Don't Mess with the Press

How to Write, Produce and Report
               Quality Television News

by Tony Seton

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Reporting is the essence of journalism. It is the assimilation, manipulation and dissemination of information. Whether it is the anchor reading a twenty-second item or a correspondent reporting a two-minute package from the field, the work is to select the critical facts and deliver them in a clear and concise fashion. Most of this book is about various facets of reporting.

A reporter should know enough about a subject to speak about it off the cuff in an informing manner for twenty minutes. Since the average television news report is about a minute-thirty, this means that you need to seriously comprehend roughly twelve times the information that you're going to report. It's probably just a coincidence, but that's similar to the ratio of videotape shot to tape that makes the air, and it underscores the work of the journalist – to reduce a detailed event into a comprehensible news report. The bottom line is that the more you know, the greater your understanding of a situation, the better you can explain it, providing a context as well as the facts. That's the work of a journalist.

Every report should have has a beginning, a middle and an end. Unlike the printed word, television reporting doesn't allow the viewer to go back and re-read a paragraph that is unclear; most people don't tape newscasts let alone replay them. So a television reporter must write, produce and report a story that presents facts in a linear fashion that connects dots in the viewer's mind to create a comprehensive package of information.

The extra advantage – and added challenge – for a television journalist is the use of visuals to help to tell the story. The added task of the television reporter is to make the script and visuals work together, so that when the story is reported, it will be complete in the viewer's mind.

Television reporters are limited by time. A typical television news report might run about a minute-thirty, and including sound bites, be told in a total of less than 250 words. You can fit the entire script of a network news half-hour into the space of the front page of your newspaper, above the fold.

Television reporters also face strict deadlines. There are no presses to stop. Further, television newscasts are finite; you can't simply cut or ad pages as you can with a newspaper. That means most reporters given an assignment need to produce what's expected of them, or spike the story long before the anchor reads its lead-in.

Because many television news reports are told with images and sound bites, the good reporters are thinking about cover shots and potential interviews the moment they are assigned the story.

The top reporters will start to frame the story in their minds based on the possibility that they will have to go on live without shooting a single second of tape. Their car could break down, or a camera could malfunction and they wouldn't know it until they were back in the editing room. Starting from that baseline of a live standupper without any production support, they then collect the sound bites and b-roll on tape and begin to flesh out a tape package.

A critical starting point in reporting is understanding the viewers’ knowledge base. The correspondent must report the new facts in a context that presumes a certain level of awareness on the part of the audience. For instance, reporting for a New York City station, you don't have to explain where is the Hudson River, but a network reporter might would have to locate it for the audience between New York and New Jersey.


Professional Distance

Perspective is an essential aspect of good reporting. Even if you know that the entire audience shares your personal outrage – or exhilaration -- you must take particular care not to take a position. You are reporting, not cheerleading. It is not for you to make value judgments nor to shape minds with tinted copy. Even the weather caster who says we should pray for rain is getting closer to his audience than a professional perspective requires.

Welcoming home the local sports hero, you might be tempted to be overtly upbeat. But resist the temptation to get personally involved. Yes, it is important to reflect the excited atmosphere of the homecoming, but let the crowd show it. Your job is to report what is outside of yourself, untainted by personal feelings. If the sports hero turns out to have cheated, at least your own credibility will not be questioned.

It may seem that this point of non-involvement is being over-emphasized, but especially those people just starting in the business need to know that your professional integrity is your most important credential. If you lose the trust of your viewers, your ability to communicate is compromised. Like virginity, integrity is something that once lost can never be regained. That's why you don't want to be caught making a mistake. People sitting in their living rooms watching the television love to catch a reporter making a mistake. It's a jealousy thing, endemic in our culture as deTocqueville noted a century and a half ago, that Americans tend to want to pull down those above rather that raise themselves to a higher standard.

If you're on the air, you're a target. That is another reason why humility serves a good cause. If you're not arrogant, your errors don't mean as much. Especially if it was an accident in note-taking, or if you were lied to by a source. If you were making a sincere effort, that counts against an error. Laziness, on the other hand, as might be manifest through obvious misspellings or asking a dumb question in a live interview, earn scorn which is etched in long-term memories.

More serious, you don't ever want to get close to looking like you received benefits from your reporting. You can never show favoritism, even to well-known charities. Look at the scandals that have beset not only corporate America, but the Catholic Church, the American Red Cross and the United Way. By maintaining your personal distance from all social and civic organizations, you might receive some opprobrium for non-involvement, but people who respect the news will understand and respect you for not taking the easier, more "acceptable" choice of community participation. Your reporting is your contribution to the community, and an underlying reason why you want to do it right.

When a story is ostensibly one-sided – the town cheers the decision to build a new sewage treatment plant – and there is little or no apparent opposition, it is incumbent upon the reporter to provide some balance. If you can't find any significant opposition to discuss the matter, you might note in your script that certain issues have to be discussed before the planning commission, e.g., Will the bond issue passed to build the plant mean higher taxes? Will the plant be big enough to meet the needs of the community in ten years, when it's finally paid for? Is the plant a band-aid solution? Another route is to list the people or groups yet to be heard from on the issue, e.g., noting that environmentalists have opposed the sewage treatment plant because the residue threatens the aquifer. You don't have to be the community hair-shirt, but you should examine all the available information from a variety of perspectives.

