Don't Mess with the Press

How to Write, Produce and Report
               Quality Television News

by Tony Seton



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 Discussion Points and Practices

 

Gathering the News

What is the first step in delivering the news?

What are the three principal elements in a news report?

Give examples of stories that might be covered with only one or two of those essential elements?

How many words is a picture worth? Why?

 

What Is News?

What is news?

How can news judgement be strengthened?

Outline a position on a controversial subject. What are the soft spots in your argument?

Screen and log a network newscast. Which stories were important news and which seemed more to have an entertainment value? How would you change the order of stories based on their newsworthiness? Which stories would you have cut? What stories did they not cover which you thought were important? How do Murrow's or Westin's criteria apply? How did they help the community move toward resolution of the five critical issues facing it?

Screen and log a local newscast, and apply the same questions.

Screen and log a network magazine broadcast. Do the stories covered meet your criteria for what is news? How do Murrow's or Westin's criteria apply? How did they help the community move toward resolution of the five critical issues facing it?

 

What Is Television News?

What can you learn in smaller markets?

How does smaller market experience benefit you in a larger market?

Discuss the advantages of working your way up through larger markets.

 

Staying Current

What sources do you use to stay generally informed?

What sources do you check that challenge the status quo?

Consider the different news services you access. How would you define the market/audience for each?

Is there an area in which you think you might like to specialize? What would be sources of information for that area? Which reporters do a good job of covering that specialty?

Consider examples of on-going stories. (e.g., trials, labor negotiations, real estate developments) How much information do you presume the audience to have, and how much has to be reprised?

Consider examples of recurring one-time stories. (e.g., tornadoes, accidents, crimes) Discuss context for these stories.

Think of stories that have changed in perspective. (e.g., fallen heroes, scientific discoveries, failing companies) What triggered the change? When? Might it have been observed sooner?

 

Contacts

Where do you find contacts?

What kind of people make the best contacts?

What use are press releases?

How do you handle of a story when you are missing some of the key facts?

Why is accuracy vital to a reporter?

Discuss the different ways to interpret "No comment."

Discuss how you might have the facts right but the story wrong. What might be the ramifications, on the people in the story and the reporter?

 

Sources

Screen a network newscast. What kind of sources would the correspondents have required to get their information? Would any of the stories require special sources?

Screen a local newscast. What kind of sources would the reporters have required to get their information? Would any of the stories require special sources?

Examine a newspaper. Which stories would have required special sources?

Discuss how you might cultivate sources to get the inside scoop on a story that interests you.

If you're not sure of a source, what can you do?

Ultimately, how do you decide if a source is telling the truth?

Staged News

Consider the local newscast. Which stories were likely promulgated by a press release? How many stories featured press conferences? How many talking heads were flacks? How many talking heads read statements?

Read the local newspaper. Which stories were likely instigated by a press release? How many quotes were from PR people? How many quotes were taken from released statements?

Discuss whether or not stories should be reported if no questions are allowed after a statement is read to the press.

Discuss the circumstances for working from a press release. What information needs to be cross-checked? When is a company's press release worthy of news coverage? How do you distinguish between a newsworthy press release and corporate propaganda?

Discuss how to handle someone who delivers information badly. When do you protect them? When do you let them hang themselves?

 

Scoops

Discuss what is a scoop.

Discuss the specialized role of an investigative reporter.

What are some of the major scoops in recent news history?

What have been some of the more notorious retractions?

Discuss how a news scoop can affect news events.

 

The Assignment Desk

Make a list of the tape stories covered in the previous night's local newscast. Figure out what time the stories were shot. Calculate how much time it took to cover each story. Using an area map, chart how the stories might have been covered. Make an assignment log that would have provided that coverage. How many videographers would have been needed? How would they have been scheduled? (Make sure they had time for lunch and travel.) When would they return to the studio in time to edit and be ready for air?

Go through the morning newspaper and pick out the ten most important local news stories. Mark on a map the places and the times these stories occurred. Which of these stories would you have been able to cover with five videographers? With three?

You have three reporters to cover the day's news. One of them takes more time than his colleagues. How would you assign them to cover everything that needs to be reported, per the assignment logs above?

You have three videographers. One shoots very well at a planned event; the other two like to shoot from the shoulder. How would you assign them to the assignment logs above?

 

Reporting

When should a reporter start thinking about visuals for her story?

