The Producer Page: December 1997

IN THIS ISSUE...

  • Covering Religion in TV News
  • Producers Who Used To Do Something Else
  • Embarassing Chyrons
  • Producers on the Move
  • More on Staying in Touch
  • Job Openings
  • Happenings
  • Letters to the Editor

  • COVERING RELIGION IN TV NEWS
    Ted Wilson, Sr. Producer, WKRC-TV, Cincinnati

      "This is not Sunday school."
      Jamie Tucker, Religion Reporter
      WREG-TV, Memphis

    An old Wall Street adage also applies when considering television news coverage of religion. "The trend is your friend" means buying a stock that is already on the way up is almost a sure way to guarantee a profit. In short, not only are religion, faith and spiritual matters interesting and worthy topics in themselves, they can also help stations compete in the marketplace.

    There is little dispute these days that religionís stock is rising. For decades, Gallup polls have shown that about 40 percent of all Americans say they attended church or synagogue in the past seven days. Other surveys indicate the vast majority of Americans believe in God or some Higher Power.

    There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that interest is increasing. WREG-TV religion reporter Jamie Tucker in Memphis says that as the millennium approaches, he has found more viewers curious about spiritual and religious subjects.

    There are reasons for covering religion that are not driven by ratings. Religion can provide a unique angle on a story everyone else in town is covering. It can be a way to increase diversity in a newscast. It can be an avenue to put faces on complicated issues. Religion coverage can answer the publicís demand that we cover less bad news that has little impact on their lives, and more stories that are inspirational and uplifting. Stories on religion and faith might be one way news departments can serve two masters: the competitive demands of business and the lofty goals of journalism.

    "Itís a good subject for our demo target," said Steve Minium, News Director at WKRC-TV in Cincinnati. The station focuses on women 25 to 54 years old. Many people in that group went to church as they were growing up. Now they are parents themselves. "They are going back to church. They want their children to have the same experience they did," Minium said.

    Reporters who cover religion have also found there is a huge demand for their stories. Tucker does as many as eight religion stories every week. "People just want more and more of this," he says.

    Anna Martinez at WFAA in Dallas says she gets an excellent response to her stories on faith. "People are just hungry for it," she says.

    But there are no fast and hard rules on how much religion should be covered. "Every market is different," Minium points out. He adds that religion coverage is "no different from anything else." Stories dealing with religion must compete with all the other stories of the day for coverage. " They must be compelling television that gives people a reason to watch. There needs to be connective tissue with the audience," Minium said.

    WFAA assignments manager Vince Patton also says there needs to be a reason to do the story. "More often than not, an event causes a story," he said. But Patton adds the event can give you a peg to take a closer look at a particular issue.

    Like any other story, coverage of religion needs to help a station win. Reporters that have covered stories on religion, faith and spirituality have found their stories have a big impact and make their stationís coverage unique. Some of their successes might work in other markets.

    Tucker says some of the most successful stories he has done are those tied to an event that day. One example: President Clinton asked 130 ministers from dozens of denominations and faiths to help him with his campaign on racism. Tucker then found a predominately white church that is shrinking and in danger of failing. To save itself, the parish is now actively looking for minority members.

    Religion can also be used to provide a new angle on a story. Recently, there have been a series of exceptionally violent crimes in Memphis. "A lot of evil," Tucker said. "It has really shaken people up. They are wondering what is going on." Tucker brought up the subject with an author of novels on spiritual warfare. That story looked at the crimes through the lens of good versus evil, Heaven versus Hell, rather than a typical criminal report.

    Nearly two years after she did a story on missionaries going to Russia, Martinez is still getting calls about it. "Why donít you do more of that" and "itís good to see people doing good in the world" are typical comments Martinez hears.

    A story about a small church merging with a larger congregation was also well received. Even though relatively few people were involved in the actual story, it touched a nerve in the community. Martinez says viewers told her "My church is my family and I can relate to these people."

    At WKRC-TV in Cincinnati, religious stories are run 2-3 times as promotable pieces during sweeps. "Overnights have shown a huge response to stories tied to Catholicism," Minium said. The ADI has a large Catholic population. Among the topics WKRC has covered are the effectiveness of prayer, a large collection of religious relics in Ohio, and the visions of three girls of Fatima.

