How our point of view impacts news

Obi-Wan Kenobi once said: “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

For news, it’s no different. The way stories are told and the way coverage is presented depends greatly on our own views, and those of our audience.

What’s good to one person may be evil to another. A small blurb in section H2 of a large metropolitan newspaper may be the cover story in a small town paper.

For editors, producers, and publishers, knowing how to present the news requires an understanding of your audience. What are their daily lives like? How do the issues affect them?

For a clear example, look no further than this year’s World Series, which wrapped up last night with the San Francisco Giants defeating the Kansas City Royals in seven games. On the surface, it’s a simple story. But the way different people view it changes can have a big impact on how it’s told.

Here is today’s front page of the San Francisco Chronicle:

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It’s simple, emotional, and effective. The single, large photo of the Giants’ players hugging after the final out, the giant, single word headline “DYNASTY,” the images of the pennants at the top of the page, all of it combines to capture the euphoria of San Francisco fans.

But take a look at the front page of the Kansas City Star:

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It’s still a single, emotional photo. It’s still a powerful, short headline. But instead, these elements are being used to share the Kansas City point of view: their magical season is over.

It’s the same story, but it’s told differently to represent a different audience. You wouldn’t want to put a picture of a smiling Giants player on the front page in Kansas City, because Royals fans already had to see that enough on TV while watching the game. Likewise, you wouldn’t put the dejected Royals player on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle, because the Giants fans are celebrating their victory.

As an editor or producer, you’re not changing the story or altering the facts, you’re just choosing to tell it in a different way. That’s important – people don’t get invested in the news unless they have a connection to it.

Front pages courtesy of Newseum

Trading dignity for clicks

“Free comedy tip, slick: the pie gag’s only funny if the sap’s got dignity!” ~ Krusty the Clown.

These days it seems like everything is a story, including the screw-ups by reporters themselves.

I’ve noticed that more things don’t stay behind the scenes anymore. In the past, if you slip up on the air or get embarrassed on a live shot, you laugh it off, know that it would only air once, and move on. Then, with the rise of YouTube, bloopers had a better chance of making it online, but only if someone just happened to be watching and just happened to feel like recording it and posting it online. If you were in a small market with fewer viewers, it wasn’t much to worry about.

But now those bloopers are being posted for the world to see – by reporters’ bosses.

Bloopers, gaffes, annoying pedestrians interfering with live shots, they’re all fair game. Many even get their own headline on the news organization’s web site. The simple reason it happens: it gets clicks, and drives traffic to a station’s web site or social media page

All at the expense of your dignity.

The other week, KMBC sports director Johnny Kane was doing a live report from the ALCS, when a rowdy fan interrupted his live shot and scared the bejezzus out of him.

Funny right? We all had a good laugh. But the video wasn’t posted by an anonymous viewer on YouTube. It came from the station itself, posted by managing editor Karen Yancey.

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I don’t know where the decision came from. Maybe it came from Yancey, or the station’s news director. But personally, I don’t like the idea that my bloopers are being used as a story, or as clickbait. Be wary of any news director more concerned with posting your behind-the-scenes antics than the work you create.

News managers should be trying to promote their employees, and share the good work they are doing for viewers. They shouldn’t be putting their on-air gaffes out there for the world to see. Acknowledging it happened is one thing – laughing it off on the air, commenting about it on Facebook, etc. – but posting it as an article for people to share and spread and watch repeatedly turns your reporter into a joke. As far as the internet is concerned, Johnny Kane isn’t the sports director at KMBC, he’s the guy who got scared out of his shoes by a fan.

Maybe the idea to post it came from Kane himself, as a way to poke fun at the incident. In that respect, it’s a little more understandable, because he’s trying to own up to it. But there’s a fine line between acknowledging it and profiting from your misfortune. Acknowledge it and move on. Don’t sacrifice your dignity and your work for YouTube stardom.

People who get kicked in the nuts on YouTube may get lots of hits and clicks, but they don’t get any respect.

How Star Wars made me a better journalist

“You must learn the ways of the Force…”

Part of why I love the original Star Wars is the way it took a big story and made it small.