What are three ways that time affects a television news reporter?

Discuss the knowledge base of your market. Offer examples of what information could be left out of a local story, but would have to be explained in a national or regional report on the same subject.

Why is it important for a television news report to have a beginning, middle and end?

What makes television news reporting more challenging than print or radio?

How do top reporters approach their assignments?

What is the problem with using the first person in your script?

Discuss how T.S. Eliot's quote offers perspective on the job of reporting.

 

Field Producer

What is the role of field producer?

How does the role of field producer differ from that of correspondent?

 

Be Prepared

Make a list of the items you'd like to have on your person if you are covering the news.

Make a list of the items you'd keep in your car if you are covering the news.

Why might you to carry a shoulder bag instead of a briefcase?

Should you keep fresh clothes in your office?

How often should you change the batteries in your tape recorder?

How many pens are enough?

Why should you carry your passport?

What situations might you need to work with both hands?

Taking Notes

What are some of the reasons for taking notes, even when you have a camera and/or a tape recorder running?

How does note-taking help the final scripting process?

What notes should be taken verbatim?

How might you demarcate your note-taking to facilitate accessing information you've written in your notebook?

When is a good time to record names and phone numbers of people who may be a part of your report?

What special care can you take to get names right, both pronunciation and spelling?

 

Interviewing

Partner with a classmate. Take turns reading up on a public person and being interviewed as that person. Change roles.

Try an interview with just a pen and notebook and then write it up as a story.

Try an interview using just an audiotape recorder. Edit the tape into a package.

Record an interview on videotape. Edit the tape into a package.

Let others edit the same tape into new packages.

Interview classmates about their school experience and goals.

Interview public officials.

Interview people in the news.

Interview a public relations person.

Interview a journalist.

Interview an academic.

Interview a scientist.

Conduct a specialist interview, e.g., a banker on business, a chef on cooking, a pilot on flying.

What questions would you ask Jimmy Carter? Sarah Hughes?

What three questions would you ask Al Gore? Laura Bush?

The Technical Side

Read a newspaper story and determine the visuals you would need to translate it into a television story. What sound cuts would be useful?

What can you do to help your audience better understand a marginally intelligible interviewee?

Who should you consult about where to place a microphone in a given situation?

What kind of shots are best for cutaways?

How should a reporter approach the shooting of a story? How should the camerawoman?

Discuss how you would frame different shots, e.g., an interview, a moving figure, a press conference.

Discuss the function of different kinds of microphones.

What are the two faculties of a reporter that should supercede all others?

How has the technological revolution enhanced television news reporting? What are the drawbacks?

 

Producing the News

What is the major pressure of a newscast?

Discuss how the news staff functions as a team. What are the news staffers doing to prepare for the broadcast?

Who is in charge?

What can happen before the news goes on the air?

 

Show Producer

How is producing a newscast like flying a plane?

Discuss the work of the different newsroom staffers in preparing a broadcast.

What are the responsibilities of the "Duh Producah" and when do they end?

What must the producer know about the technical staff and facilities?

How is a producer like a psychiatrist?

How does the pressure change -- for better and worse -- as you go through the broadcast?

Story Selection

What makes a story important?

What are the criteria for story selection?

What are some of the reasons for airing stories that don't provide essential information to the audience?

Make a list of all the stories covered in the local newspaper. Order those stories in terms of importance.

Make a list of all the stories reported on all of the local news stations. Break them down by the three main categories of importance, value and interest.

Discuss the story selection of a local newscast. Which stories were features? Which stories addressed the major issues facing the community?

 

Formatting the Broadcast

List all of the stories in a local newscast. Determine their relationship first by importance and then by subject. What other connections exist among the stories?

Take a list of all the stories reported in the local newspaper. Group them by importance. Group them by subject. In what order might you report them in a newscast?

Discuss related stories and what kind of bridges work best between them.

List three ways that commercials can benefit a news producer.

How might commercials define the audience of your newscast?

 

Allocating Time

What are the issues in allocating time in a newscast?

What should you try to avoid when covering a big, breaking story?

Take a list of all of the news stories in the local newspaper. Which would make it into a late evening newscast, and how much time would each be given?

Log a local television newscast. How much time was spent on news? Weather and sports? Commercials? How many stories were reported? How many packages were presented? Voice-overs? Readers? How much time was spent on traffic, e.g., opening, close, bumpers, on-set interchanges?

