Meet my conscience: The importance of setting up gut checks.

Recently in Chicago, there was a drive by shooting.  A freelance photographer got an interview with a 4 year old who mentioned when he grew up he was going to have a gun. The sound bite aired.  Trouble is, after that bite the child added that he wanted to become a police officer.  The police officer part did not air during a morning show at a local station.  The breakdowns in ethics in this case are numerous. Did the photog get the parent’s permission?  Did the person who wrote the vo/sot watch all of the interview before writing?  Why were the boy’s words taken out of context?  Why air sound from a 4 year old at all,  especially in a vosot?  This wasn’t a perspective piece.  It was a quick pacer story.  This is not an isolated case of something that is clearly dicey, ethically, ending up on the air.  Recently a station in Bristol, RI admitted it aired video from a golf tournament without explaining the video was a staged reenactment.

Ethical issues like this do happen and some would argue they are getting more common as stations grind more news out.  A recent RTNDA/Hofstra University study shows nearly 35 percent of stations added newscasts in 2010.  With more news churning out and smaller staffs to accomplish it, more ethical mistakes will happen unless there are systems of checks and balances as well as continued training on how to effectively write under intense deadline pressure.  Sometimes even the news managers are so tied up just trying to churn out the news, they cannot truly serve in a supervisory role.  University newsrooms cannot replicate this type of environment.  It is simply too dangerous to do while also teaching the basics of being a broadcast journalist.  But once you get your first job you are often thrown in, and there may not be set checks and balances to review your work.  For example, in several shops where I worked there was not an EP overseeing shows.  In fact there wasn’t a news manager at all during several shifts.  There was no one with clear editorial control.  You would write, the anchor would rewrite then, maybe, an associate producer would rewrite the copy again.  In other shops there was a manager (usually an assistant ND) who was ostensibly overseeing the daily mix.  But that manager was so swamped you could go all day without seeing the person.  Even if there is not a set system of checks and balances at your station, you need a personal one.  That means setting one up yourself, and leaning on fellow staffers.

So let’s talk gut checks.  In each shop I set up a relationship with several co-workers where we could give quick calls and exchange thoughts on issues that would come up.  This usually was not someone with the same job as I had in the newsroom.  I wanted someone with a different perspective and different crunch times.  Remember it is easy to armchair quarterback, but when you are standing in the pocket with a nasty linebacker bearing down, you just want to get rid of the ball!  As I mentioned, often there was no EP on staff to help oversee and check my work.  Other producers would think more like me or possibly have bad habits like watching raw video only until they heard a “good” sound bite, then starting to write without watching the rest of the video.  As a producer I leaned on my anchors for help.  If a story just didn’t feel right, or children were mentioned, I asked for a gut check read from an anchor that I trusted.  If the anchor was an attacking type personality, then I went to veteran reporters in the shop instead.  I even had my associate producers and editors watch raw tape and tell me what stood out as possible ethical issues on sensitive stories.  Notice some of the people had more experience, some less. All of us had enough ethics training that someone’s gut check would go off.

Reporters, your photogs are a great resource you probably have already considered.  Here’s another great resource, anchors.  They tend to have a little more free time to brainstorm with you.  If you are lucky enough to have an EP on staff, lean on him/her.  That person is paid to help you gut check.  Don’t let him/her off easy.  Call in.  If you do not trust your EP, or there isn’t one on your shift, lean on the anchors more.  Depending on the time of day, your producer is also an asset.

It is also critical that you set up a person with final say on rewrites.  If there’s no EP, then a producer or veteran anchor should have final say.  This should be clear to everyone who copy edits for the newscast on your shift.  That includes reporters.  That way if a fact error or ethical dilemma comes up there is a clear cut person who either makes the call or is in charge of contacting management so the bosses can make the call.

What if you do have an EP or assistant ND on staff monitoring things during your shift?  Set up a gut check system with other staffers anyway.  No one is perfect and managers are often pulled away or distracted by other duties.  It is good to have other staffers to lean on in case you feel like the manager is too distracted to help.  In the end, if you wrote the story you will be held accountable.  If you end up making an ethical mistake, and we all do at one time or another, you need to protect yourself by being able to say you took steps to check your work.  This should not get the other staffer you consulted with in trouble.  At least that never happened with me.  If I wrote the story, I was held accountable.  Showing you made efforts can make the difference between a stern scolding or suspension or being fired.  These gut checks will also help you grow as a journalist by seeing other perspectives and staying on your toes.  So ask someone to be your other conscience and return the favor.  As you can see from the examples at the beginning of this article, our industry needs more gut checks.



Step out of the box, will you?

It’s a phrase that makes many journalists cringe and roll their eyes: “People, we need to think out of the box.” What does that mean?