Yes, Darth Vader and the evil Empire were ruthlessly controlling the galaxy and destroying planets, but all of it is told through the eyes of a simple farm boy, Luke Skywalker. At first, he has no interest in going off on adventures and fighting evil. He’s just a boy living on a backwater planet, who wants something more important for himself and his life.

tumblr_lkophoTKoz1qe6uhlo1_r2_500He’s human. He’s relatable. We care about him. Who has never felt like they were destined for something greater?

Eventually, he gets swept up in the action, but he’s still that fully-formed person the viewer emotionally connected with. That’s how you tell a story.

So why should a journalist tell stories any differently?

Never forget that a news story is still a story!

Just like a book, TV show, a fairy tale, an autobiography, or even Star Wars.

And what do all stories have? A beginning, middle and end. Drama and conflict. Characters. Setting. Mood.

As a writer, I wanted my readers to connect to my stories they way I connected to Star Wars. I interviewed interesting, complex people and put their stories ahead of the big picture. I included the everyday conflicts these people had with each other. I took complex subjects and tried to make them easy to understand.

Just because it’s about real life doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Real life is exciting! Make your writing show that!

Young journalists struggle with their writing at first, and part of the reason is that they’re not thinking of themselves as storytellers. As a result, inexperienced writers think they need to present the facts as straightforward – and dryly – as possible. I can’t tell you how many inconceivably boring stories I have read and edited from young writers who haven’t yet grasped the concept of telling instead of typing.

That’s why I ask students to tell me the story of a subject, not just that it happened.

Let’s say you’re a young, hotshot reporter who is covering a city council meeting. Your story should not be about the fact that this meeting took place, it should be what was talked about, what was decided, what action was taken. Find the subject, and dig deep into that.

You wouldn’t write a lead that said:

The city council met on Monday to talk about low income housing.

That tells me nothing! It’s a matter of public record that they met Monday, and the agenda can tell us the discussion topics. What did they say about low income housing? How is it affecting people?

Keep your ears open and listen at the meeting. Were there arguments from council members? Did citizens stand up and complain? What were the reactions of people after the meeting? Again, tell me the story.

Let’s try that lead again:

The city council on Monday voted to build new low-income housing in the downtown area, a decision that drew criticism from many in attendance.

Now we’ve taken a boring subject and made it relevant. The council voted on something. People criticized the decision. Now this subject is more than a boring topic that happened in the past, it’s something affecting people right now.

So that lead was good, but we could do better. If you’re telling me a story, describe things to me. Put the reader at the scene. What did you see?

Members of an overflowing crowd got into a shouting match with city council members at Monday’s meeting, upset and angry about the council’s decision to build low-income housing in the downtown area.

That’s a lead that puts you right in the middle of the action. You can sense the emotion, hear the shouting, see the overflowing crowd.

Leads are important to storytelling. If you called your mom to talk about the story you wrote, you wouldn’t start that conversation by saying “the city council met yesterday to discuss the long-term impacts of a study regarding low-income housing downtown.”

Ugh.

You would probably start your conversation with “People were yelling at the city council members,” or “the city is building new housing and some people were mad!”

Treat your reader like you’re explaining the story to your mom, or a friend. Keep it simple and grab their attention.

Of course, don’t forget to include characters, either. The best stories always connect readers to their main character. Why do you think the original Star Wars movies were so good while the prequels were so reviled? Because the original Star Wars made us care about Luke Skywalker, the person. The prequels wanted us to care about intergalactic trade tariffs.

Use the same approach for your news stories. Give readers a character to get invested in. Let’s go back to the city council example. Pick the most interesting character there and craft a narrative around him or her. Maybe it’s a city council member who came up with the plan. Maybe it’s an upset downtown business owner. Here’s another potential lead:

Longtime downtown business owner Sam Smith pounded his fist on the podium and shook his finger at the council.

“You can’t do this to us,” he said. “We have rights!”

Smith was one of several shop owners who criticized the council’s decision Monday to build low-income housing in the downtown area.

Now only does that lead put us in the action, it gives us a character to connect to. Then, after you’ve introduced the character in the first paragraph, you can reveal the big picture to the reader about why this story is important.

First we meet Luke Skywalker, the farm boy, then we learn about the larger threat of the Empire. Take a big story and make it small.