    "Stories can often be successful if they challenge beliefs a bit," Tucker says. One such story dealt with the idea of grace, forgiveness and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Tucker found the person who baptized Dahmer shortly before he was killed in prison. Dahmer believed that through the grace of God, that act would allow him to go to heaven. Of course, many viewers found the notion that Dahmer could go anywhere but Hell disturbing.

    Religious stories get plenty of feedback from viewers, not all of it good. "You are going to be reporting something someone disagrees with every night," Tucker commented. He found that to be especially true after he did stories on Wicca (a type of witchcraft) and Scientology. "Christians got hackedÖthey called and complained," Tucker said. So then he did lots of stories on Christians. Then he "got a fax from a witch and a letter from a Buddhist" wondering why he was doing so many stories on Christians.

    Tucker said stations covering religion really need to make an effort to make the rounds with the various denominations and faiths. Patton adds that you "have to be careful not to look like you are out to bash any religion."

    Martinez has had similar experiences. Viewers are very skeptical of "The Media" covering religion. "People basically think we do not hold anything sacred," she said. But she adds that people are shocked when they find a reporter has done a good job of covering a religious event or issue.

    "Religious stories are not easily boiled down to black and white issues," Patton says, "They often have a lot of gray in them. You have to be careful not to paint with too broad a brush," he warns. Patton notes that a story on religion or faith might take more time than a typical story.

    Stories on faith and religion can help break stereotypes and provide a way to get more diversity into a newscast. Tucker has found they are a good way to get different voices and faces on the air. And despite the differences between denominations and faiths, "They also show that people have more in common than they often realize," Tucker adds.

    Other topics Martinez and Tucker have had success with are the power of prayer, Christian approaches to gang and crime problems, coping with grieving, faith and healing, and angels.

    These stories can also affect the newsroom, as well as the community. Tucker says the nature of the stories gets people talking. "Co-workers discuss things they might not normally share with each other," he said. They have the potential to bring people closer together.


    PRODUCERS WHO USED TO DO SOMETHING ELSE

    Last month, we heard from someone who said: "Am I the only person who wants to make a track change after getting established (sort of) in another area (editing)? I'd like to see articles addressing that, with experiences from people who may have made those changes."

    Here are the responses:

      Hard to believe I've now been producing for 7 years, I still think of myself as a director who wanted to write. I was a director/producer in college so when a job opened at my boyfriend's TV station (3 states away) I jumped at the chance to call and punch the 5, 6 and 10 o'clock news. While I was working my way up the food chain as a director, I learned what I could about producing. (I was so proud the day the producer was missing and we had no tapes for the 1st block, I just told everyone we were going to start the show with the second block. How funny that seems to me now.)

      After 3 jobs directing, I was heading home to California from Illinois. I decided I'd start job hunting in Texas, applying for directing jobs in medium markets, producing jobs in small markets. In Lubbock, the News Director let me write a script for him. I sent the people from the blue car and the red car to the right hospitals and for the 10 pm rewrite I killed the right person. He told me 50 ways I could have done it better, but because my facts were right, he gave me a job producing the 10 pm news.

      While I don't have a journalism degree, actually I have no degree at all, I've moved up the producing ranks FAST! Everyone says good producers are hard to find. I've EP'd several times and been offered some amazing jobs in management around the country. I'm currently producing a weekday show in Denver, because I like to write and create a show.

      The move can be made, you just have to find someone willing to take a chance. You also have to be willing to go back down in market size or in pay to take an entry level job. (Though I know at least one editor in OKC who became a producer)

      Deb Stanley
      KMGH-TV
      Denver

    Response #2:

      I'm one of those track-switchers . . . several times over! I began my career at WFTV in Orlando in the Production department, right out of college. After learning virtually everything I could in that department, I moved into the Engineering department. I then decided I wanted to get into producing. Fortunately, the News Director at the time (this is still WFTV), Chris Schmidt, took a big chance and gave me a shot. My first newscast was Daybreak with Rob Stafford (now at Dateline) and Natalie Allen (now at CNN). It was an outstanding opportunity for me. As far as I'm aware, I'm the only one to ever make that leap. Had I not done so, I would have eventually been laid off from either Production or Engineering. I've found that my time in those other departments was a tremendous help to me as a producer. I knew what was possible from a production standpoint. Too many times, producers ask for things that are impossible. I always encourage producers to learn as much as they can about the production process. It'll make you wiser and save alot of heartache and headache.

