Producer Page: July 1997
IN THIS ISSUE...
In regard to 'wild and crazy things said on the air' I was asked almost
a year ago to give up my weekend sports anchor job for saying ' "christ
sake" on the air. I have heard a lot worse but hey those are the breaks
and as it turns out I have a better job now anyway-thank g-d!!!!!!!!!!!
I read your June newsletter about things said on the air. It brought back a priceless moment in broadcast journalism. The anchor in this top 50 market shall remain namesless (what irony), but in the late 1980's this anchor was a news veteran who occasionally didn't read scripts too carefully before a show.
The producer wrote:"Good evening, I am (say your name)" and then the female co-anchor was supposed to pick up from their and say "And I am...."
Well, this anchor read it just like it was written. "Good evening,
I am say your name." The control room was out of control with laughter.
OK... here's an "anchorspeak" from Philadelphia. Boyz II Men -- the grammy award-winning group -- hails from Philly and stories about them are often found in our People News segment. Except one night, one of anchors read a story not about "boys to men" but about "boyz eye-eye men." Ooops.
This one didn't get on the air, but a reporter at another station was
told that a local 60s activist would be tried on suspicion of murder "in
absentia." Said reporter called the PR person for the DA's office
and asked where "absentia" was. He told her it's out in the suburbs...
A reporter for one of the network news feeds, doing a story about the Paula Jones lawsuit against President Clinton, clearly was not thinking when he wrote a line about "what the President's lawyers consider fallacious allegations." Or would it be fellatious?
I am a producer at a CBS affiliate in West Texas. One day, one of our new reporters was covering a story where a current space-shuttle astronaut was making a public appearance at a local shopping mall. Our reporter and photog went to interview him. She did the standard "What's it like in space?", and "How do you go to the bathroom?". But then, she asked this..."So, on this mission, did you guys circle the earth, or go to another planet, or what?" The astronaut looks at her like "Is she serious?" She was. When he realized this, he said "Well, on this particular mission, we circled the Earth, AS DO ALL SHUTTLE MISSIONS!" This is a story I will never forget...and when you start feeling that your young reporters may not have a clue, remember, he/she could be the one from another planet.
I have one humorous "almost got on the air" anecdote. While EPing in Miami, I assigned a writer to bang out a story on the annual Army-Navy football classic. He wrote that the Air Force Academy was the winner of the game. Incredibly, the writer was an Army veteran, and didn't know that the game was played between the Naval Academy and West Point.
THE READERS RESPOND.
To last month's offering from a producer whose anchor dropped the term PVC from a script, because she didn't know what it meant:
I agree with the anchor about dropping the letters "pvc" from the pipe bomb description. It doesn't help most of the audience understand what the pipe bomb was and why the three letters were added. Unless you're in Belfast or Bosnia, where pipebombs are a recurring happening, why would you need to distinguish the type pipe bomb? I also agree that the anchor was correct to say that if she didn't know, then most of the public wouldn't know (it's a handy barometer for most journalists to use); but she should have asked the producer first what pvc is, discuss the importance of using the description, and then argue to drop the letters. Too many people play to their own strengths and knowledge and not enough to the audience's need to know. It's a cliche, but a useful one, ask yourself if the story would be clear to your grandmother, or mother (or any older relative); the old Eyewitness news stations used to use an imaginary Joe and Jane Lunchbucket when trying to sort through how much information to give in a story and how to phrase it. If these real or imagined viewers would "get it," then go with it. But a healthy, out-loud newsroom discussion would bring about a consensus. Also, I find it useful to raise these questions where age might be a factor. As a boomer, I will often ask our interns if they would know what I'm referring to when I use '60's or '70's reference. A good exercise: ask your college interns to name the four Beatles. Their response, or lack of it, could be a revelation.
This is in response to the producer who wanted advice on how to deal with an anchor who made an editorial change in a script. I have two points to make. First of all, I think its great the anchor was looking at the scripts before the newscast. However, if the anchor wants to suggest a change, that's a CONVERSATION the two need to have. The anchor should not just arbitrarily change the script. Secondly, whatever happened with two people talking through the issue? The producer wrote that after the show "e-mailed his/her concern" to the anchor, and that the anchor "e-mailed" his/her reply. Aren't we all in the communications business? If we are supposedly experts in communicating, the e-mail was the WRONG place to solve this problem! In the future, I would suggest that the producer TALK to the anchor after the show, complement the anchor on taking editoral interest in the program, and suggest that script changes should be DISCUSSED between the two of them before the newscast. However, in the end the final call belongs to the producer.
The producer whose anchor never heard of poly-vinyl chloride might consider
calling it plastic pipe. I have no research to back up my view (with a
bow to Scott Libin) but I would guess more viewers know what plastic is
than what PVC is.
Responding to your Anonymous producer whose anchor deleted the "PVC" from the "PVC pipe bomb" story: Sorry, Anonymous, but I'll have to side with your anchor here. Was it important that we know the pipe was plastic, rather than metal? If so, you should have written "plastic pipe". Was it important that we know it was PVC rather than ABS plastic pipe? Probably not. Remember: simplify.