The rest of your story can lay out the details and the background information. But never forget that you’re simply telling a story. Keep the reader interested and keep them entertained. You’re not a robot listing facts in order of importance. You’re a storyteller, taking people on a journey to a galaxy far, far away.

The starting lineup of … TV news teams

Getting into TV news doesn’t mean you have to be a reporter. There’s so much more to the business that being an on-air personality, but many people don’t think about it. When I worked in TV news, even my own family had no idea about the dozens of people it takes to put a show on the air.

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If you’re a student who is trying to get a career in TV news, there is a world of opportunity, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. With that in mind, I’m presenting the first installment of “The Starting Lineup,” breaking down the positions in a newsroom and their duties. TV news is basically broken down into three parts – editorial, production, and creative services.

Editorial Staff

ncs_koin_12ANews Director

This person runs the station. He or she sets the editorial vision of the news team and oversees operations. They are also in charge of hiring (and, gulp, firing), setting budgets and managing the day-to-day affairs of the station. They review work, set goals and guide the news operation forward. Basically, the boss.

Producers

The producers are the people who create the newscast, and decide how everything will look. They decide which stories will air, where they will be placed in the newscast (start of the show? Near the end?) and what form they will take (will the anchor be reading the story while video is playing? Will the story be a package produced by a reporter?). The producer calls the shots on that particular show, and is responsible for making sure everything is executed correctly. Everything you see on the air is a result of planning by the producer. They draw up the blueprints.

Anchors

The people you see at the desk every night at 5 p.m. Think of Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, or Diane Sawyer. The anchors are the ones who, essentially, read the news. They present the stories to viewers and guide them through the newscast. Most anchors are also required to shoot their own stories, and may sometimes produce their own shows! Mainly, though, they are that constant presence for viewers, sharing information from the anchor desk.

Reporters

These are the men and women on the street. Reporters are the people who actually write the stories that air. Right now most reporters are referred to as “one-man bands,” and are responsible for doing everything on their own – researching stories, writing, shooting interviews and footage, editing everything together, and presenting it on the air. Reporters are also required to be live on the air at the scene of a story, and do much of their work from the field.

Assignment editor

The assignment editor organizes, researches, and assigns stories to reporters. They are the funnel that takes in piles of story ideas, decides what is important and what is not, and gives those assignments to staff members. If a story changes in the middle of the day, it’s the assignment editor’s job to divert the reporter to something else, and relay that information to producers.

Photographer/Videographer

Often referred to simply as a “photog,” these people will shoot and edit stories for newscasts, but do not report on the air. Many are also responsible for operating the mobile live truck that allows reporters to present a story live from the scene. They are the workhorses of a news team.

Meteorologist/weathercaster

It’s the people who do the weather! You’ve seen them every night standing in front of a green screen with a map of the U.S. superimposed behind them. Meteorologists track the weather in a given area, using data from the National Weather Service, local weather information, and their own meteorological knowledge. Being one usually means you need to study meteorology in college, although some stations have begun using the cost-cutting option of having reporters do double-duty, reading temperatures and numbers from the NWS.

Sports Anchor/Reporter

This one should be obvious. They’re the sports guy/gal! The people who cover local, regional, and national games and present those stories to viewers. Essentially, they’re just like any other reporter or anchor, except their entire beat is sports. Usually they will get a three-minute segment each night to present highlights form games, scores, analysis, and their own stories they wrote/shot/produced.

 

Production Staff

The team behind the scenes.

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Director

They are the engine that makes the show run. The producer builds the show, and the director drives it. The director calls out directions to the other production staff, telling people what’s next, and what needs to happen to get it on the air. They decide what cameras will be used, how video elements will be played, and what needs to happen to advance the show from one element to the next. In the booth, they’re in charge.

Technical director

The technical director, or TD, sits at the “switcher,” the big board with all the buttons that control the show (what camera is being used, what video is playing). You have probably seen a TD board before, when Darth Vader decided to blow up Alderaan in Star Wars (watch for the board of blinking lights and levers). The director calls the shots, but it’s the TD who actually pushes the buttons.

Graphics operator

Ever see all those cool graphics on screen during a newscast? People’s names, screens with phone numbers, credits, those are all built by the graphics operator each night before the show.

Audio operator

You can’t have a newscast without sound! The audio operator is in charge if making sure everyone’s microphones work, controls the volume of those mics and controls when that sound goes out on the air.

