad.” Really? Grow up! Again, your safety is more important.

I can also hear some newsroom-based employees saying: “This is what you signed up for. This is just part of the job.” No. It is not.  And remember radar data is often a few minutes behind, so its possible a crew sees lightning or hears thunder the meteorologist is not aware of yet. So there absolutely are times when journalists will find themselves in the middle of dangerous situations. And it happens more often than with non-journalists. However, we did not sign up to knowingly put ourselves in harms way. We did not sign up to knowingly risk our lives for a daily news story. There are always other ways to cover a story and impart the important information we did sign up to gather, without knowingly risking our lives.

To the journalist who started the thread in the Facebook “Storytellers” Group: Thank you!

To all of those who responded: “Safety first!” Thank you!

To all you who go out every day and work your tails off gathering news stories in the field: Thank you and always remember, no assignment is worth your health, safety or life!

———– Tom Johnson is a former 5-time Emmy winning local journalist who spent nearly 30-years working as an anchor, reporter, producer and videographer.

Share

How to tell if you are putting too much information into a story.

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

The sell

Video available

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.

VO’s.

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. 

Share

What does the WTOL morning clip say about the industry?


It’s no secret TV news is “finding itself” right now. There’s a lot of experimentation. A lot of questioning and a lot of talk of “speaking at the key demo’s level.” We see this play out in the clip that’s gone viral from WTOL, that was meant for school kids only. 

Outlets across the nation, initially took this as either a real newscast clip hor a web piece for a general audience. Then they started backtracking and letting people know it was not for a general audience in any way. Just check out the updated mentions at the end of most articles. You can see where they changed their copy to say it was not actually broadcast for news viewers. Heck, I even shook my head and wondered for a minute. Why did any of the journalists that reported on this actually believe it could have aired in a regular morning time slot at all? 

Well, there is a news set. There are also news anchors and news graphics. All of that is evidence of TV news production. But a great many of the journalists who initially covered it did not stop and think of context. They did not, I believe, because TV news has lost context for the majority of people, especially fellow journalists. It just seemed like the latest wacky attempt to try and get younger viewers to watch.

In actuality, it was a video WTOL’s morning team produced to give kids a boost during standardized testing. That was the intended audience. Kids. Not a general TV news audience. Kids who needed a pep talk. It was never meant to be widely viewed outside of that one, small, specific group.

There is another reason this was widely considered to be an actual news clip: You could click and watch the video and it was published on Facebook Live like a lot of actual “news content.” Yes, the station put this up on it’s Facebook page. A place where you can get news for the general public. This gets into some very deep questions for journalists today. What does it take for a clip to be “real news.” Some critics are standing behind their stance that this really was a ridiculous stunt which will impact the anchors credibility long term. That’s because you can easily watch it any time. It was published in a place where actual content meant to be considered news coverage is placed as well. Once something can be easily accessed, the insinuation these days is that this is “real journalism.” To the masses this became an actual news clip, even though it never was on the air. For many a digital element, combined with video, equates to truth. And watching is the only context they need. Intention apparently means nothing.

Intention means understanding the point. It means understanding facts revealed in the clip. It means understanding why certain words were used, why this was put together in the first place. Understanding intention and context means stopping, considering facts and if anything seems off, asking why? And, at that point, it also means getting clarification and doing some fact checking.

WTOL had to publish its own explanation of why in defense of critical articles. hA lot of journalists rushed to judgement and worked to get an article up on how ridiculous this was as fast as they could do it. Consider that for a moment. This was a story about fellow journalists and journalism. That is the very thing the writers of many of the articles do every day. Journalists should truly understand techniques well enough to quickly determine this had to be for something other than general news, even if it was on Facebook. If they do not, how can we expect the audience to understand it? And the station should have sent the clip to the district in a way that ensured only the schools would have access. This incident further shows that stations are unclear what the purpose of their digital imprint can be to credibility. Frankly it impacts more than your daily on air product. The simple reason why? We can keep watching this clip a week/month/year later.

Too harsh you say? How is audience retention going at your station? 

The fact this clip went viral and the reasons why must be addressed in the TV news industry. This must be addressed in journalism programs. And these harsh realities must be realized and fixed now.
h

  1. Showcasing that gets so out of hand, it alienates and frankly insults viewers
  2. Stations talk at the viewer instead of with the viewer
  3. Facts which appear as afterthoughts to many viewers

I have a front row view of how broadcasting groups nationwide are attempting to retain audience and get those highly desired digital customers. I hear all about it, constantly.  Media groups’ plans all have one thing in common: Emphasizing the packaging more than the substance. Hey, I love showcasing. I love the bells and whistles. But showcasing needs to have a point. If you wrap a day old, smelly, sandwich in pretty paper and tie a bow on it, it still is a day old, smelly, sandwich! And viewers have a much keener sense of smell than you think. They do not appreciate you thinking they are dumb enough to fall for your packaging alone. They want you to actually do the hard work. They want you to dig up the information. They want you to check the truth in those statements, list the facts and keep it fresh with legitimately new information.

Speaking with viewers means showing the respect to provide substance and not parroting back catch phrases or lingo you think makes you seem cool. Appearances are not enough. You have to actually be in the know. And viewers, even middle schoolers who love the word “yeet”, are smart enough to understand if you are talking at them and not with them. Getting “real” means being vulnerable. And in news that means knowing enough about the story you are presenting, that you can truly boil it down then be brave enough to take questions and provide answers. In real time.

The dream audience that seems so unattainable to so many has an easy request for you: Give me real facts. Give me real substance. Trust me enough to show you believe I can understand your stories without dumbing it down and putting pretty banners and animations all over it. Have cool vids to share? By all means, put it up on the B.A.M. and talk about it. Viewers appreciate that. But follow up with the harder information. Why did this happen? How did this happen? What’s next? Those answers usually involve understanding the community, having sources and being able to look for patterns and clues.

Enough focusing almost solely on the cute clothes and pretty new sets, B.A.M.’s and new text lingo graphics. Show off your brains more than your braun. Get real. Really real! Ask the tough questions. List facts. Talk about how they are verified. And speaking of verifying: Fact check more than the latest cheesy trending topic. If you want to really be groundbreaking in the industry then hire researchers to help your MMJ’s look up information, fill out FOI requests and dig up real ground breaking stories.

And next time you want to talk with kids who are burned out on testing, to help a district get real with the students, speak with the kids. Not at them. Do something like this: “Another big test day coming up. You might be getting nervous. But you have a right to prove what you know and show what you still need to learn. This is a way your teachers and the community can see how to best support you. So be brave and go for it. We believe in you and want you to have everything you need.”

Sure beats showing you can use the word “yeet!” Maybe then fellow journalists can more easily discern the intention of the piece. Because it will make sense. It has clear context. And it shows respect to the viewers. This is something a lot of seasoned journalists seem convinced just doesn’t happen much anymore.

Expect more than gimmicks. Expect old school fact checking. Believe in Journalism instead of lingo and flashy graphics. Then clips like the WTOL school test will clearly be for something other than “real news.” 

Share

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. 

Share