Well, it means don’t pitch the same story ideas over and over.  It means the station wants more than police blotter stories.  It also often means news management is getting creative to attract specific audiences.  This is an opportunity to have fun at work again if you know a key secret.  The best TV stories focus on three things:  Real people with compelling video and audio.

When management starts talking about thinking “out of the box,” you need to start presenting ideas in a visual way.  Describe your story idea by explaining your first shot in it.  Another way to pitch is with the “character” you will showcase.  Thinking “out of the box” is a catch phrase for asking journalists to put a human element into a story.

Here’s how to execute “out of the box” for different news philosophies:  If you work in an “action news” shop, managers want to see reporters and anchors interacting with the news in a more visual way.  Add more sequences and nat sound.  Look for a person or interesting business to focus on for a different twist to a news of the day story.  Producers should include more interesting anchor tags with information from the anchor to make them appear more of an expert rather than just a reader.  Add cool opens to blocks with video and nat sound.  Replay cool video in slow motion.

If you work in a “big J” type shop, do what you can to showcase how news headlines impact real people.  Write in a more conversational way.  Look for interesting characters.

If you work in a headline news type shop where you normally just chase breaking news, play up any interesting video.  Let some emotional sound bites “breathe” more than you usually would.

“Out of the box” also means thinking beyond putting stories only on television screens.  More and more shops want to see you pitching ideas that also have life in social media or at the very least the station web page.  It really is just another way to establish human connections.  The only difference is making the story more accessible for people to react. That doesn’t just mean creating a blog for people to sound off.  This can be an opportunity to empower with links to associated groups and content.  It just depends on the station’s philosophy how far you will go online.

The best part about being told to step “out of the box” is that your news management team is thinking beyond old fashioned TV journalism.  It is looking for ways to integrate technology with storytelling and to redefine news coverage. This is an opportunity for you to get really creative and carve a niche for yourself not only within the station, but in the industry. So go ahead, think “out of the box.”



Produce it up!

Nothing like hearing this phrase while on deadline: “Be sure and produce it up.”   You think: “Sure, I can barely get the stuff I already have on my plate done, why not!”

Actually this is easier than it might seem.  “Producing it up” really means taking the information you have and putting it in nice tiny bundles. Think of it as buying a sweater set and matching jewelry as gifts.  You wrap the cardigan separately from the tank top underneath.  Then you wrap the earrings separately from the necklace.  Looking at all those boxes makes it seem like you spent a lot more than you did.  It’s all in the packaging.

When you “produce it up” you generally provide a nats/vo or vo/sot set up for the anchors to read that provides an overview in a visual way.  Then you focus the package on a particular element of the subject.  You save an interesting element for an anchor tag that usually is a question answer between the reporter and the anchors or maybe a vo or vosot for the anchors to read.  The point is to make the information you are providing clearer to understand.  You also are making the news more appealing to the eye so hopefully the viewer doesn’t daydream or head to the computer to cruise Facebook instead.

The other reason for “producing it up” is to try and showcase the team.   It’s showcasing your anchors and reporters as experts that work together to get the most information possible on a subject in a given day.  No, you really aren’t usually getting any more information or shooting any more video.  This is smoke and mirrors, but it works effectively. While focusing on the elements, you naturally must write more concisely.  This helps the ear understand while the visuals make the information appealing for the eyes.  Two senses aroused, means less likelihood viewers turn away.

One last benefit to “producing it up”: it makes producers/anchors/reporters and even photojournalists have to talk with each other a little more about the news.  This helps prevent fact errors.  It’s another level of script approval.

Still confused about “producing it up” and the benefits.  Consider the following.  When you watch coverage of a major event, like the earthquake in Japan you probably find yourself talking to the television asking questions.  Many times the questions you are asking could impact you or other viewers directly.  Once again we’re talking about human impact. The first morning of coverage of Japan, I found myself frustrated with all the networks.  I had to get online and see people’s stories on You Tube to really understand how to gage the event.  I needed to feel it.  I needed to know how far the quake was from Tokyo.  I needed graphics describing how the Tsunami came over.  The networks were too overwhelmed getting information.  I had to piecemeal from different stations and  Twitter.  Producing up some of these elements would have helped me understand the true depth of the losses.  Next, I wanted to know what this meant for costs of things from Japan.  Would the stock market crash because of this?  Answering these stories with graphics, live interviews, special maps and packages are great ways to produce up coverage locally.  This is what some stations call the “WIFM” (What’s In It For Me) of coverage.  Simply, it is another way to showcase the human element of stories.  These are things you want to provide viewers so they don’t turn away from your newscast to jump on the internet for the answers.

The final point, I cannot stress enough is “producing it up” is producer friendly.   It makes your job easier. You can visualize your rundown better, you can choose elements like natural sound, sidebars and graphics more easily.  It also will help you write succinctly.  Simply put, it just makes your newscast look sharp. Fear not. Go ahead, give it a try!