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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
* * * * * * *
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.