Teleprompter operator

Although there was TV before teleprompters, anchors still like being able to read the words on the screen. The teleprompter operator controls how fast those words move, and keeps the same speed as the anchor’s read rate.

Floor director

Most production staff work in a control room, away from the anchors. The floor director is the exception. They are in the studio with the anchors, pointing them to the correct cameras, positioning cameras, and telling anchors when they are going into and out of a commercial.

Creative services

Many stations have what is called a “creative services” department. If you are interested in video production, but not journalism, this department may be for you. Creative services employees are typically tasked with shooting local commercials, or creating promotional videos and materials for the station. If you’ve ever seen an ad about “the number one news team! On the air and online! Where the news comes first!…” it was built by creative services.


Of course, all of this is just for your average local news station, which is where you would likely start on your first TV job. The bigger the station, the more jobs there are! If you get your start in one of these areas, the possibilities after that are limitless.

Telling the ‘sides’ of civil rights

Screen shot 2014-10-20 at 5.18.11 PMOne of the first things they teach you in journalism class is “tell both sides of the story.”

I think that phrasing needs a little updating.

The philosophy behind it is important – whenever you are telling a story, you want to be fair. Covering a presidential election? Talk to both candidates. City council votes to build a new housing complex? Talk to the people who sponsored the idea and the people living in the affected area.

But stories aren’t just two-sided. Sometimes it can be like a 20-sided die. There’s rarely a story that has people simply “for” or “against.” People have complex connections to subjects – maybe they support part of something, but not another part. Rather than trying to shoehorn an interview with someone “for” and someone “against,”, you need to seek the people affected by the story.

The key point to remember is that stories are never black and white. They are gray. And it gets even grayer on the subject of same-sex marriage.

In the past week, several states have struck down bans on same-sex marriage, prompting gay and lesbian couples to rush to courthouses to sign their marriage licenses. You’ve probably seen the stories of couples signing on the bottom line, as cameras click away and people applaud. I covered the story when it happened in Oregon, as couples shared their story of how long they waited, and how much the moment meant to them. These stories are a news department’s dream: they’re emotional, they’re visually impactful, and they’re going to generate discussion. All of these things are important. But then a news director says, “we need both sides of this story.”

That’s when things get tricky.

What voices are being heard? Who decides whose opinions are more valid? Who is chosen to represent the “other side,” and is there even a defined “side” to this particular story?

And most importantly, is this “other side” a natural part of the story, or is it being sought out, and forced in, for the purpose of telling both sides.

Remember stories are gray, and the subject of same-sex marriage is something that affects complex people with complex emotions.

When I was reporting on same-sex marriage in Oregon, my news director told me to “get someone opposed to it,” in the interest of fairness. But I had to ask myself, who would I try to talk to? No one was at the courthouse protesting. No one was organizing an effort to launch an appeal. There wasn’t an apparent public push “against” the subject. Do I reach out to people on the street, until I found enough people who don’t support same-sex marriage? And why were those people chosen, just because they happened to be there?

For my story, I ended up calling several churches in the area, and I felt like a scumbag doing it. These people were not directly involved in the issue, hadn’t spoken out against it, but I knew same-sex mariage was likely against their church teachings, which would satisfy the need to “get the other side.” I was then asserting myself into the story, because these churches would never have been involved had I not called them in the first place.

Recently, I got into a discussion on Twitter with a colleague who works in a state that had begun to allow same-sex marriage. She had been covering stories about  several couples that had finally been able to marry. This week, her news director prompted her to find the other side of the issue. The latest story said a local couple “reached out” to the news department. In the story, the couple claimed homosexuality “spreads like cancer,” and repeatedly stated their negative opinions about gay and lesbian people.

My question was, who decides whether this couple speaks for the entire “other side?” What qualifications did they have, other than disapproving of same-sex marriage? Why was their opinion chosen instead of any other couple? Those are questions that always need to be answered before any interview for any subject.

In this case, the couple had painted anti-gay slogans on their car, and viewers had called the station to complain. That starts a discussion about whether they are in the public eye – another factor to consider when deciding who to interview!

When it comes to random, man-on-the street interviews (MOS), try to reverse the situation – would you seeking out random couples who support same-sex marriage? Probably not, because a random person’s opinion is not relevant to the story. So then, would a random person’s dissenting opinion be deemed newsworthy?

