The ultimate tease challenge: the daily update on a recurring story.

If you ever wondered why you see producers sitting at their desks mumbling to themselves, then pacing in a hallway, this is it.  Teasing the story that seems like it just won’t end.  The rising flood waters waiting to crest, the trial that drags on forever, the storm damage cleanup that is so important to cover, but looks the same each day.

These are stories that, after a while, management and producers must debate on whether to tease at all, or does the viewer just expect the coverage to be there and watch for something else.  While that debate rages, producers are often faced with a looming deadline and overnights that say they get a spike when coverage of that topic airs.

So what do you do when there’s no obvious unique element?  Look beyond the obvious.  Sometimes you need to come up with an interesting sidebar tag that would have viewer benefit.  This is the time to search Twitter and tweet your sources for interesting tidbits that you can fact check and possibly add to your coverage in some way.  You can also call a buddy who’s not in the business and ask where the coverage seems to be lacking for the story.  They might have an idea you never thought off that would make a great vo/sot or even an outboard package.  Also, have reporters keep an extra eye out for interesting character development that you can turn into an interesting tease.

Anchors are a great resource in this difficult time.  They often are approached by people with interesting questions you could answer as an added element to your coverage.   It’s a great tease option because it enhances your anchor’s credibility, with a viewer benefit.  You asked and we got the answer for you!  It engages viewers who often feel we talk at them instead of to them.

If there really is nothing interesting to tease about the ongoing story, talk with management about whether you can move the tease out of its traditional place, like the end of a block.  This is a great time to do stealth teases (see article “You’re Hooked“) in the middle of the a-block for example.  You can put the anchors on a two shot and have them say something like, “Hey, in 5 minutes we’re going to get an update on the trial.  I hear (reporter) has (a quick line with the gist of the pkg).” Then go on with the newscast.

The one thing you want to avoid at all costs is the tease that goes something like these “Up next the latest on the Casey Anthony case.” or “We have the latest on cleanup of the tornado damage in Joplin.” These are the ultimate throw away lines and will cost you credibility with the viewer.  Keep in a mind that viewers expect you to have the latest on a big story.  That’s the reason they are tuning in.  They believe in your ability to cover the ongoing stories.  Don’t let them down by trivializing it with only a “coming up, the latest.”  It makes your station seem callous and sloppy.  Viewers are taking this story seriously.  You need to as well.  You don’t have to have a wow factor each day.  A simple headline in a tease is okay.  It helps viewers know when they will get the daily update.  Taking a quick hit with a live reporter also can work, but coordinate with the reporter ahead of time to make sure he/she doesn’t give away too much.  Viewers think it is cool if you check in live on something, it shows immediacy.  Have the anchor say something like, “We’re hearing court is about to wrap up right now, (Reporter) interesting day?”  Reporter says: “Yes, in fact we had something just happen that we will tell you about in two minutes.”  You aren’t exaggerating, you are not giving the story away, you are showcasing a live ongoing event with immediacy.  Again, viewers love feeling like they are in the moment.  Another way to consider this along similar lines:  Teasing these kinds of stories is like teasing weather.  Some days the information is huge and you need to blow it out.  Some days there’s not much to it, but you want the viewer to know you always have their best interest in mind, even on a sunny cloudless day.  You want to shoot straight and build credibility for the times the teases are easy to write, because what you have to share is fascinating.  Do these things and the amount of time you spend mumbling to yourself in the hallway, will begin to shrink!

 

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Is there such a thing as… too in your face?

“60 Minutes” and later tabloid journalism began the push for ”in your face” confrontations between a reporter and a person considered caught red handed.  Now it is the norm for investigative reporters to use ambush interviews after laying out tons of evidence against a company or person who may have crossed the line.  Don’t get us wrong, these interviews can be very effective in this type of package.  What’s interesting is how the concept is bleeding over into everyday news coverage more and more.

Case in point, the Casey Anthony trial down in Orlando.  We won’t spell out the details of the case because everyone in the news biz has some idea of the trial and surrounding media circus.  We are taking a closer look at recent headlines about an interesting walk shot into the courthouse with reporters, photojournalists, and attorneys.  In case you missed it, watch the video courtesy of WESH TV and the Orlando Sentinel.  “Courthouse Confrontation” Make sure you let the video play out all the way to the end.  There is a lull, but in the end it gets interesting again.

