Learn from the greats

“How the #$%& are you gonna know how to be great if you don’t study greatness? Look at the game tape!” ~ Tracy Morgan

The first question I ask student journalists is, what do you read?

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s met with a lot of blank stares.

No matter what field you want to achieve greatness in, you need to study. If you want to be a chef, you practice preparing dishes, and you read cookbooks by the greatest chefs. If you want to be an actor, you find time to get on stage while studying the work of the greatest actors. If you want to be a scientist, you read up on the works of the scientists that came before you and find new ways to expand on their work.

Working as a journalist shouldn’t be any different. One of the best ways to get better is to study.

read-all-about-itIn some of my first meetings with students, I sometimes hear things like “I don’t watch the news,” or “I don’t read the newspaper.” It’s a big moment of clarity when I tell them it should be mandatory.

Not only does studying work as an inspiration or as a way to compare your work to professional work, but it also shows how similar the process is. Professional media types are still doing the same thing student journalists are: finding sources, shooting video, writing stories. But professionals have two distinct advantages – better equipment, and the willingness to study and get better.

It doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

One of my biggest aha! moments as a reporter came from watching stories that aired on ABC World News. I saw a story on new requirements for PE classes in schools, and I thought to myself, “I could have made that.” The shooting, the writing, the interview techniques, the standups, I was already doing those same things at KDRV. So I watched the story again and again, picking up new ways to write sentences, new ways to frame shots, new ways to incorporate graphics. And I improved in my next story. The more I watched, the more ways I saw to sharpen my own skills.

Talent alone doesn’t get you there. See what others are doing, emulate it, then improve upon it.

It’s an idea shared by journalists, meteorologists, writers and hosts. I reached out to people working professionally in the media today, and they shared their inspirations.

KTVL reporter Whitney Clark studies the work of CBS reporters, including Steve Hartman and Charlie Rose.

“Steve Hartman! He’s a great writer and I enjoy his stories every week,” she wrote. “When it comes to anchoring/producing – CBS this morning is amazing. Always well-produced. Charlie Rose asks the best questions. Him. Norah and Gayle also do an excellent job of mixing hard news with some personality.”

Geoff Riley, host on Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Ore., said he was inspired by Tom Brokaw.

“…among other things, I learned that your name goes LAST in a news update, not first,” he wrote.

Meteorologist Megan Parry of 10News in San Diego studied the work of Los Angeles meteorologist Dallas Raines, and learned from him in person as an intern.

“I love him on air, he just had an air about him and I wanted to do that,” Parry tweeted.

For KGW executive producer Wiley Post, he can find examples of good work on shows like Sportscenter or NBC Nightly News. He also said he studies his own work, looking for ways to improve.

Ryan Pfeil, reporter for the Mail Tribune in Medford, Ore., finds himself on Poynter to learn more about journalism. He also said he reads Malcolm Gladwell, and “anyone who can do narrative really well.”

SWX sports reporter Greg Talbott closely listens to sportscasters Keith Olbermann and Jon Miller.

“Olbermann taught me that it’s best to write/anchor creatively. Miller taught me how to use my voice as an instrument in play by play,” he tweeted.

And some sources don’t even need to come from news. Oregon Public Broadcasting reporter Tony Schick said he was inspired by “Fletch,” the film starring Chevy Chase as a newspaper reporter.

And that’s really the key – your inspiration needs to come from somewhere. You need to identify top quality work and study it.

Sports Illustrated NBA writer Ben Golliver visited our students here at Oregon State in October, and one of the biggest pieces of advice he gave was to read, regardless of what you are reading. Read books, look at the lyrics of your favorite musician, click on articles, pick up a magazine, just read something. Because everything you read becomes internalized, and helps you recognize your own strengths and weaknesses to find your voice as a writer.

You can’t be a journalist if you don’t read the newspaper, or watch the nightly news, or visit news web sites. Find something or someone what inspires you to be better, and keep reading!