In the end, it came down to a news director’s call about wanting “both sides.” It’s not right or wrong, it’s just another way of looking at coverage.

In any situation, you need to interview the stakeholders – the people directly affected by a story. If a Burger King gets robbed, you wouldn’t interview someone across town about their thoughts on burglary. You would interview workers at the restaurant, the police, the neighbors who have seen an increase in crime.

In the subject of civil rights, the same rules apply – interview the stakeholders. Talk to people now being allowed to get married, the politicians and activists groups fighting against the ruling, the people holding demonstrations. In the colleague’s story I cited above, the couple did not seem to me like they were in the public eye. Maybe there were better choices, people actively involved in the debate, who would have been better interview choices. You may disagree with me, and that’s OK! That’s why journalists do what they do. There’s a reason reporters use their discretion in choosing who to interview.

Personally, I feel if the average person wants to share their opinion, they can do it on Facebook.

Civil rights issues are not going to be easy stories, but you still need to follow where the story takes you, just like anything else. When you leave that newsroom in the morning, you have an idea of what the story might be, but it almost always changes. Stories have layers, and the challenge is to use all of them in a report.

Tell the story fully, but don’t force a perspective if it’s not there.

Black ice and bald tires: your safety in your reporting

Screen shot 2014-10-20 at 11.53.45 AM“Uggghhh … hullo…?”

It was midnight. Right on the dot. The buzzing of my cell phone on my nightstand woke me up.

“Hi Steven!” came the chipper voice on the other end. Too chipper. That was always a bad sign. “We’ve got semi-truck jackknifed on Interstate 5.”

‘Jackknifed.’ A police scanner word. A word that wakes up groggy producers and means a long night for an unsuspecting reporter. Same thing with “shots fired,” “fatal,” “structure fire” or “snow.”

I knew what words were coming next.

“We need you to come in.”

Didn’t I tell you it was a bad sign?

When you work in TV news, you will invariably be on-call many, many times. Which mean if something big happens overnight – and by ‘big,’ I mean something a producer can fill 90 seconds of the show with – you are always holding the short straw. You get the call, pull on some pants, and head to the scene of the story.

In this case it was winter 2010, and I was driving our Chevy Trailblazer news car – a behemoth of a vehicle – up I-5 to the scene of a semi-truck crash. It had snowed earlier that day and melted, and it was slick on the highway. I could understand how a truck could crash. When I got to the scene, Oregon State Police and the Oregon Department of Transportation had cordoned off the crash area, which meant I had a safe place to park behind a trooper’s car. I put on a reflective vest, grabbed a camera and light, and quickly shot video of the crash. Breaking news typically doesn’t take very long to cover, especially something cut-and-dry like a car crash. You get your video, grab interviews with troopers or witnesses, and take off.

On my way back, the roads looked clear. They appeared wet, but in the way that pavement usually glistens under the glow of headlights after it rains.

Then I lost control. It was the invisible danger of black ice.

I started to feel the back end of the Trailblazer drift to the left, but my momentum was still carrying the car forward. Instinctively, I tried to correct. Bad move. The back end of the car swung violently to the right, spinning the car in a complete 180, and slamming the side of the car into the concrete median.

The first miracle: I wasn’t hurt, and it didn’t appear the car was severely damaged either. Second miracle: I was right next to an exit. And third miracle: no one else was on the road at 1 a.m. If any other car or another semi-truck had been in that same stretch of road, I would not be writing this. I was able to pull off, check the car, and eventually make my way back home.

People don’t tend to think of reporting as a dangerous job, but sometimes it is. Reporters are expected to be at the scene of dangerous situations: slick roads, snowy mountain passes, neighborhoods with a suspect on the loose. Other situations are inherently dangerous, like setting up a live shot alongside the freeway. Take a look at what happened to a KIRO news crew in Seattle.

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Didn’t mom ever tell you not to play in the street? Thankfully, no one was hurt.

The reality is, sometimes you will be told to play in the street. You need courage for a job like that. But it also takes common sense. If you know you are heading to a place that poses risks, take the steps to protect yourself. Carry tire chains, keep a fully-charged phone and extra battery, and drive slower than you think you need to. You can’t live in a bubble. In every profession there are risks, but you can’t let them keep you from doing your job and living your life.