Now look at some of the headlines on the internet after the walk shot you just watched.  The Orlando Sentinel called it “ A Bizarre situation with reporters…” The Florida News Center headline read, “Anthony attorneys are annoyed by Orlando media.”  Now consider the News Blues headline, “Orlando reporter harasses Casey Anthony attorney.”  See a common link?  In all of these headlines, the sympathy characters were the attorneys, not the journalists.

Now, let’s consider why fellow TV journalists should care that the reporter gets little love in the coverage of the walk.  It’s an example that shows when there are confrontations, the public tends to sympathize with anyone but the journalist.  Yes, there are some exceptions especially in investigative reporting.  But, remember, we are talking about general news coverage here.  The reporter is described as the aggressor and gets less sympathy in coverage of a situation like this.

Partner this with the fact that, increasingly, news managers are trying to differentiate coverage by “being more aggressive” and you have an entirely new set of ethical issues to consider.  There’s also the matter of there now being so many cameras around that your actions can easily go viral on the internet.  The incident we just linked you to above did, and quickly too.

So here’s what you need to consider when you get into an intense situation.

  • What is your stations news philosophy?
  • How far is too far? (i.e. – What is management’s threshold?)
  • Will you be typecast? (Will it hurt your professional image?)

Your station’s news philosophy must come first because it is the best gage you will get on how far you can take questioning and still have management’s backing.  Some newsrooms are very against confrontational interviews.  Some thrive on them.  News philosophy also determines how you phrase everything you say.  For example, some stations encourage the use of slang to try and relate to the viewer.  Some are completely opposed to it and would be horrified if a reporter used a word like “jerk” in this type of setting.  Some want action no matter what.  They want you to yell.  Others define that as highly unprofessional.

Which leads to our next point:  You need a clue as to management’s threshold.  Managers cannot and will not give you black and white answers about this type of situation for legal reasons.  You can get good reads though, by discussing scenarios ahead of time with a boss.  The video of this reporter covering the Anthony trial can also be a discussion point with a manager.  Ask your managers what they think of the situation and try to talk it out.

Take another look at the video of this walk scene and consider your personal reaction to it.  This is a good opportunity to gut check whehter you are being true to your view of what being a journalist is all about.  In this day and age, you have to worry as much about the next possible boss reacting as you do your current news director.  There is so much turnover, you need to be true to yourself in these situations.  Many times I saw reporters act in a way that seemed very unlike their journalistic style.  When I would talk with them later, I got the same answer each time: “I thought that’s what the ND wanted me to do.”  Most ND’s will push you and tell you to be “aggressive.”  Most bosses also understand that “aggressive” for one type of person is different than for another.  Remain true to your heart and your carefully cultivated professional persona.  You do not want video of your out of character attempt to impress the ND, to go viral on the internet.  It will live forever in the digital world and may come back to bite you one day with another ND.  Even if only the other stations in town see you doing an ambush type interview, this is a small biz.  The other ND’s in town will soon know how you act in the field.  Often ND’s considering hiring you, call your competition to learn more about you and see if you are a commodity.  Keep that in mind.  You are trying to impress all the ND’s in town every day. The only way to do that and not go crazy with stress is to stay true to your personal limits on what’s acceptable.  You do not want to be typecast as something you are not.

One final thought: if something like this happens to you in the field, call your immediate manager right away.  This is very important.  You want to give management time to come up with a reaction before they start getting calls.  We suggest calling your boss even if you aren’t the TV station directly involved.  Just witnessing and recording the whole thing, could mean your ND will get a phone call.  The last thing you want is your ND or GM getting blindsided, by something you knew about, then having to “save face” for you and your station because of an ambush style interview, no matter how common they’ve become.

 

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Storytelling on a dime.