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Media in Ferguson: Lighting the fire or fanning the flames?

A man runs away from the burning storage facility after the announcement of the grand jury decision Monday, Nov. 24, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. A grand jury has decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black 18-year-old whose fatal shooting sparked sometimes violent protests. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

America went to sleep last night watching the images from Ferguson, with riots following a grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Tuesday morning, people woke up, and the images, emotion, and pain were still there.

And along with it came an interesting new question: who is to blame? More specifically, what role did the media have in all of it?

Those questions came up as soon as prosecutor Bob McCulloch stepped to the podium to announce the grand jury’s decision Monday night.

“On August 9th Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Within minutes, various accounts of the incident began appearing on social media, accounts filled with speculation and little, if any, solid, accurate information.”

Later, he continued:

“The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything, to talk about, following closely behind with the nonstop rumors on social media.”

On Facebook and Twitter this morning, I saw similar sentiment, insinuating that the media had pushed the situation in Ferguson too far, or that the media had created a powder keg waiting to erupt with the grand jury’s decision, then continued to fan the flames.

So did they? That’s a heavy question to answer.

To paraphrase Edward R. Murrow, they didn’t create this situation, but some exploited it.

In the hours leading up to the announcement, reporters were on the ground in Ferguson. Their main topic: being on the ground in Ferguson. A decision had not been reached yet and riots had not broken out, but reporters were still expected to go live every few minutes, desperately trying to fill air time. “What’s the feeling on the streets?” anchors asked.

It’s important to be there, but it’s more important to actually provide some relevant information.

The lead-up to the announcement was bad enough, but those same bad traits carried over when the grand jury announcement was made. Reporters thrust themselves into the mobs, choking through smoke and teargas, to give us the latest of the riots in Ferguson. But there was another problem: they weren’t exactly saying anything. There were rumors of shots fired, there were camera shots of burning trash cans, and there were reporters pointing down to discarded bottles of liquor. But there was no context or actual information. Where was the crucial information about the decision? Where were the transcripts of witness testimony while the riots took place?

As Slate’s Josh Voorhees pointed out, the details from the grand jury were not analyzed. There were no interviews with community leaders. And there was no context to help viewers understand where everything was happening until Anderson Cooper finally informed viewers that the riots were only taking place in a small part of Ferguson.

If it bleeds, it leads. And Ferguson was bleeding last night, so cable TV networks hit the riot coverage hard.

Anchors wearing gas masks and being hit with rocks became more important than giving people the details of the grand jury decision. Closeups of looting by people wearing Guy Fawkes masks were the focal point, rather than the information from police reports. Reporters’ remarks about “the smell of marijuana” were prioritized over the witness and officer testimony, or an understanding of the grand jury process. Shots of protesters confronting police in the streets as fires burned in the background were the main event.

TV news did not create the tension in Ferguson – riots were bound to happen regardless if there were cameras there. The people blaming the media, or the spread of information on social media, are misguided, and are missing the much larger point about race and police violence in America.

But the media is missing that larger point, too, and that’s what makes the media’s coverage Monday night all the more disappointing.

TV news had the chance to use their medium as a tool for understanding and education amid chaos. Coverage of the Arab Spring in 2011 showed images of violence, but also gave information about why it was happening. Both aspects are critically important in covering a volatile situation in order to keep viewers informed. But those graphic, powerful images, without context as to why they are powerful, makes them meaningless. In Ferguson on Monday night, TV chose to point their cameras at the fire, instead of the match.

Covering rape: exposing the ugly truth

This week, two major stories have unfolded involving rape.

In the first, comedian Bill Cosby has continued to be accused of raping different women in the past. The allegations have poured forth from different people who have chosen to come forward and tell their stories.

In another, an Oregon woman detailed how she was allegedly raped by four men, including two former Oregon State University football players, in 1998.

Rape is a terrible crime, one that requires sensitivity and diligence on the part of journalists.

