Small Market, USA — No matter how many hours you’ve spent watching Diane Sawyer over the years and dreamed of anchoring Good Morning America or World News, for some people getting that first TV reporting gig results in a revelation: I wasn’t cut-out for this.
I recently got an e-mail from a young woman who was frank that journalism isn’t the part of the TV business she feels passionate about. Not only that, she worries she’s not doing a good job.
“I went to school, yes, but there’s things they don’t teach there,” she said in her first e- mail to me.
SurviveTVNewsJobs.com has agreed not to reveal the woman’s name or current market, which is small, in order to protect the relationship with her news director and allow her to be completely honest about her feelings in our e-mail exchanges.
“This is my first job outside my hometown,” she said. “I worked in (a large market) and loved it there…I did fun stories and the traffic. Well, I got laid-off and now I’m in (this small market) trying to keep-up my resume, but I’m finding that I’m starting to really dislike this job.”
Judging by how she ended that first e-mail (“you can be blunt with me,” she said), she was expecting the sort of tart-tongued tirade Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News would’ve delivered. She didn’t get that from me, though. I actually feel a lot of compassion for her. As I like to tell high school classes, journalism is like the priesthood. It’s a calling. If you don’t feel the insatiable need to be a journalist — if doing something else with your life would literally leave you depressed, thinking less of yourself, or feeling some other variety of intense and sincere mental anxiety — then this is not the career for you. Ok, I’m being dramatic. But you know what I mean.
So first, I had to make sure this young woman didn’t want to be a news anchor. If her desire is to go back to her big market hometown someday and deliver the news to millions of people, then reporting stories out in the field for years is the apprenticeship she’s just going to have to endure. When you’re an anchor, you have to know, based on your own experiences out in the field, which questions are and are not appropriate to ask your reporters in a breaking news situation.
For instance, in the first couple of hours of the Boston Marathon bombing coverage, I didn’t hear a single network or Boston anchor ask a reporter on the scene, “Was this a terrorist act?” That would’ve been irresponsible. We could all see the video. We could see that there were two explosions very close together and that white smoke rose from both. We could see that a lot of people were injured badly. But in those first crucial minutes on the air, your reporter hasn’t had a chance to talk with police. The officers who know anything are too busy to answer your questions and the PIO’s are likely in the dark, too.
What local Boston TV reporters did, which I thought was very good journalism, was describe the scene. I’ll never forget one of them saying in the early-going that he had seen victims who’d lost limbs and that we should prepare ourselves for fatalities. He told us what he saw. He didn’t speculate that this was a terrorist act. Are we bomb experts? Explosion experts? Most likely, no. Who’s to say that if x, y, and z go wrong underground that a utility explosion might not cause similar destruction?
My point is, when you’re sitting on a news set and guiding your station’s live coverage — and by the way, the teleprompter is blank — you’ve got to know what questions are inappropriate. Plus, as soon as persons of interest (yeah, I hate that phrase, too, but it’s a legal term of art we sometimes have to use) or suspects are named, you have to know on-the-spot as you’re ad-libbing which statements about them are fair in light of the on-going news story and which statements could get you and your station sued for defamation if you and the police are wrong. (See: Richard Jewell/Atlanta Olympics bombing coverage.)
The young woman hating her small market TV reporting experience never wants to be an anchor, though.
“Being an anchor, I never much cared for it,” she said in her second e-mail.
I told her not to feel bad, that I think a lot of people force themselves into the TV reporter box just so they can be on television. I really appreciated her honesty. I am also convinced her TV career isn’t over.
Next week, I’ll write about my advice to her about what she should do next. Based on that, she’s made a big decision that I’ll fill you in on, too.