Should my opinion count? Taking a hard look at story decision making in newsrooms today.

The goal of this article is to spark conversation, much like the article “What is hard news really” did when we first published it. If you attend morning or afternoon editorial meetings chances are you know these phrases well “I am just not interested about that” , “Who cares” or “I don’t care so our viewers won’t either, after all I am the demo.”  When cut outs of the key demo figures showed up in editorial conference rooms, it made an underlying issue come to the forefront of decision making:  Doing the news I care about instead of what may need to be covered. Presumed biases.

I get what consultants were trying to do, showing off a Michelle or Jennifer cut out of a mom who loves to workout and go shopping. But designing entire brands around getting these idealized people to watch really hurt the business in a lot of ways. People are not caricatures. And to be even more blunt, journalists should never assume most of their audience thinks like them. Sometimes you have to take some time off as a journalist to really get this, but journalists brains sort information and relevance differently after awhile. In other words, you can get jaded. Or you can put too much relevance on an issue in the community with biased reasoning. Getting regular access to research can help you avoid some of this. But research nowadays is done more for the quick fix branding issue than truly digging into community needs. It shows. It hurts credibility. Even worse a lot of companies are dumping research options to “do it themselves.” Then the bias really comes in. The “well I don’t care about that story,” rejections become daily reasoning. 

This has been a problem for years. Check out our article on how to get around stories the GM wants, for example. Story selection for the good of the community will never be perfect. There will always be a need to humor the cut out Jennifer a little bit. There is always a desire to get the key demo to watch in order to get the ad revenue to allow your station to do more news. I am not going to say this issue is an easy fix. But I am going to say that more newsrooms need to put stories through a quick viability test that is more profound than the ND or EP or producer saying “ I don’t care about that story, pass.” Journalists step in and out of many communities, many micro worlds so to speak. To be great connectors, investigators and fact finders you must start with wondering why others care about something you don’t find interesting.  

Let’s take a look at the tried and true WIFM (What’s in it for me?) consultant story selection strategy that survive has written plenty about in the past, and let’s make it more inclusive for todays newsroom editorial meetings.  

The what’s in it for me question is supposed to consider impact with emotional relevance. It sparks a reaction that is immediate and needs validation. The problem is station brands took the “for me” part of the question too far. What if you ask these questions instead about each story pitch: Who benefits? Who is hurt? Why is this happening? How will groups/communities/politicians /companies relate to the event/fact/study/crime etc?

See the difference? I may not personally have an interest in a story about more dogs on the loose in a neighborhood on the other side of the DMA. I may not even like dogs. But I will care if people are being bitten and/or people are pushing for rights to go unleashed. Could this idea spread to my neighborhood?

These simple questions can apply to any kind of news. Road closures, fires, court cases, political debates, medical breakthroughs, tech stories, economic trends. The questions quickly identify the impact. More importantly they can help reduce the influence of personal biases. Asking why others care about a story can help analysis become more objective. Maybe it can even make the viewer feel like you actually do care about them,  because you take on a variety of topics instead of easy grabs that truly impact a narrow audience. Your newsroom.   Your opinion needs to be one voice. And other conflicting voices might have the better story for the day.

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Crew View: Do You Really See It During Major Coverage?

The mass shooting in Orlando has been very raw to cover. Mass shootings simply are.

All hands are on deck. Everyone works long hours. Everyone bands together with a passionate sense of purpose to serve the community.

The things the crews see and talk about, over and over, can be very hard to take. Some will take to FB and lay out the pain. Some will quietly seek counseling. But most just grit their teeth and say, “This is part of the job I must be strong.” That is largely true. It is part of the job. But I really do not think people choose to be journalists to cover mass shootings, or other very traumatic events like this. Furthermore, you cannot understand the effects these events have on those covering it, until you have covered one yourself.

This is not meant to offend, but it has to be said: When I say cover, I mean actually stand at ground zero. Actually hear the SWAT team bust in. Actually witness the victims families waiting and waiting, then getting word their loved ones died. Witness the families and friends wailing uncontrollably. See some of the carnage left behind. These elements are not truly understood, until experienced first hand.

I say this, because too often when watching this coverage, I notice something time and again. For the most part the same people are sent to the same scenes over and over. Part of that is logical and good. They are developing the relationships to get the exclusives. It is a tried and true technique for journalists. But in this day of mass shootings and other horrific displays I have to ask, how much would coverage actually be impacted, if you worked in a rotation? Here’s what I mean: When the attack first happens, the initial crews on the scene make sense to follow up where they were stationed the next day. Maybe even the next two days. But when you are hitting day three and on, many could use psychological relief. By that I mean, why not have the crew who sat with the victims’ families cover some nuts and bolts angles, and send the nuts and bolts crew to “story tell” one day? Now, the heavy investigative diggers are a different category because they are likely spending time in and out of these scenes and needing time to find the information. I am talking about those daily follow ups.

