The Producer Page: July 1997

IN THIS ISSUE...

  • I Can't Believe He/She/I Said That On the Air!
  • The Readers Respond
  • When the News Hits Close to Home
  • Fractured Headlines
  • Producer's Horror Week
  • Sweeps in Bikini
  • Hire Me
  • Producers on the Move
  • Letters to the Editor

  • I CAN'T BELIEVE HE/SHE/I SAID THAT ON THE AIR!

    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.

    George Holmes
    KOSA-TV


    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.

    Rob Feldman
    Senior Producer/Court TV



    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.

    Sheila Stainback


    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.

    Douglas Drew
    Senior News Consultant
    McHugh & Hoffman


    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.
    Gil Haar (interloper from steam radio, but you do such a great job I can't resist reading you every month)


    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.

    Stan Bunger
    KRON-TV


    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.

    Chris Pugh
    News Director/ Main Anchor
    Carnation Cable Channel News
    Alliance, Ohio


    THE READERS RESPOND.

    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.


    WHEN STORIES HIT CLOSE TO HOME
    Ted Wilson, 11pm/Sr. Producer, WKRC-TV

    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.
    Williams found the whole event very disturbing. "I always wondered what would have happened if I had driven up in my personal car a few minutes earlier and caught the guy in the act." Williams said.

    When confronted by tough situations like these:, Steele has several suggestions:

    • "Chart" a course, literally, by listing the issues of the story, those affected, other approaches you can take and the possible consequences of your actions. Being analytical minimizes some of the emotion involved in covering a story or people you know very well.
    • Practice collaboration at every step of the process. Use colleagues as sounding boards and warning bells. Share concerns about your personal connections to a story and keep asking those colleagues to check you at every step to prevent veering off course for inappropriate personal reasons.
    • Keep asking the "motives" questions. Why am I doing this story? Why am I thinking this way? Why am I following this path on the story? Am I allowing my personal feelings to overwhelm my professional responsibility?
    • Remember that your primary loyalty is to viewers and to the general public affected by the issue.
      While working as a reporter, Scott Tallal learned about the death of one of his best friends in high school from a wire report. The friend ,19, was a third-year cadet at the Air Force Academy.

    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.

    • Sunday, plane crash at an Air Show. My day off. I'm moving, so I don't go in.
    • Monday, the Oklahoma City verdict comes in. Since the trial is in my city, this is a big deal. Luckily I have a great reporter/anchor who's been covering this event. We're the 1st station in the market with local coverage and just before we went on, my reporter said one thing, "I can do it." (We're 45 minutes from the verdict, that line meant we were staying on the air straight through) We did an hour and half straight through, great coverage. It's now 2:17 and I do the 5. Luckily I have a great desk guy who has everyone in place and working by the time we have a "meeting" at 2:30. A perfect show at 5.
    • Tuesday. As we hit the open, the nightside desk calls saying he's sending a live truck and a reporter to a house explosion. (!!!!!) I tell him to send the chopper and I tell the reporter who's using the chopper as a background on the roof to go with the chopper. This house explosion is the real thing, one house leveled, a woman trapped inside. By 5:05 we're into coverage with just one story. (Sports which got 25 seconds Monday, gets nothing today.) The woman was saved, good okay.
    • Wednesday. All's quiet, we hit early so everyone is getting extra time. Just after giving weather an extra 45 and promising sports an extra 15, the call comes. Breaking news. I wouldn't believe it, except the chopper shot is already in. A water main break. (We had a major one 2 weeks ago) This isn't a big deal, but it's worth a pop before sports, now sports is cut back-- AGAIN! We end up doing 2 pops on this before the end of the show.
    • Thursday. By now we're laughing pretty hard about there can't be anything left. We've had a plane crash, a major verdict, a watermain break, a shooting spree in California this morning, tornadoes Monday during the verdict coverage. Thursday ends up quiet. Then...
    • Friday. A reporter asks if he can storm chase this afternoon, I said no, the weather guy says there won't be anything. I go home for lunch, my photographer boyfriend points out the dark clouds, again I repeat, there's nothing going on today. Two minutes later... we've got hail. LOTS! I rush back to work where all the crews are off to cover reports of funnel clouds. I have a show ready to go and by 4:40 I get the impression that show is gone, out the window. The weather guy is anchoring the coverage tossing to live shot after live shot, more shots are being added, more video coming in, next thing I know it's 10 after. Ok, take a break, do more weather live shots. We end up doing a storm show. ALL STORMS. Even the Oklahoma City Bombing Case ends up in the 4th segment, in guess whose spot, SPORTS!