Log a network newscast. How much time was spent on news? Commercials? How many stories were reported? How many packages were presented? Voice-overs? Readers? How much time was spent on traffic, e.g., opening, close, bumpers, on-set interchanges?

 

The Look of the News

What elements comprise The Look?

Why is it important to have a consistent look?

What are the benefits of standardizing The Look of the news?

Watch a local newscast. What aspects have been standardized? How do the graphics, the set, and the appearance of the on-air people come together, or not? What might be done to change their presentation to make it more appealing?

Watch a network newscast. What aspects have been standardized? How do the graphics, the set and the appearance of the on-air people come together, or not? What might be done to change their presentation to make it more appealing?

Examine a local newspaper. How does it demonstrate a consistency in its presentation?

Examine a national newspaper. How does it demonstrate a consistency in its presentation?

 

The Set

What are the arguments against positioning news anchors in front of a working news room?

What are the arguments against positioning news anchors in front of a window out onto the street?

Watch programs that feature "live" windows behind their presenters. Discuss what catches your eyes.

What kind of set works the best for focusing the audience on the anchors? Why is this important?

Discuss what would make the best set for a newscast.

 

Supers

Discuss the different reasons to use supers.

How long should supers be on the screen?

When should you super reporters and anchors?

What is a caution in over-using supers?

Why should you be careful in using supers?

What specific instructions should be considered when using full-screen supers, crawls and rolls?

 

Graphics

What is the purpose of graphics? When should you use them?

What kind of library might you compile?

Go through the local newspaper and discuss what kind of graphics you might use where they have none.

Discuss how you might design a set of generic graphics. What images might be at the top of your list?

What should you be careful of when using graphics? Discuss some stories that you would opt not to use supporting graphics.

 

Bumpers

What is the origin of bumpers? How were they used?

What changed in the technology to obviate the use of bumpers?

How are bumpers misused?

Log a local newscast. How many bumpers were there and how long did they run? How repetitive was the video? Were the teases effective in wanting you to watch the program?

How can buffers be used more effectively?

To what kind of audience would you program "content" bumpers?

 

Credits

Discuss the purpose of credits. Who should be credited? How often should credits air?

Discuss whether anchors and/or reporters should receive credits.

Discuss whether the title of newscasts should contain the name of the anchors.

 

The Bank

What are the reasons for maintaining a bank?

What plans can be made to sustain a bank?

Discuss stories that would make good bank pieces.

Log a network newscast. Which pieces could have come from the bank?

What should be the criteria for saving news footage? What would be the ways it might be used?

Can you be prepared for every eventuality? What can you do instead?

 

The Audience

Discuss the audience you intend to draw to your newscast. Who are they? What is their education? Where do they live? What is their income? What else do they watch? Where else do they get their news? Why should they watch your newscast?

 

The Tone

Why should a reporter keep her tone neutral?

What kind of audience would want to get close to the reporters as people?

When is it important for sports reporters to remain objective?

 

Appearance

Discuss the importance of appearance.

What is the first rule about the choice of clothing?

What kind of shoes should you wear?

What problems does the color scarlet cause?

Discuss the use of make-up.

Discuss how internal chaos can be discerned by viewers.

Why should a reporter use her own voice?

How should a reporter stand in relation to the camera? Why

What should a reporter's attitude be toward the audience? Toward the news?

 

On Camera

What is the basic premise in the use of b-roll or file footage? When should it be used? When should it be avoided?

How long should an anchor appear on camera?

How long should a reporter be on camera without cover footage?

Which reporters should be able to report on-camera at length?

When should you use first-person-singular?

Discuss the problems inherent in referring to yourself.

 

The Standupper

Discuss different ways that a standupper can improve a report.

When are standuppers essential?

What considerations should you have about where you shoot a standupper?

What should your concerns be about the background?

When will a walking standupper work?

How should you handle a standupper with a live interview in the middle?

What kind of signals can you have with your cameraman for changing the shot during a standupper?

Screen a local newscast. Which of the standuppers were superfluous?

Screen a network newscast. Discuss the value of the standuppers? Which were essential? Which were superfluous to the story?

What can you do if your standupper attracts a crowd?

What should you do with your hands while recording a standupper?

What is the purpose of a countdown before your standupper? When should you count down?

Why can a hand-held microphone be useful doing a standupper?

Why is it useful to have your notes when doing a standupper?