Why bother, do you ask? Several reasons. First, the people spending time with the victims and their families need a chance to separate. You get incredibly emotionally attached. It is very hard to re-enter your life after several days of living and breathing this with those so closely impacted. This is one reason why medical teams work to start rotations as soon as possible to give staff a day off and a chance to speak with counselors. News people need this option too. Because there is less staffing you realistically cannot give crews a day off. But you can change up the scenery a bit, so they get a mini emotional break.

It also can be good for the crews doing nuts and bolts to see the impact first hand for a day. Believe me, it will inspire more questions. It reminds crews of what this event really means to the community on a more emotional level. I cannot help but wonder if there would be less on-scene, smiling, selfies if crews are rotated and ended up spending time with a mother who lost her son, or a dad searching for answers or a person shot but still alive asking: “Why me?” It makes it damn hard to desensitize yourself from the story.

And there is another point I want to bring up. Too often managers are insensitive to what the crews are going through. They expect each crew to “man up.” While newsrooms fill up on pizzas, the crews in the field are often forgotten. They are working long hours too. And in this case I will say their job is harder.  Journalists in the newsroom still get the luxury of some degree of detachment. They are not smelling the smells, seeing the carnage, standing in the actual moment watching the chaos from every angle. They get air conditioning or heat, delivered food and a bathroom right down the hall. This is not to downplay the importance of the journalists in the newsroom. Not at all. But too often there is a lack of truly understanding what the field crews are going through.

In this digital age, I cannot help but wonder how perspectives would change if a manager came out with the crews to the scenes and worked from the field if even for a few hours? Fire battalion chiefs go to the scene. The Sheriff shows up. What if a news manager came by, to really see what the crews are dealing with? Again, in my own experience, and through hearing from crews over the years; there are simply too many times when a crew calls in with a problem and they get chewed out and told to get it done, period. I saw this during major weather events, standoffs, shootings, even major court cases. Back then, the ND or AND had to be in the building as a point person. Cell phones and laptops did not exist. But now an AND or ME could stop by and experience the actual scene, if even for an hour. I know some managers who quietly go by the scene between news cycles just to see. They do not let crews know. It is very beneficial. If you just can’t get away, at least read this and please take it to heart. The majority of the time you are only getting a glimpse of the actual intensity of the events. Your field crews are not going to talk in-depth about all they saw and experienced because it is likely simply too much to take in right away. That’s why a crew can start to act testy on day three or two weeks later “out of the blue.” They will likely have a delayed reaction. You need to protect them to some degree by being sensitive to what they are not telling you. Send food. Text “good job” more often. Call them in and ask, “Are you ok?” Ask if they need to switch up their roles a bit after a few days so they get a mini break. At least ask. The crews need you to have a firm understanding of the view they are taking in each day. They need to know that if it’s getting hard to take, they can at least talk about it, and have someone truly listen and understand the crew view. They need to know their bosses have their back. So ask yourself: Do you, really?

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Ways To Make Live Shots Safer Right Now

No doubt, the killings of Alison Parker and Adam Ward have really shaken up fellow TV journalists from all over. And whenever a tragedy like this happens there are calls to action.
Including two stations in Milwaukee that are not doing discretionary live shots the day after this attack. Several excellent articles have already come out asking broadcasting companies and station managers to consider using live shot delay buttons (similar to what is done in radio),
think about the dangers of one man banding  and raise the issue of live crews routinely feeling very vulnerable while on live shots. All of these are excellent points that journalists frankly should push for discussion about in their newsrooms. In the meantime “Survive” is all about very practical tips that you can do right here, right now to handle difficult situations you face each day in TV news. So let’s talk takeaways that deserve to be heard and implemented right now.

What I am hearing from TV journalists is this horrible loss hit everyone hard. And when something like this happens staff members really want one thing to happen right away: To hear from newsroom leaders that they recognize the concerns this creates, that there are provisions in place and more being discussed and that management passionately wants their crews to be safe. You can say this is a lot of hot air and we need to move forward. But simply put, at a time of crisis, staffers want to believe their leaders have their backs. So if you are a news manager reading this, it is not silly or stupid to make a few remarks. Your newsroom needs to hear it. In fact, at this point they are distressed if they haven’t heard it.

If you are an MMJ you need to think about how you select where you will be live. If you are told you have to be live, then look for a location where there are people around in case you need help. If you are covering an arrest, go from in front of the police station if you can. If the scene is active go live as close as you possibly can to where the officers are working. If the scene is about to be over and you will be standing alone in the dark, call and ask to send in a look live before the cops leave. If you have to, ask an officer or deputy if they can wait just a few more minutes to watch your back as you finish up. If they are already gone, call the department and tell them you are feeling unsafe, but have to stay, and ask if they can send an officer by. All they can do is say “No.” But sometimes they say “Yes.” We can only hope that managers will stop and think harder about the need to have MMJs going live on a regular basis. But again, we need to talk practicality here. Many of you went live the same day as the attack. Many more will go live today. Keep your eyes out, and stay within ear shot of other people. MMJ’s should play it even more safe and conservatively when going live than two or three person crews.