      Andrea Clenney
      Assistant News Director
      WIXT Syracuse, NY
      aclenney@ackerley.com


    EMBARASSING CHYRONS

    There was the one from an unnamed station at which I used to work, the one in which the news open managed to misspell the name of one of the anchors . . . and it ran for eight weeks before it was noticed!

    I was out in the field for a live shot last month and called in my chyrons for a woman named "Rita Bumgarner." When I looked at the air check a few days later, the woman was identified as "Rita Cumgarner." Pretty sick mistake . . . makes you wonder what the person who wrote it down/entered it in that way was thinking about.


    PRODUCERS ON THE MOVE

    John Myers from Producer/Reporter at KVIE (PBS) in Sacramento, CA to Reporter/Anchor/Producer at KSBY (NBC) in San Luis Obispo, CA.


    HAPPENINGS

    As Attorney General Janet Reno decides this week whether to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate alleged violations of campaign finance laws, RTNDF this weekend is producing "Follow the Money: Covering Campaign Finance." The workshop for print and broadcast reporters is Dec 5-7 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.

    A $50 registration fee includes two nights hotel (for out-of-towners) at the JW Marriott, next to the Press Club, meals and workshop materials. Hands-on computer-assisted reporting training will be held at the Medill News Service. Click on www.rtndf.org for an agenda and registration form. This is a final time to register! Call Kathleen Graham, (202) 467-5216 or <kathyg@rtndf.org> for more information.

    Hope you and others can make it...pass the word.

    Cy Porter
    Radio & TV News Directors Foundation Washington, DC
    (202) 467-5219....................phone
    (202) 223-4007....................fax
    cy@rtndf.org.......................e-mail
    http://www.rtndf.org


    A LITTLE MORE FROM LAST MONTH

    Dear In and Out of Touch Producers:

    There is a recurring theme to many of the letters. Each person seems to feel they are in touch because they are doing what someone else is not doing: married, single, divorced, with and without children.

    Isn't the meaning of "being in touch" having an understansding of all aspcets of your society . . . and other societies? If you are going to be in touch your interests need to encompass as large a slice of life as time and energy permit. For the married with children it means understanding the life of singles, and retirees, and alternate lifestyles. For each group it means taking in interest in people and events outside your chosen circle of life, keeping eyes and ears open (there are great stories everywhere), but knowing what's going on. The weakness of daily journalism is also its strength: a mile wide and an inch deep.

    To the producer who gets upset by people who don't know the latest hits in music, TV, books, magazines: RIGHT ON. How long does it take to read a pop chart--or stick with that song that is so popular (but you can't stand) and try to understand why it's a hit? Drag yourself to the blockbuster movie--its three hours of your life door to door and you'll better understand what's taking people away from your newscast.

    In these days of job-switching producers--particularly show producers--you all have the added responsibility of getting to know the city in which they may only spend a year. Your short stay doesn't lessen the need to know the local culture in all its diversity.

    In regulatory days stations used to have to do what the FCC called: "ascertainment". That meant regular meetings with representatives from different interest groups in the community: labor, business, minority groups, social interest groups, educators, environmentalists, church and religious groups and on and on. Stations had to "ascertain" what the issues in the community were. Who had what agenda? Stations then had a responsibilty to cover those issues and represent different points of view in news and public affairs programs. How you reported was up to you. What the FCC wanted to know was: did a station devote air time to the issues they had "ascertained"? Ignoring important local issues could cost the station its license. The process always struck me as sensible, even if "regulation" has become a dirty word. Some stations took ascertainment a step further and turned gatherings into town meetings and broadcast them. Not a bad technique for new producers to find out who is out there and what are their concerns. Some of you do it, I know, the rest of you might give it a try.

    Peter Herford
    peter.herford@zg.tel.hr


    LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

    Hi AJ...

