As journalists we’re an edgy bunch- we’re rushing to get what we need for the 8a.. the 12 o’clock.. the 6 o’clock.. maybe the 5.. the 10 o’clock.. the 11 o’clock news… and if you’re all digital make that your 86,400 second day.
What’s worse- the networks and news services often measure success by the clock- who broke the news first? By how many minutes?
Unfortunately writing and journalism judgment sometimes get caught in the frenzy and take it on the chin.
The Gulf Oil Leak: After Memorial Day we had a frenzy of breaking news. Information came from a Coast Guard press conference: The oil flow has been stopped! This was the case as they spoke. It sadly proved to be short-lived. Using a little phrase like ‘right now’ or ‘so far’ or ‘it appears that’ or ‘at [9:35 this morning] [source] announced that’ could sometimes be an accuracy-saver- and spare us from news break-in number 2- which serves to correct the first one.. which was linguistically correct at the time.
We’ve been saddened and angered by this story.. I’ve been squinting for days at those underwater videos of the oil leaking.
But- it wasn’t until I first saw the emotion in the face of a fisherman- and heard him struggle to explain his thoughts- that I felt punched in the chest.
Seeing the oil gushing and hearing official updates has been important- but I think we’d all agree that also telling the story through the protagonists of the news- whether they’re human or animal- is mandatory for the most powerful reporting.
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A Reminder about Reporting vs. Reporting
From the big stories to those equally important on a smaller scale- eg. flooding.. fires.. accidents.. health and medicine.. crime.. human interest.. essentially any local story deemed significant enough to be considered ‘news’- ‘just the facts’ are invariably only part of the story.
Heads-Up to many of the first-time journalists I have the honor and pleasure of working with: the video and sound you bring back are not just obligatory elements to collect. You are not in a scavenger hunt to prove you’ve ‘been there’.
a- Get as much of your information as you can directly from the people in the know. This may be government workers or officials.. building owners.. fire chiefs.. law enforcement.. company owners.. but you don’t have to ‘prove’ that you went to a source by using a ‘talking head’ as a SOT.
b- Please please please don’t forget that the initial information you are collecting or hearing about is only the first piece of your story. In most cases people are telling you what they believe to be true or what they want you to know. Getting information from one source is the beginning of your reporting.
c- Speak to more people.. do your research. What other associated factors might be connected to - or should be raised by- this story? Are you speaking to other people who most likely see things differently? Might there be a cause for what is happening that merits investigation? Are elements of this story suspiciously coincidental with those in other stories?
d- Who is affected by or part of this story? That’s whom we want to hear from. What video.. what sound embodies the story? That’s what we want to see and listen to.
e- Caveat! Given that many rules are most often guidelines: keep your camera (or audio recorder) running even when interviewing ‘officials’. Sure- I spend too much of my time watching your packages and wailing “I don’t need to watch this person telling you!” BUT-
Any SOT may prove to be newsworthy depending on how a person words something.. how they’re ‘coming across’ as they talk to you.. or- They may drop a bombshell! Who knows?
And amid the frenzy to get it right.. write well.. put it together so that it flows and carries us along.. and of course- to meet your deadline:
The Stop Technique! Sanity saver to about 93% of my clients.
Previously featured on the Radio Television Digital News Association as the News Coach blog series.