Covering stories like these are always extremely difficult. Journalists need to navigate the emotions and horrible details that come with the story, along with the twists and turns of the legal system, and still have the ability to ask questions and get the facts. You want to be sensitive to the victim, you want to be fair to the suspect, and you want to provide accurate coverage for your readers and viewers.

It’s hard, and I really, really hate it.

Covering a rape is always one of the hardest days for a reporter. I hated having to have a victim recount and relive their experience. I hated having to stick a camera in the face of a victim or family member. I hated the frustration of the justice system, which dealt with the degree to which a rapist should be punished.

But think about how much worse it is for a victim. How much worse it is for everyone involved. And when it comes down to it, you have a goal as a journalist: to expose the ugly truth about rape, in the hopes that it will create some change for the better.

In the past week, we’ve seen different and contrasting ways to go about covering it. Some have been with a purpose to make things better. Others have been about sensationalism.

Friday, Oregonian sports columnist John Canzano published an in-depth piece about Brenda Tracy, who had come forward after 16 years to give details about her alleged rape at the hands of four men, two of whom were Beaver football players. Canzano had been in touch with Tracy for months, and worked to develop trust with her to be able to share her story. In the piece, he allows her to give her entire side of the story – what happened, her actions afterward, her conflicting statements to law enforcement, and her difficulty with living with it for 16 years. Reading it, you could tell Canzano had given Tracy the space and time she needed to tell her story; it felt like they had sat down in a room across several days, allowing her to tell her story in her own way, without badgering her with questions.

It could have been left with that. But Canzano took things further to make sure the report was accurate and fair.

He tracked down the police report from the men’s arrests, and included details about their statements to police. He talked to law enforcement about why the men were never charged. He even tried calling the men, one of whom gave his side of the story. And he reached out to head coach Mike Riley. Riley, in turn, responded and gave his account about the decisions he made to suspend the players, and shared his thoughts on his own actions and words from 1998.

Canzano did the leg work to make this a fully-formed story. He sought out and stated the facts, he was sensitive to the victim, and he included as many voices as he could. He asked the tough questions and allowed people to speak freely. He took a 16-year-old story and got answers about it. As a result, OSU has come out to address the issue, with the university president vowing to launch an investigation. And both Riley and Tracy have expressed willingness to have her share her story on campus.

But contrast that with the coverage of the Bill Cosby rape accusations, and you’ll see the wrong ways to cover this kind of story.

The absolute worst example came last night on CNN.

Host Don Lemon was interviewing alleged Cosby rape victim Joan Tarshis when he decided to lecture her on how to prevent a rape.

“There are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it,” Lemon said, as if he was teaching a class in how to not be raped.

Then, in an unbelievable exchange that needs to be seen to be believed, Lemon then said Tashis should have used her teeth to fight off the rape.

This was said by a CNN anchor. On live TV. To an alleged rape victim.

It’s the worst example I’ve ever seen of insensitivity toward a rape victim. It’s a slap in the face and is blatant victim-blaming. Why didn’t you prevent it?

Media should never pretend to know more about a given situation, especially rape. Alleged victims should be able to come forward and share their stories openly, without judgment or a lecture. It’s reactions like Lemon’s that scare so many victims into secrecy. There’s time to ask the tough questions, including of victims, but in ways that address the facts of the accusation while acknowledging the sensitivity of it. Never assume you know anything about how a rape should or should not have happened.

Treat people like human beings, and be fair.

When it comes to addressing the suspect, you also need to balance sensitivity and fairness. A suspect should answer the questions, but should never be assumed to be guilty.

NPR found themselves in the right place at the right time: they had scheduled an interview with Cosby about an unrelated subject, but they now had the chance to get an exclusive statement.

During the interview, reporter Scott Simon saw his chance and he took it, but Cosby didn’t cooperate.

SCOTT SIMON: “This question gives me no pleasure, Mr. Cosby, but there have been serious allegations raised about you in recent days.”