Your anchor has a point, but then, so do you. Sounds like the two of you don't communicate too much on revisions to the script. My own approach to this subject has been to always look out for terms "Larry Lunchbucket" viewer may not understand, and to explain them. Part of our job is to educate. So when a term like PVC comes up, by all means use it -- but also use part of the script to explain what it means. My standard formula is to use the term, explain what it is, and then to wrap a second reference to the term somewhere later on. If you take this approach to your anchor, the meat puppet will learn something and so will the viewers. It's a win-win approach. And that also opens the door to you and your anchor to discuss situations like this when they come up on a day-to-day basis and to work together to explain the terms that need explaining.
From my own experience, you might have asked her about the problem instead
of e-mailing her... It's kind of cold, especially when you're in the same
building. Then, I might tell her why you thought "PVC" was important
to the story.... Hey, look, we all know that just because these people
are anchors, it doesn't mean they have a clue. So, explain it to them in
a way they can understand, and at the same time, leave them feeling as
though they know what they're talking about. It will pay off for you in
the long run.
She should be aware of what's going on. As a newsperson she needs to be informed and is kidding herself and the station and her audience by being ignorant of items of information.
To the new producer who's looking for ways to shake up the morning shift:
You are probably facing the classic "slow day takeoff" problem, where it takes forever to get people out the door, and getting fresh stuff back for the nooner is always an uphill fight. The key is your assignment desk. What time does it open? Should it open earlier? If the answer is yes, then why not stagger start times of the reporters or ever designate one reporter to feed the morning and noon news with fresh stuff that is appropriate. If you don't have someone on the street at 8 am or earlier and your desk can't give that person something to do at that hour, you're hooped. You may also need to gear this thing up by knowing what you want done on story coverage and demanding it happen (an assignment desk set in its ways will continue to operate as it always has) -- so shake it up without becoming irritating. Depending on what staff resources you have you should insist on having some of that geared to your needs. If the rest of them want to sit around till 10 am and chat about what to do for later newscasts, let them. Sooner or later the revolution you start will have everyone moving faster.
About ten years ago, two people were found burned to death in the trunk of a car. It fell to the rookie associate producer to call the police to get the names of the victims. As she heard the names over the phone line, she felt a knot form in her stomach. She asked their ages, and then she knew. One of the victims was a friend. The other was an acquaintance. She went to the ladies' room and cried. Then she wrote the story for the 10 o'clock news.
If a story this terrible has never hit so close to home for you, be grateful. Stories directly affect us more often than many people realize. One producer in Texas recalls reading a wire report about the murder of a childhood friend. Another producer in Michigan found out about the death of a relative the same way. Yet another producer in New York had to cover her mother, who was part of a board that was in charge of a mine where there had been an accident.
But these experiences can also make us better journalists. They give us insights we might not otherwise have because we have been through the same situation ourselves. We know the questions to ask. We know the emotions that are being felt. As journalists we are supposed to be objective, but how can we be objective when stories touch us so personally?
Bob Steele, director of ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says at times like this, we must be at our very best in journalistic craftsmanship. He points out that while we sometimes have a special insight on a story because of our own experience or connections, we also risk our journalistic independence. "The key is to recognize those factors that can negatively impact our ability to provide fair, accurate, authentic and meaningful journalism." Steele said.
Journalists often wish they were ahead of criminal investigators. Anderson Williams was not only ahead of police in one case, he was a key witness. He is now the weekend executive producer at WBRC in Birmingham, Alabama. But in the Fall of 1996 Williams was the weekend producer and a weekday reporter/photographer at WAAY in Huntsville. The incident happened while he was doing a story on an old covered bridge that was going to be moved from extreme southern Alabama to Huntsville. He was about to arrive at the bridge when something unusual happened. "As I headed down the dusty road covered with leaves, I met a car headed the other direction." Williams said. That was odd since the bridge was on a closed road. The man driving car was crunched down in the front seat . "I looked right at the guy and he didnít look back. It was kind of an errie feeling." He adds. Three days later, after reading a wire report, he realized he had probably seen a murderer leaving the scene of a crime. "I was shaken", Williams said.
The body of a young woman had been strangled, thrown off a second floor balcony and then dumped in the water under the bridge. The car Williams saw driving away from the bridge was the victimís car. "The detective said I spotted the suspect driving away, possibly after dumping the body," Williams said.
Williams gave police a statement, picked a suspectís picture from a
collection of mug shots and made a dub of the tape he shot at the bridge
for police. He never did the story he was sent to cover. He was never called
to testify and does not know how the case ended,. But, "because I
knew about what time I had arrived in town, my story helped confirm another
suspectís innocence." Williams said. As a key witness, he was also
told details about the murder that could never be used in a story.