    I'm exhausted, but the shows were all clean. A few are keepers for the personal file.


    FRACTURED HEADLINES

    Hi Alice,

    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!

    Murray Schweitzer
    Consumer/Investigative Producer
    NBC4, Washington, D.C.

    ACTUAL FRACTURED HEADLINES!!

      1. Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash Expert Says
      2. Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers
      3. Safety Experts Say School Bus Passengers Should Be Belted
      4. Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case
      5. Survivor of Siamese Twins Joins Parents
      6. Farmer Bill Dies in House
      7. Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
      8. Is There a Ring of Debris Around Uranus?
      9. Stud Tires Out
      10. Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
      11. Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
      12. Soviet Virgin Lands Short of Goal Again
      13. British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands
      14. Lung Cancer in Women Mushrooms
      15. Eye Drops Off Shelf
      16. Teacher Strikes Idle Kids
      17. Reagan Wins on Budget, But More Lies Ahead
      18. Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
      19. Shot Off Woman's Leg Helps Nicklaus to 66
      20. Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Ax
      21. Plane Too Close to Ground, Crash Probe Told
      22. Miners Refuse to Work After Death
      23. Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant
      24. Stolen Painting Found by Tree
      25. Two Soviet Ships Collide. One Dies
      26. Two Sisters Reunited After 18 Years in Checkout Counter
      27. Killer Sentenced to Die for Second Time in 10 Years
      28. Never Withhold Herpes Infection from Loved One
      29. Drunken Drivers Paid $1000 in '84
      30. War Dims Hope for Peace
      31. If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last a While
      32. Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures
      33. Enfields Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide
      34. Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge
      35. Deer Kills 17,000
      36. Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
      37. Man Struck by Lightning Faces Battery Charge
      38. New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
      39. Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
      40. Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
      41. Chef Throws; His Heart into Helping Feed Needy
      42. Arson Suspect is Held in Massachusetts Fire
      43. British Union Finds Dwarfs in Short Supply
      44. Ban on Soliciting Dead in Trotwood
      45. Lansing Residents Can Drop Off Trees
      46. Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
      47. New Vaccine May Contain Rabies
      48. Man Minus Ear Waives Hearing
      49. Deaf College Opens Doors to Hearing
      50. Air Head Fired
      51. Steal Clock, Faces Time
      52. Prosecutor Releases Probe into Undersheriff
      53. Old School Pillars are Replaced by Alumni
      54. Bank Drive-in Window Blocked by Board
      55. Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
      56. Some Pieces of Rock Hudson Sold at Auction
      57. Sex Education Delayed, Teachers Request Training
      58. Include Your Children When Baking Cookies.



    HIRE ME!

    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: c676714@showme.missouri.edu


    PRODUCERS ON THE MOVE

    Allan Rasmussen from TV2/FYN Denmark to Freelance.
    Chris Pugh has been recently named news director at Carnation Cable Channel in Alliance, Ohio.



    SWEEPS STORIES

    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

    Alice,

    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?

    Elliott Lewis
    Reporter, WCPX-TV, Orlando, FL
    and Vice President of the Central Florida Association of Black Journalists


    Alice:

    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?

    Rebecca Smith



    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.

    Unsigned