BILL COSBY: [SILENCE]

SIMON: “You’re shaking your head no. I’m in the news business. I have to ask the question. Do you have any response to those charges?”

COSBY: [SILENCE]

SIMON: “Shaking your head no. There are people who love you who might like to hear from you about this. I want to give you the chance.”

COSBY: [SILENCE]

Cosby is a public figure, and if there are rape allegations against him, he needs to answer for it. A reporter’s job is to seek the truth. I commend Simon for asking the question, but I would recommend two changes:

1. I don’t agree with beginning the question with “This question give me no pleasure…” Just ask the question. You are being sensitive to the allegations by telling Cosby “there are people who love you who might like to hear about this,” and telling him you want to give him the chance to tell his story. But your own personal feelings about the question should not apply. Don’t sugarcoat it, don’t act like you’re friends, don’t say how much it pains you to even suggest such a thing. Ask the question. A reporter’s job is to gather facts. If it’s true, he needs to answer for it. If it’s false, he can deny it. But don’t imply that the question itself is uncouth.

2. After three instances of silence from Cosby, Simon moves on and ends the interview. Why stop there? Cosby can say “I’m not answering that.” He can get up and leave. He could even answer the question. But don’t let him off the hook so easily. You have him in the room! Take advantage and ask the questions.


 

In the end, there is no good way to go about covering a story about rape. But in the end, it’s not about the journalist and his or her feelings. It’s about sharing the stories of victims, and holding suspects and police accountable. It’s not about blaming, it’s about finding answers. It’s about exposing the ugly truth, and creating some change as a result.

Time is not on your side

During my freshman year of college, my parents got me an out-of-state subscription to the Oregonian newspaper, as a way to make me feel less homesick while living in Spokane. Twice a week, issues of the Oregonian would arrive in my tiny mailbox, filled with stories from my hometown.

But the more I read them, the more I noticed a recurring problem: it was old news.

Because I was an out-of-state subscriber, the issues were printed at different times of day earlier that the normal deadlines for Portland. As a result, the information in the issues was outdated; anything that happened after a certain deadline didn’t make the paper. On top of that, the issues needed to be mailed to me, which meant longer travel time from the publisher to my mailbox. I would flip through the pages and find news stories and NBA box scores from two days earlier.

Oh, and there was a little thing called the Internet.

Like most people, I wasn’t waiting for the print edition to reach my mailbox in order to get the day’s news. I visited the Oregonian’s web page every morning, along with the web sites of the Spokesman-Review, the New York Times, and others. I had already read these stories in three different places. By the time I actually got those physical copies, it felt like I was reading ancient history on papyrus.

This was in 2005, a couple of years before Twitter and other social media tools changed the way people consumed news. Now, people want as much information as they can as fast as they can.

On the surface, it can be difficult to keep up. The more I became involved with media, the more I learned about the importance of immediacy. I worked on a weekly student newspaper while in college, and we learned quickly that coverage of an event from two days prior was unacceptable. All of our readers had the time and ability to gather that information much faster than waiting for us to publish once a week. When I started work as a TV news reporter, I found out stories needed to be done immediately. From the time I got into work, I just had a few hours to put an entire story together for air – interviews writing, editing, everything. If you wait until the next day, the competition gets it first, and you’re finished.

That’s not even including tweeting out information, sharing stories in Facebook, or posting raw video to YouTube. Readers and viewers have made their choice, and the choice is NOW NOW NOW.

What’s a print edition to do?

You have to play to your strengths.

The big advantage of print editions is time. You don’t have a 5 o clock deadline, so you can take time to craft a story or lay out a page. The key is providing the right kind of information.

People want breaking news immediately. They want to know what’s happening right now. Who won the election? How many points did the basketball team score? Where is the fire burning? Give that information to them quickly. Then, use your print edition to go in-depth.