Understand the risks and stay safe. BUT, be willing to stand up for yourself when the time comes.

I’ve loved most of the producers I’ve worked with, because they try to think like a reporter, which helps us put together our stories. But they have jobs to do, too. They need to get the top stories to viewers quickly and accurately. Or they desperately want to fill 90 seconds of airtime with something new. They’re too busy or too unconcerned to hold your hand and make sure everything is safe, which is why it’s so important to make that call on your own when a situation is too dangerous.

One winter, we began hearing chatter on the police scanner about a nine-car pileup on I-5. I knew the area where the crashes happened – it was extremely steep, a place in the mountains I didn’t like driving in when the weather was nice.

I drove south on I-5 to see what traffic was like, and I could see things getting slick. I knew from my experience it would be even worse in the mountains.

I finally got a hold of a firefighter at the scene, someone I’d worked with before and trusted.

“Steve, do not drive here,” she told me. It wasn’t a request, it was an order. “It’s black ice the whole way here, and if you come here, you WILL be part of this accident.”

Like clockwork, after I got off the phone with her, I received another call from the newsroom, and was told to go to the scene.

I told them no.

I used my best judgment. I knew from firsthand experience how hard it was to see black ice, and how quickly it could make you crash. I knew the area where this crash had happened, and how steep and winding the roads were. And I recognized the seriousness in the firefighter’s voice, the way she told me that I “will” be part of the accident.

So I said no. And it was the only time I ever refused to go out on an assignment, out of fear for my safety.

The next day, of course, I had to go into my boss’ office and explain this thought process to them. Nothing happened. I was never disciplined or saw any effect on my workplace relationships, but that was because I stood up for myself. That night, other reporters did make the trip to the scene – safely, I might add. Were the roads not as bad as advertised? Were those reporters not as concerned? I don’t know, and frankly it doesn’t matter. Only you can gauge your own safety.

You can’t be a timid reporter, but you shouldn’t be an overly cavalier one, either. Because in my view, the story should never be more important than your safety.

Storytelling in Stereo

Technically, you should never “tell” a story. You should put your reader, viewer, or listener smack in the middle of it. Make them feel like they are there, experiencing it firsthand.

When I ask students about how to best share stories, they usually say they combine words and pictures. But there’s one aspect most people miss.

Sound.

I don’t mean interviews or music or a reporter’s voice track. I mean the pure, ambient background sounds of our everyday lives.

Stop what you’re doing right now and just listen. What do you hear? Aside from the clack of my keyboard, I hear water running through the pipes above my office. I hear the beeping of a truck backing up a few blocks away. I hear co-workers chatting down the hall. I hear the wind blowing through the leaves in my window. I hear the splashing of tires rolling through puddles on the streets below.

Life doesn’t exist in a soundproof booth, so why should our storytelling?

Last night, the Oregon State Beavers football team lost a heartbreaker to Utah in double overtime. Part of that story is the words: explaining how the team lost. Part of the story is the images: Utah players celebrating; the Beavers leaving the field dejected. And probably the most important part is the sound: the stunned, dejected silence of Beaver fans; the shuffling of feet toward the exits.

You don’t even have to be a fan of either team to feel the emotions involved.

That’s why one of the biggest pieces of advice I give to young play-by-play announcers is something the great Vin Scully preached: shut up.

Let the moment – the sounds, the images – speak for itself.

Scully was always the master at this. In a game’s big moment, he knew how to step away, and let the pure emotions of the game wash over the viewer and listener. Then, after he gave the moment enough time to breathe, he stepped back in with a well-timed exclamation point.

Take a listen to Scully calling Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965. The best example begins at the 7-minute mark.

40 seconds of cheers.

(And I bet you didn’t try to fast forward through any of it.)

Scully understood the moment, and recognized that the story didn’t need him at that moment. So he stepped away and let it all happen.

When I started as a play-by-play announcer, I felt like I needed to command the broadcast. Insert a witty remark here, cite an obscure stat there, drop my signature catchphrase at certain times. But as I learned from listening to the greats like Scully, a play-by-play announcer is one part of the storytelling process. You guide the listener or viewer through the game, but you don’t overshadow the game itself. Scully said he always approached his broadcasts like they were a casual conversation with a friend. If you were at home listening to Koufax’s perfect game, you wouldn’t want your friend blabbering non-stop over the biggest moment.