 

Writing

What can be lost in all of the glitz of a television news broadcast?

What are the limitations of the news "storyteller?"

What does every story need?

What are the challenges of writing television news?

Why does television news writing have to be linear?

When writing against pictures, when you have enough time, what will be your focus? How should you position copy against video?

What can you do to prevent viewers from being distracted from copy by visuals?

Discuss stories that would be too complicated for standard television news coverage.

What is a practical tool for making a complicated story easier to understand?

Describe the micro-macro approach, and its converse. Discuss how it might be used.

Discuss how you might end a report on different stories that haven't reached a conclusion. What is the famous sign-off you should never use?

How long do you have to capture a viewer's attention?

After who, what, how, when, where and why, what else is important to every story?

Discuss how you might parse a story for its importance to the audience.

What is another challenge to writing television news that is shared by radio colleagues?

What are the three most important factors in judging television news?

What should you do when significant information is missing?

Discuss how writing might reflect the atmosphere in which a news event is occurring and why it is important.

When is a newswriter "off the clock?" What might be her last duties?

Which words should have pronouncers in the script? What sources can you check for correct pronunciation?

How many character spaces comprise a second of copy?

Discuss when you should use titles and when not.

Discuss adherence to rules of grammar.

Discuss the use of colloquialisms.

Discuss when it is all right to use acronyms. The local newspaper uses the initials FFA; do you know for what they stand? What about AARP, NRA, or SDI?

Discuss the difference in meaning among the words literally, virtually and figuratively.

What is the difference in meaning between infer and imply? How can you remember?

What should you do before the script you write leaves your desk?

What is your obligation as a professional if you hear a news colleague mispronounce or misuse a word? Why?

Describe "front-loading. Why is it a dangerous practice?

Give some examples of some inappropriate script transitions. Why are they inappropriate?

 

Delivery

What is the perfect combination of attitudes in the delivery of the news?

How should you think about your audience and their ability to understand?

What should you do if you find yourself feeling condescension toward your viewers?

According to a Harvard study, how do viewers get their information from a news anchor?

Discuss what might be done to improve the viewers' attitude toward news anchors.

 

Anchors

Given a choice, how would you pair your anchors?

What are the qualities of a good anchor?

What makes an effective presentation?

Discuss how stories might be assigned to an anchor pair.

Discuss anchor throws.

Discuss how anchors might handle technical problems.

What should an anchor do if she stumbles over a word?

Why should an anchor remain at home base?

Watch a network newscast originating from some place other than the anchor city. What coverage seems extraneous?

 

Weather

Why are weather reports on television newscasts so long?

What is one of the main reasons why people watch the news?

What are the three main questions people have about the weather?

How much time is needed to report the weather?

How many times should you report the weather in a newscast?

What are two reasons to change from a weather caster to an anchor delivering the weather?

 

Sports

Discuss the importance of sports in your market.

Who watches sports coverage?

What would be lost if sports coverage were down-sized?

Discuss the issue of boosterism.

Screen the local television newscasts. Do the sportscasters play favorites?

What is the problem with cheerleading local teams?

 

Formatting the News

How does the time of day affect the content of a newscast?

How do the time zones affect news formats?

What are the three questions most on the minds of news viewers?

Most markets can sustain a two-hour early evening news block. What format would work best in your market and why?

Which feed of the network newscast would you air and why?

 

The Early Evening News Hour

Discuss the practicality of a radio-style format. What are the drawbacks?

Discuss which regular elements would be of interest to your audience.

Discuss who might make good Newsmaker interviews. What kind of set-up would they need?

Discuss the kind of viewer questions you might expect to get and how you might answer them.

Discuss the local news market in terms of weather and sports casters. Is there enough of an audience for a station to report the information without individual personalities?

What is the advantage of different music beds leading into regular segments?

 

The Third Early Evening News Half-Hour

What determines the schedule time for the third half-hour of local early evening news? How are stations affected differently, based on geography? Why do they not want to air news during prime time access?

How might you format the third half-hour of local evening news?

Discuss the viewing patterns for the third half-hour of local evening news in your market. What are the particulars that would define special programming considerations. For instance, would you need a traffic report in your newscast? During all three half-hours?

Is there a strong appetite for business news in your market? How might it be satisfied?

What are particular challenges you would face, time-wise, with the third half-hour program? What compromises would have to be made? What kind of editing would be required?