Managers when you think about where you are sending live crews, think about their surroundings. I have always been a proponent of cross training, this is even more true now. If you are not very familiar with the coverage area, at least take some time on your off days to drive around and explore the common areas where you send crews. Get a good idea of what they face. I understand that the story the WDBJ crew was covering was in an area considered safe, and did not have controversy around it. But crews face more than you might realize day to day. See it, so you can more easily identify solutions if a crew calls with safety concerns. Educated suggestions go a long way. Also reiterate to your crews that if they have concerns you will listen, offer suggestions and try to help in any way you can.

I hate to have to include this, but I worked in news long enough as a producer and manager that this has to be said. If you are one of those crews, that says you are nervous just to get home earlier (Yes, there are some people like this, and yes, I had to deal with some firsthand at nearly every station where I worked) you are doing your co-workers a great disservice. If you cannot handle the hours and workload, get out of TV news. Now, more than ever, a trust has to be inherent between news crews and managers back at the station. If you say you are not feeling safe, that has to be true. Be responsible. This will go a long way toward managers being able to more easily trust all their crews. Read “The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf” again if you need. And managers remember, one bad apple should not ruin the crop especially if you deal with the bad apple. The vast majority of news crews come in ready to give 110 percent. If they say they feel vulnerable, the fast answer of “just deal with it” is not correct.

Can we please stop letting consultant advice take precedent over common sense in newsrooms? In this day and age viewers take live shots for granted. Many, I promise, barely notice that “Live” bug. Managers, if in your gut when assigning a crew a story you think the live environment will stink, do not assign it as live. You can still have crews in live trucks, turning their pkg in a little earlier in case a breaker happens. In fact that is the smartest thing you can do. Live shots are meant to cover breaking information. It is the fastest means to get viewers the facts. If every newsroom reiterated this definition tonight, that move alone would prevent a lot of live shot photo bombing, “f her in the…” incidents and would make it a lot harder to predict where live shots will happen. Therefore, making it harder for people with less than good intentions to find your live shot locations.

Yes, if it’s the first night of the state fair, it will make for a great live shot. Do it. But overall, many live shots in newsrooms today have no point except to slap a “Live” bug up. By just saying no to live shots in dark holes, in front of empty buildings and hours before or after an event where there is nothing to show, you are making crews less vulnerable. Remember, safety in numbers. The best live shots have action happening all around them anyway. Being live is the best/only way to get the latest information quickly to viewers when it is changing. Those should be the parameters for live shots. And MMJ’s, no live shot is worth big risk. If your gut says no way, call your manager. The beauty of digital news nowadays is there are so many ways to tell a story.

Finally, all of us need to recognize that no matter how much we try to stay safe, things like this can happen. No one could truly predict what happened in Virginia, despite what’s coming out about Vester Flanagan’s past. That’s why Alison and Adam are heroes to fellow journalists. They did their jobs all the way to the end. Adam’s dedication and ability to get the image of the shooter is something I think all journalists will carry with them. We are trained to be eyewitnesses. We will fight to bring the facts to the viewer. And now we’ve been reminded again that there are risks. May the reward continue to be greater.

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When Is It Time To Stand Up To The Bully Boss?

We all know that newsrooms are politically dicey. Tensions often run high. Pressure is intense. Frankly, a lot of bully type personalities fill many newsrooms as well. So it is inevitable that you will end up with a bully boss at some point in your news career.

Over time and through a lot of trial and error, I have learned an important lesson about bully bosses. They can torture you only as long as you let them. So it is crucial that you stand up to the bully at some point, in order to get the person to back down. (If the bully is a screamer read this). The big question is when?

First you need to see if the bully has a valid reason to pick on you. Are you late feeding your package every night? Are you still writing in the booth during the newscast? When the EP asks you to change something in your rundown do you roll your eyes and say no? When the ND tells you not to wear red, do you do it anyway out of spite? If you are truly just coming in and doing your job correctly, and still face unreasonable wrath, it is time to document.

By document I mean write down times when the attacks were unwarranted and any witnesses. You want to be able to, if needed, show a pattern of being singled out unnecessarily. Once there is a clear pattern to show, it is time to stand up.

How? You need to ask to speak with the bully and let the person know, the treatment is coming off as attacking instead of managing. You want a witness when you do this, but do not single the manager out in front of the entire staff. That will just create more issues. 1 person, who is a credible witness is all you really need. State that you are there to be a team player and that you value the managers opinion. But make it clear that the delivery methods are making it hard for you to glean the information you need to do what the manager wants. In other words, you are firing a warning shot that you are not being managed appropriately, but you are not being threatening when you do. If you just put the bully completely on the defensive, you will just face more wrath. So choose your words carefully. Document this conversation as well. Often most bullies back off if you have the guts to talk with them directly about the issue. If not, you have documentation to back up the conversation. If the bully asks for examples, give a couple but not all that you have documented. This let’s the manager know you are serious and likely keeping score without you saying it flat out. Again, the bully tends to shut down a bit. But if he/she does not, you will have examples to make your case later.

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