Young college newspaper staffs struggle with finding the right stories, so they turn to what’s easy: events, meetings and games. Things that happen at a specific time and place. But in this day and age, waiting for two days to publish about a specific event is too late; people consume their news faster now. So feed them a steady diet of breaking news and developing stories online. Then, feed them a dessert of in-depth coverage.

Was there a big football game Saturday, but you publish on Monday? Get the game recap online after the game, then give me a feature story on a key football player on Monday. Marijuana get legalized in a recent election? Give me the results online, then publish an investigative feature for the next print edition.

It takes a lot of work. Reporters and editors will need to devote the time to writing stories ahead of time, or working hard to turn a story for the next day. Waiting any longer just doesn’t cut it in today’s media. It’s tough; students have classes and jobs and responsibilities. But that’s the reality of daily media: you’re always on. If you are not constantly looking for new ways to keep readers from jumping ship, you will fail.

And in case you’re wondering, I cancelled that subscription to the Oregonian when it became obvious that I had already read everything before the paper got to me.

Don’t give people a reason to cancel their subscription to your paper. Don’t give them a reason to leave it on the newsstand. Balance the immediacy of social media and the in-depth advantages of your print editions. Keep it timely.

The pressure of being sick

I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Like many people, I procrastinated and forgot to my flu shot (that’s inexcusable. Get vaccinated!) and now I’m paying the price, with muscle aches, headaches, a bad cough and a nose that reminds me of Bonneville Dam.

But despite all of it, it could be worse. I could be working in TV news with the flu.

One of the most common expressions in TV news is “news doesn’t wait.” It means whatever day it is, whatever time it is, whatever reporter is on the clock, the news has to be covered.

And the unwritten, sad reality is that you will have to work when you’re sick.

Not all the time, though. Employees are legally entitled to a certain number of sick days per year, which means taking a day off shouldn’t be a problem. But at four times per year, you’re going to be told (or implied) you can’t call in sick. February, May, July and November are considered “sweeps months.” It’s the time of year when stations compile Nielsen ratings, to see which shows viewers are watching. It’s considered a make-or-break time; the results of sweeps months could influence potential advertisers, because no one wants to buy ad time on a station no one watches.

Sweeps months are usually filled with special reports, hard-hitting stories, contests, and promotional items, all designed to get more people to tune in. And because of that, stations ask that all hands be on deck.

It means you can’t request a vacation for those months. It doesn’t matter if your sister is getting married or you’ve won a trip to Disneyland, the chances of getting time off are between slim and zero. So it also means calling in sick is a no-no.

Keep in mind, there’s likely nothing in an employee’s contract that says time off is prohibited during these times. I also doubt there’s any language in an employee handbook, either. Technically, they cannot force you to come in. But it’s still expected that you be there, and the pressure to show up can be intimidating.

I was legitimately sick once during a November sweeps period month. It was a Monday. I had caught the flu over the weekend (I’ve got to remember that flu shot!) and I was confined to the couch with snotty tissues covering most of the carpet. I legitimately was in no condition to work. But it was sweeps, so I had a nervous pit in my stomach as I handled my cell phone, debating what I should say when I called in. I eventually dialed the numbers. A producer picked up.

“Hey, I’m really sick,” I said. “I’m not going to be able to make it in today.”

“Oh no!” the producer feigned sympathy. It sounded fake. But she continued. “Feel better. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

She hung up. The call took 15 seconds.

We’ll see you tomorrow. It wasn’t an optimistic hope, it came out like an expectation.

So I self-medicated, drank plenty of fluids, coughed up a lot of foul stuff, and somehow felt well enough to go into work the next day.

I walked up the stairs into the newsroom, and from my vantage point I had a clear view of the entire newsroom. I had come in a few minutes early, but some producers were already there, typing away and making phone calls. I walked past the assignment editor’s desk, a three-sided outpost in the middle of the room. “Hey Steven,” she said. She gave me a smile and seemed genuinely happy to see me. “Welcome back.”

“Thanks,” I said in my best Marlon Brando voice. I was still stuffed up. Maybe this wouldn’t be a big deal after all.