The same thing goes for news stories. When I covered the story of the National Guard coming home to Medford, I lingered on a shot of a mom hugging her returning son. Viewers heard her sniffles, the sound of her rubbing his back, and the smack of a kiss on the cheek. I knew those sounds would tell the story much better than my voice explaining it.

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And in entertainment, the rule still applies. Think back to the third act of “Jaws,” when our main characters are on their rickety boat hunting the shark. When Quint has his fishing line in the water, and it begins slowly clicking, it’s a terrifying moment for viewers.

It puts you there on that boat, among the waves; the stillness has been broken by a small clicking, and the fear of a killer shark makes you aware of every small sound that follows.

Storytelling means transporting your reader, viewer, or listener to a different time and place, and the best stories make people feel like they are there. If it’s a newspaper article, describe those sounds, or include a video. If you’re creating something for TV or radio, make sure all of those video and audio elements are being used.

Involve all of the senses, and keep your ears open.

Knock on the door: The courage of getting feedback

The most nerve-wracking experience for a reporter isn’t a big-time interview or driving into the heart of a storm. It’s not your first time going live or your contract negotiations.

It’s the 30 seconds before you knock on your boss’ door, holding a recent story in your hand.

The first time I had my news director look over my stories, I was a nervous wreck. I had only been reporting with the station for a few weeks, and had taken on various small-time stories: harvest fairs, free health clinics, the typical things you cover on a weekend in a small town. This was also my first period of time where I was expected to turn a package and VOSOT every day, which, as all reporters know, is a challenge.

So when I heard myself asking the question “can we go over my work sometime?” I immediately thought. What on earth did you do that for?

Would be criticize my stories? Tear them apart? Tell me I’m no good? Would he not like the content, the editing, my appearance? Hundreds of scenarios ran through my head, and all of them ended with me being labeled the Worst Reporter Ever. I considered walking through an open construction site without a hardhat.

But 30 seconds before I knocked on my boss’ door to show a DVD of my stories, I took a deep breath, let the fear wash over me, and walked in.

And you know what? It wasn’t perfect. This is not the part of the story where I tell you that everything turned out great, that I got a glowing review and was heralded as the second coming of Edward R. Murrow.

Instead, I was told my voice could be stronger, my stories could use more natural sound, and my writing needed to be tighter. My interviews should take place away from a person’s desk, and I needed to do a better job of lighting my subjects. At the same time, he said my shots were clean, I did a good job of writing to my video, and my standups demonstrated something that added to the story.

It’s all part of growing as a storyteller.

Young people involved in media are almost always afraid to get feedback, out of fear that they will be told they’re no good. It’s scary. You put your heart and soul into a piece of creative work, and someone could tear it apart in five seconds. You feel naked; all of your hard work laid bare for your boss to critique.

But it’s the only way you’ll get better.

Your boss, whether it’s a news director, editor, or publisher, has the same goal you do: to create the best content possible. Some bosses are nurturers, wanting to ease their employees into a career in media. Others have less tact and less time, and will tell you what they think regardless if it hurts your feelings. No matter what type of boss you have, take it all in. Recognize where you need to improve your storytelling and the areas in which you’ve succeeded. Take all that feedback – positive and negative – and channel it back into your work.

In college it’s easier, because you have advisers, professors, and staff members whose sole job is to grade your work. When you become a professional, you don’t have that luxury. No one is going to seek you out at your desk and tell you to bring in three packages for review. You need to have the courage to seek it out yourself. If you don’t, you’ll fail, which means something a little more serious in real life than in school.

I’ve seen reporters and producers insulate themselves from their news directors because they were afraid of criticism. They did their work day after day, working on shows and creating stories, but they never got any better, because no one else ever put eyes on it. If you want to succeed in this business, you have to get over that fear. Once you do, the quality of your work can only improve. But if you’re not actively striving to get better, you never will. It’s never going to be fun, and it’s never going to be easy, but it is always necessary.

Take the first step and knock on your boss’ door. You’ll be amazed at the difference a little feedback makes.