    Can we talk a little about contracts? I just started a new position with the agreement that I would be under contract. Several months into my stint . . . still no contract. Yes Isigned a letter of intent. Yes it is for more than one year but without an actual contract. Where do Istand? Can management let me go without notice? Should I hire a lawyer to look over my letter of intent? If another offer comes along should I consider if no contract is signed? Has anyone else done this and are there any serious consequences?

    Anonymous

    Editor's note: Send responses to AJMain@aol.com with "Contracts" in the subject line.


    Alice,

    Your projects keep getting better and better! I'm trying to encourage the ENG Technicians I supervise to understand the tremendous pressures confronting newscast producers, and do whatever possible not to add unnecessary demands or confusion. Towards this end I will be encouraging them to read your "The Producer Book."

    Speaking of the book...

    I thought I'd already sent this to you, but as it wasn't mentioned, please look at the ENG Safety and Operations website at <http://www.wagatv.com/ENG/>. This is extremely important material for producers!

    [Editor's NOTE: the link has been added to the websites list.]

    Often live crews (photographers, technicians, engineers, reporters) feel under tremendous pressure from newsroom personnel who may have little or no understanding of field conditions and make unreasonable, and unsafe, demands. ("I don't care what it takes, get it on the air or it's your job!) However, producers familiar with the real dangers experienced daily by live crews are likely to have better relationships with their crews... and will never have the devastating experience of having sent a crew out to serious injury or death.

    (If you think this is over-stated, consider the producers at WOI-TV Des Moines, Iowa; WTAE, Pittsburgh; and WABG-TV, Greenville, MS. All three stations had tragic live truck accidents in the past six months.)

    Keep up the great work!

    Andrew Funk
    Asst News Operations Manager
    Fox-5 Atlanta
    WAGA-TV


    Alice,

    Any Producer would appreciate the description of a Producer and a star "reporter" in Michael Crichton's novel, "Airframe." Sounds as if he's based his description on 60 minutes, but it applies to the job that producers do everywhere.

    Lynn Hinds
    lhinds@lib.drury.edu


    Alice,

    I saw *Mad City* last Friday, and I'm amused at the so-called "reviews" and reports that I've heard so far from people in the TV news business. My opinion is that they saw what they WANTED to see, not what the movie actually CONTAINS. Are you interested in opening up this movie for discussion among your readers?

    Dan Culberson
    Producer
    KGNU Radio film critic

    Editor's NOTE:

    Sure, why not. Send responses to AJMain@aol.com with "Mad City" in the subject line. And for some entertaining reading, check out a column in Wired online, titled The Villainous Newsman: http://www.wired.com/news/news/wiredview/story/8824.html)


    HELP SHAPE A SEMINAR

    Hi Alice,

    This edition is quite good. It's especially interesting to read the stream of responses about the demographics of producers. I wish there had been more focus on being reflective and less on being defensive.

    A number mentioned the training needs for producers and the need to "grow your own" in most newsrooms. In fact, that's the title of a Poynter seminar in early December, "Grow Your Own Producers." We'll be training the people in newsrooms who are responsible for training producers. The program is full, but I'm very interested in getting a few responses from your readers to the following:

    1. What is your best experience being taught? From kindergarten through today, what were the qualities of that teacher or mentor, in personal or professional life, the made such an impression on you? What was it about his or her teaching that made it so effective?

    2. What is your own most satisfying experience teaching someone else? What made it successful? How did you know it was a success? What can you learn from that experience that may help you in you newsroom training role?

    Your readers may respond directly to me. I'll be using the responses in my teaching, so please feel free to drop or change names.

    Valerie Hyman, Director
    Program for Broadcast Journalists
    The Poynter Institute
    valhyman@poynter.org
    (813) 821-9400, ext 230


    HELP SHAPE A TEENAGER

    Hi Alice--

    I need some help. I mentor teenagers who want to go into journalism. (I do this over the internet/aol so I work with teens all over the country) My station does "job shadows" for teens, wondering how many else do. Also wondering how many stations have internships for high school'ers. (we don't)

    If any of your readers would be willing to drop me a note telling me about their station, I'd appreciate it. Then when I'm asked about Cincinnati or Jacksonville, I can tell the kdis I know of at least 1 station that ____.

    Deb Stanley
    News Producer
    Denver
    timinggirl@aol.com