That quickly changed after I sat down. One producer walked past my desk on the way to the assignment editor.

“STE-ven,” she said, emphasizing the first syllable. “How are you feeling?” The question sounded like Chris Hansen was telling me to take a seat.

“A little better,” I said. “Still stuffed up.”

“Yeah…?” her head was cocked to one side. She didn’t say anything else, but the look on her face sad volumes. How sick were you, really?

A few minutes later, my boss walked by the right side of my cubicle and turned the corner toward me. “Mr. Sandberg,” he said, still looking at the papers in his hands. “How we doing today?”

“Feeling a little better,” I said. How many times would I have to answer this question.

“Yeah? All right,” he said.

I could feel the disappointment. Bosses always stress “if you feel sick, don’t come in,” but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.

Legally and in the big picture, I hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t skipped out on a big interview or left my co-workers hanging. I didn’t play hooky. I wasn’t slacking off. I just caught a flu bug. But I was too young and too scared to ever try to call in sick during sweeps again. TV news people are so conditioned with the “news never sleeps” mentality, that they can’t accept anything else. Reporters are expected to work every day, rain or shine, weekdays or holidays, and yes, sometimes even if they feel under the weather. It’s a reality you’ll have to face when you decide to start a career in TV news.

In a way, I get where the mentality comes from. Things happen so fast in TV news – stories break and information changes. And those ratings periods are considered vital for measuring viewers. You want to be at full strength for something like that, and you never want an employee who abuses his or her sick days. But subtly expecting people to push through an illness doesn’t help the finished product. It serves people a lot more to let someone take a day or two of rest, then come back at full strength.

Sometimes the expectations can be too high. During a performance evaluation one year, my bosses brought me into a conference room to review my work. We watched a couple of my packages, and talked about ways to improve my storytelling over the next year. Pretty standard stuff. Then they dropped the hammer.

“We’ve also noticed some attendance issues,” my boss said, looking down at papers he was shuffling.

“Attendance issues?”

I looked at my boss across from me, then to a producer on my left, trying to find out what they meant.

He tightened his jaw. “We’ve noticed a pattern of sick days being used around weekends. A lot of sick days on Fridays and Mondays. A lot of three-day weekends. We’d like to change that.”

I was shocked. Internally, I disagreed that this was a pattern, but I was too surprised to say anything in my defense. At that point, I only wanted to get out of that room. I could only nod and say “OK.”

When I eventually walked out, I thought of a thousand things I should have said. I racked my brain and could only see two instances in the past six months of calling in sick on a Monday or Friday. And yes, both times were legitimate. Am I not allowed to get sick at the start of end of the week? I should have said. Do germs only infect people Tuesday through Thursday? Is two times really a pattern? All of which I wanted to say. But I didn’t. The expectation is so engrained in TV folks that calling in sick becomes a thing.

If you want a job in this business, you need to recognize the expectations and pressures that some with it. And sometimes, you’ll need to fight for your right to cough up phlegm at home instead of at work.

 

Forgetting the voiceless

My first big assignment as a news reporter came a couple of weeks after I was hired. We were about to enter a “sweeps” period, which is when TV networks compile ratings and push out special content to bring in more viewers. For a local news operation, it means producing special stories for sweeps, usually longer pieces that can be promoted in commercials and online.

I was fresh-faced and wide-eyed, and was still learning where the bathrooms were at my station when my assistant news director came to me with my sweeps assignment. I was going to do an in-depth piece of gang problems in southern Oregon. A man had been stabbed by a gang member two weeks earlier, and my assignment was to explain more about who these gangs were, the types of crimes they were committing, and what police were doing to stop them.

On patrol with a Medford gang enforcement officer.

I was a little scared – after all, I had been in Medford all of two weeks – but I quickly jumped at the opportunity. This was my chance to show the world what the gang culture was like, and give people a dose of reality of how it affects small towns.