There is no occasion when it is appropriate to show support or negativity. You don't know if a priest will be defrocked or the businessman of the year will be accused of dipping into the till. Even people who have had clean records for years can get into trouble. If you have been visibly supportive of them, your objectivity will be open to question. You can be pleased about the success of a local business leader, but let her supporters tell you how wonderful she is. Have the neighbors extol the virtues of the local shopping center. But make sure you listen carefully if all of the voices aren't a chorus. And listen to your gut. Remembering, you have the task – and the excuse – of reporting the facts.

There are times when as a reporter you might feel as though you are getting too drawn in to a story. For example, when a person goes missing and you feel natural empathy for the family. Be sure to maintain a professional distance. Even if they are obvious victims, in the moment, you can't be sure of all the facts right away. These people may have a history; they may even be responsible for the disappearance. This is said not to sound melodramatic but to share a concern about how easy it is to be deceived, to be taken in by less than honorable people.

If you feel yourself getting personally involved, back off and regain your perspective. The emotions – the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat – can be beguiling. Take a deep breath and remember that your report isn’t more important than your reputation or career. It is merely a slice of time, a captured moment, significant in itself, but only a very small part. As T.S. Eliot said, "Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance."


Competitive Positioning

On occasion you will find yourself competing with other reporters for the attention of a newsmaker. This can take the form of a formal press conference, or a rat pack chasing a busy or unwilling victim down a sidewalk. Sometimes it will just be one or two other people. In all of these situations, your approach can make a big difference in what you get out of the person.

Some reporters think that it is more important to ask the question than to elicit the answer. This syndrome is particularly visible during Presidential press conferences when it is clear on a number of the faces of reporters who jump up screaming for the President's attention that getting on the air is the essential act. In fact, most of the real news out of the White House comes through private sources.

The reporter who is more interested in the information than the exposure will hold back and let the others ask the obvious questions. This serves two functions. First, it doesn't reveal who you (or your information) are prematurely to the speaker. If the other reporters have identified themselves through their questions as hostile, the person may turn to you for relief. The other advantage is that you may phrase your question in such a way as to plug holes left by the previous questions. And then your questions not only evoke the most significant answers, but you also look good in asking them.

Good English

The English language, somewhat Americanized, is a primary tool of our journalistic craft, and should be respected. Diction and pronunciation are a part of reporting as well, and should be honed to an art. Reporters should be paragons of good usage.

The use of slang has its place, but generally reporters should speak the language simply, clearly and precisely. Good grammar is important, too, but not to the point that it is distracting.

Personal style is fine, again only so long as it doesn't become a distraction. And it should be an outgrowth of intelligent scripting and practiced delivery. Don't try to put on a style for its own sake. It comes across as phony, which it is. Basically, the most compelling and engaging styles have been those that were indeliberately developed but became a signature for a reporter's delivery.


First Person Singular

Many news operations call on reporters to say "I" or "me" in their scripts. Like the over-used "Live" super, it is intended to boost ratings, in this case by pushing the image of the reporter to the front of the story. "The fire chief told me that the blaze started in the basement." Actually, the fire chief told all of the six reporters on the scene where the fire started, so the use of "me" falsely implies that the reporter had the information exclusively. Even if the fire chief told the reporter alone, in most instances it is not such important information that it needs to be flagged as an exclusive.

The issue of using the first person is more than one of deceit or vanity. A good reporter is supposed to channel information from the source to the viewer, processing the raw data, extracting the salient information, and delivering it to the audience. By using "I" or "me," the flow of the information is stopped – albeit briefly – at the reporter. The viewer is forced to see the reporter as part of the news, and this interrupts the flow of the story. Unfortunately, a number of stations seek to boost their ratings by making news rather than covering it. Part of this scenario calls for making the reporters part of the story. But would you expect a waiter to sit down at your table before serving your food?

Geraldo Rivera, Howard Cosell and Mike Wallace all became bigger than the stories they covered, thus detracting in some instances from the integrity of their coverage. In some circumstances the journalist is forced to participate, but more often it is a news consultant who is pushing promotion of the reporter rather than the reportage.

The best reporters are transparent. That is, they act as a conduit for the information they report without distracting the viewer by making themselves part of the story. They are motivated by the desire to inform, rather than driven by an ego to be seen. Frank Gardiner, one of the finest reporters in the country, was let go in part because he refused to insert himself in the stories he covered. He resisted saying "I" and "me" and putting himself on camera when it didn’t advance the story. The best reporters are those who are invisible personally, while being recognized for their work.

After the Watergate affair, journalism and particularly television journalism, were basking in the glow of public appreciation. The excitement drew many otherwise-uninterested people to the limelight. Consultants encouraged the establishment of special investigative units. "Investigative reporter" became a calling second only to god. The term is redundant, or should be. Any reporter worth his salt is investigating every story he covers. That's what the job is about: gathering information from multiple perspectives, digesting it and then reporting it. Otherwise, staff announcers and voice coaches could read press releases and we'd call it news.

Some of these points may seem somewhat picky, but for on-air people, any mistakes will be picked up by some segment of the audience. If the talent's image isn't impeccable, they run the risk of losing some of their audience at a particularly critical time. It's like the girl who cried wolf. If a major story breaks, is the viewer going to watch the person who has made a lot of small mistakes or the person who hasn't? The station that has a reputation for consistently high quality journalism will be the one viewers turn to in a crisis.

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Discussion Points

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.




©2003-2005  Tony Seton