 

The Late Evening News

Why might some consider the late evening news something of a flagship broadcast?

What are the special constraints of the late evening newscast?

How will the story selection be different, in terms of subject and time allocated, from the earlier newscasts?

Discuss the greater latitude you would have with an hour at ten over a half-hour at eleven. How would the hour program compare to the early evening newscasts?

 

The Midday News

Who watches the midday news? What are their reasons for watching? What kind of newscast will best serve their needs?

How would you tailor the midday news, relative to the other newscasts the station produces?

Why do you usually not need as many people to produce the midday newscast as the early evening programs?

What are your most likely sources of packages and voice-overs?

When reporters are able to provide coverage of morning stories for the midday news, what extra benefit does it provide?

What should the all news staffers be careful to do when they realize that errors have gone out over the air?

 

The Morning News

Discuss how the morning news audience is different from those of other newscasts.

How do you want to package the elements of the morning newscast to best meet the needs of your audience? How is the format different form the midday and early evening broadcasts?

What sources of material do you have for your morning newscast? What different sources might you tap?

Why are the morning show cut-ins important?

 

News Briefs

What should be included in a news brief?

Discuss when they might run cost-effectively in your market.

How many stories can you get in a typical, sponsored news brief?

Discuss the benefits of airing news briefs.

 

Long-Form News Reporting

What is the origin of today's popular news magazine programs? What caused the change? Why are the new formats more successful?

What are the differences between short- and long-form reporting?

Why don't the popular syndicated magazine shows expand the awareness of the audience?

What would it take for a local station to produce a successful news magazine?

What would it take to upgrade community service programs from their backwater to making headlines?

Discuss how a town meeting could result in a long-form report. What issues might be important enough in your community to justify such a report? Who would be the people to speak on the subject? What advertisers might be interested in sponsoring a full-length program? How can the costs of long-form reporting be mitigated?

 

Making Mistakes

Discuss correcting an error. Which corrections should be reported? When should the correction be reported?

Discuss the importance of a person's reputation.

Discuss fact-checking, proofing and otherwise how to avoid mistakes.

 

Managing the News Operation

How can quality television news help the sales force of a local television station? What will they have to sell against their competition?

Why should the arrival of quality television news generate discussion? What would be required to promote quality television news beyond word of mouth?

What role should critics play in defining a new approach to newscasting? What about ratings?

Why might quality television news appeal to corporate beancounters?

 

The Television News Business

What has changed over the past twenty-five years regarding television station ownership?

How has the proliferation of satellite/cable channels affected station revenues?

How has the remote control changed viewing habits? What has been the effect on advertisers?

What is the pressure on local stations to make news a revenue generator?

Why is local news such a key factor in a station's bottom line?

Why might quality television news appeal to a broad viewer base?

 

Baseline Performance

What should be expected of news people, even in the smallest markets?

What is the obligation of station management when hiring news people? Should they hire more people with less experience, or fewer with more ability?

What should be the impetus for people entering the news business?

 

Website

What is the role of the website in a television news operation?

What information should be available on the website?

Discuss how information delivered on the air might integrate with the website.

What kind of information might be elicited form the website to benefit the news broadcasts?

Discuss the pluses and minuses of maintaining a full-blown website with ISP capabilities.

 

News Promotion

Why is news promotion easier for quality television news?

What limitations should be placed on the outside activities of news department personnel? How should the policy apply to sportscasters?

Discuss what kind of endorsements would be appropriate for news personnel.

What aspects of quality television news need promotion? How does it compare to the competition?

Why do teases tend to cheapen a news operation? What is an alternative? Why would it be preferred?

 

Criticism

What is the value of professional criticism? Whom should you listen to?

Discuss the importance of criticism among the general pubic.

Should you care how you are perceived by politicians and civic or business leaders?

How much faith should you put in the ratings?

What is the danger in examining the ratings on a daily basis?

What is the value of ratings?

Marketing Quality Television News

Is quality television news a new idea?

Why will station management find the concept of quality television news appealing? What are the benefits to the owners?

How do downward economic trends enhance the appeal of quality television news?

Who would watch quality television news? Why?

What is the news the newsmakers watch? Why?

What kind of buzz might be started for quality television news?

What kind of promotion would make sense for quality television news?

What effects might quality television news have on the news operation?

What would be other results from implementing quality television news?

 

2003-2005  Tony Seton