When confronted by tough situations like these:, Steele has several suggestions:
Tallal, now the president of Advance Research Services, has spent the past 16 years researching television audiences. "With the exception of major stories, such as the Oklahoma City Bombing, most audiences might want producers to exercise a little restraint in showing exceptionally graphic or violent images", Tallal said. At the same time, viewers do not want the information in their news to be censored. "If something serious has happened, they definitely want to know about it, especially if itís happened in their neighborhood." Tallal adds.
It can be a fine line between the self-censorship of not showing certain pictures, and giving viewers all the information they want. If there is any benefit from journalists coping with stories that have touched them personally, it is that they might be more sensitive to showing images that loved ones and friends of victims might see. That must be weighed against the right of the public to know.
In an ideal world, competitive pressures would not play a role in those decisions. They often do, of course. But when stations televise video or information solely because "the other guys are doing it" it means the station has elevated its priorities above the people who are supposed to be served.
The story the rookie AP covered about the two people burned in the trunk of a car became huge in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the memories have lingered ever since. That associate producer was Alice Johnson, now Alice Main, an executive producer and the editor of The Producer Page.
The suspects were caught and convicted after a highly publicized trial. Main had to write a lot of stories about the victims, who were also friends. She says it was difficult every time. She thinks of them often when she hears about young people who have been murdered.
Stories that hit close to home can be some of the hardest any of us cover. They test our news judgement, ethics and skills as storytellers. If we are fortunate, they may also be some of the best stories we ever do.
PRODUCER'S HORROR WEEK
Deb Stanley, Producer, Denver
Ever print Producer Horror Stories? If so, here's one. On one hand it's been a Producer's Horror Week, but on the other hand it was damn fun and the timing every single day this week has been perfect.
I'm exhausted, but the shows were all clean. A few are keepers for the personal file.
Have any of your other Producers ever wondered what life would be like if they had taken a career path in print? This list of Fractured Headlines may help answer the question. Keep up the good work, and may the Heavens have mercy on all of us!
I'm a newscast producer at KOMU-TV, the award-winning NBC station in Mid-Missouri. My talent, management skills, news judgment and creativity have not only helped me to go beyond a good writer, but also made me one of your most qualified candidates if you are shopping around for an outstanding news producer.
For details of my qualification, feel free to visit my web page at http://www.missouri.edu/~c676714. For resume tapes, e-mail me at: email@example.com
Allan Rasmussen from TV2/FYN Denmark to Freelance.
During the May 1997 sweeps -- WKRG -- the CBS station in Mobile -- sent a female reporter to the beach -- for "tips on how to stay in shape -- on the beach". In an incredible stroke of journalistic brilliance -- the bikini-clad reporter demonstrated how doing curls with a sand bucket could make your trip to the beach -- both fun -- and worthwhile. Wow. By the way -- if you haven't seen a bikini-clad reporter -- on the beach -- exercising with a sand bucket -- you haven't lived.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
For the most part, I am in agreement with KJEO-TV producer Paul Chaderjian on the shortcomings of local television news. But one line in his editorial sent my blood pressure rising. He writes: "Plaster ethnicity instead of talent on the tube, and maybe you'll get bigger numbers..."
That's a slap in the face to all people of color who work in our profession. The comment suggests that news executives making hiring decisions must choose between someone who is talented and someone who is an ethnic minority, reinforcing the myth that it is impossible to hire someone who is both. To suggest that the decline in our industry's standards is in any way connected to the number of minorities now practicing our craft is offensive.
Maybe you will get bigger numbers with a more ethnically diverse news staff. But maybe it will be because of the mix of ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives those individuals bring to the editorial process. Maybe it will be because one or more of your reporters is bilingual, and can go into Spanish speaking communities and turn stories other reporters can't. Maybe it will be because your newscast better reflects the community it serves. And isn't that what Chaderjian's editorial was about in the first place?
just thought i'd get a little feedback from others...
i was watching the cbs newspath feed for an affiliate package on the nike/allah controversy. the reporter was doing an excellent job explaining the controversy----nike recalling thousands of shoes with a logo that some islamic groups found offensive. the shoes apparently had the logo not only on the backs of the shoes, but on the bottoms as well. they found it extremely offensive that people were buying and walking in shoes with the name of allah on the soles. but then, the reporter took it a step too far-------(sorry). he walks toward the camera in his stand-up....WEARING THE SHOES! is it just me or did someone miss the point?
Just a thought for producers in small markets as well as big ones. Get your news directors to losen the purse strings and pay for a reporter to have breakfast at a local diner. First, reporters will fall over with amazement that the station is giving them something besides a hard time. Plus, you are not a real news hound until you realize that free food has no calories.
Five bucks may just be the best investment you make all week. You want to know what's going on around town and what is one people's minds? Be a fly on the wall at a diner. You'll find real people with real stories, which are the best ones to tell. Many of which you will get before the local newspaper does.
Also, require reporters to come in with their own story ideas. 9 times out of 10 they will complain about what the desk gives them. I found stories I came up with myself I was more interested in telling and as a result did a better job churning out.