You hear it all the time.  Reporters and photographers say something to the effect of:  “Storytelling is great and all, but I’ve got too much to do and I don’t have time for that stuff.”  And while I understand where those comments come from, I don’t buy it.  TV news today is filled with more deadlines and “side work” than ever before.  Often your day starts with:  “Welcome to work, now get out the door we have a story we need you live on at noon.”  You knock that out and then it’s on to your “real” one or two stories for the evening shows.  Then there are the standup teases, vo/sot’s and versions of your story(ies) for your station’s website.  Most of us also, blog, tweet, and possibly  take some still shots for the website.  No doubt it’s a LOT of work!  But I promise you, storytelling does not have to add extra work to that pile.  It really is easy to pump out good storytelling “on a dime!”  It’s just a matter of shifting your way of thinking.

Typically, the toughest stories to get your storytelling mindset right, are the so-called “boring newspaper” stories.  These are the stories where you have to interview some sort of “official” and, because of deadline demands, no one else.  So, how do you “tell a story” when all you have is an official and their boring “officialese?”  First off, while the photog is setting up for the interview, talk with the interviewee about anything but the story you are covering.  Take a look around the office if that’s where you are talking.  Often, you can find some great tips into who this person really is in “real life.”  When you find something, chat him/her up about it.  I remember one recent interview where I thought I was dead in this respect.  The guy was nice enough but not the most personable and clearly not comfortable about being interviewed on camera.  Then I noticed a photo of him with one of the most well-known politicians of the last quarter century.   It turns out that he once did security work at a very high level.  I asked him about it and it eventually led to some common ground between us.  That little nugget helped immensely.  First, it loosened him up for the interview and allowed me to pull some bites out of him that had a little personality.  Secondly, it gave me a way to make this “official” more of a “real person.”  I started the piece by talking about how this man had once protected some of the powerful people in the country, but now helps offer a different kind of protection for this small town.  His past really did not have squat to do with the story of the day, but it gave me a way to turn this guy into a “character” in our story.  When you can do that, you give viewers a reason to see that person as more than just some “official.”  You have them interested in watching.  Remember, good stories have characters.  Turn your subjects into characters, not just officials who give you sound bites.

Nat sound is another area where you CAN add to your story without a ton of extra effort.  It comes down to this:  Shoot (and use) just about anything that makes sound to give your stories some life.  Seriously use just about anything.  Nat sound that is integral and directly related to your story (the power saws in a story about construction or crackling flames in a spot news fire story) are always the best.  But that kind of sound is not always there.  If it’s not, look around and try to find something else.  The idea behind nat sound is getting people engaged in your story.  Read any study or talk to any consultant about what people are doing when the news is on their TV.  They are normally doing everything but “watching.”  In the morning they are making breakfast, getting dressed for work or getting the kids ready for school.  The TV is on, but it may as well be video wallpaper.  So, your job is to give them a reason to stop what they’re doing, turn around and watch.  Nat sound is a way to do that.  Say you’re on that story about construction.  But, in the time you’ve been given to shoot it, the crew is on a lunch break.  You are stuck right?  Nope, you can overcome.  Look around, are there people getting in and out of cars (car door sound)? Maybe there’s a fire truck or ambulance going by with a siren on.  Sometimes using seemingly unrelated nat sound is just the trick.  Think about it.  You’re at home with the news on but aren’t sitting and watching.  You know the reporter is talking about construction and all of a sudden you hear a siren!  What the…?  You are probably going to turn around to see why.  This is why you shoot and try to use any nat sound you can get.  You want to make viewers turn around and pay close attention.  Again, it’s really not any extra work.  But it will add immeasurably to the quality of your stories.

When it comes to writing, try to use a piece of that nat sound off the top.  Failing that, make sure you start by establishing the character you’ve easily uncovered using the tips above.  Fill in the middle with the meat of the story you’ve been assigned.  Then end it with another tidbit that makes your subject a “real person.”

All stories have a few basic things in common.  They have a beginning, a middle and an end.  They also have characters.  Shoot and write with these things in mind and you cannot go wrong.   Turn these things into habits and suddenly your “reports” turn into “stories” and your work begins to stand out from all the “Just the facts, Jack!”, boring, information presenters.  Quickly you will establish yourself as a “storyteller.”  Your producers, EP’s and News Director will appreciate you more and your resume reel will become stronger and more marketable.  Suddenly the next chapter in your personal, career story becomes much more interesting with minimal investment from a little storytelling on a dime!

 

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