I sat in the office of the county District Attorney, amid shelves of dusty law books, and spoke to him about how jail sentences send a message to potential gang members. I went into the heart of the police station and looked at crime statistics with an officer, who explained that small town gang members aren’t “wannabes,” they were people committing serious, violent crimes.

Screen shot 2014-11-11 at 2.44.17 PM

Following a school resource officer around campus.

I took it a step further. One day I met with an officer assigned to a local high school and walked with him around campus. As he walked through the throng of students in the outdoor lunch area, he smiled and said hello to anyone who passed by. One student walked up and bumped fists with him.

“What’s up, officer Jackson?” the kid said.

“Hey man,” Jackson replied. He asked about the kid’s recent homework, and the kid smiled, gave him an “aw shucks” look, and said he would get on it. Jackson told me he tried to keep a close relationship with young students to encourage them to stay on the right track, and show that police can be viewed as friends. He never gave up on kids, even after they had joined a gang.

“Some of these guys are actually really nice kids,” he later said.

Driving down a dark alley in search of gang activity.

Then, my proudest moment in the story: a ride-along with a gang enforcement officer. I had never been in a police car before, but here I was, in the front seat, on a dark, rainy night in Medford. After having me fill out a form signing away my right to sue if I were to get killed on patrol (gulp) we cruised around the seediest parts of Medford.

A Medford officer shines his light on gang graffiti.

The dark streets were lined with old houses, broken down trucks, and crumbling sheds. The street lights seemed dimmer here, before they disappeared entirely. We drove by groups of three or four people, who would glance in our direction, then quickly turn their backs. Occasionally we would pull over, and the cop would shine lights at shops and houses tagged with gang-related graffiti. As I stood in the rain shooting video, I would often slowly turn my head to either side, to see who was around. In the dark, everything about gangs seemed so much more real, and so much scarier. And I wanted to capture what it was like to be the officer on that route every night.

After spending a couple of weeks putting everything together, I finally had my piece. “Gang Mentality,” they branded it. It even had a commercial. I had never been so proud of one of my stories at that time; to take such a big issue and expose it to our viewers.

After it aired, I sat down again with my assistant news director go over the work. I asked him what he thought.

He breathed in a deep breath through his teeth.

“…it was OK.”

OK? Just OK?

After I spent weeks with the best cops in the city? After I rode around in a police car through bad neighborhoods? After I recorded heartfelt exchanges between cops and kids? The material was good, the writing was good, the editing was good. After all that, how could it just be ‘OK?’

“Well,” he said. “You’ve got the DA. The police captain. The school officer. The gang officer.

All you have is cops.”

It took me aback.

“Where are the other voices?” he continued. “Where are the current or former gang members? Where are the neighbors who have to live next to gangs? Where are the family members? This issues affects more than just cops.”

It was my first lesson about trying to tell a story and completely missing the heart.

 Good reporting means moving beyond the obvious and the safe.

60 Minutes recently aired a report from Lara Logan, who traveled to Liberia to document the Ebola outbreak there. It was a solid report, which explained the efforts of American doctors who have set up an Ebola clinic in the region. But it received criticism in some circles, and was referred to as “Africa without Africans.”

In her report, Logan spent time with the American doctors who were treating patients, and interviewed five of them about their experiences. Not once did she interview any of the Liberians affected by the disease, or any of the African nurses helping at the clinic.

She certainly alluded to it, but it felt like she was treating the African perspective like someone looking through a window and describing what they see. She mentioned “most of the staff here are Liberian,” and showed them being sprayed with chlorine to disinfect, but never spoke to them about the experience. She presented the story of a Liberian father named George, whose young son William was infected with Ebola, and followed their journey all the way to the boy’s death, culminating with heartbreaking visual of the boy’s grave marker. But she never interviewed them.

Logan missed the entire heart of that story.

Good reporting means moving beyond the obvious and the safe. On the surface, it must have seemed like a no-brainer for Logan: she was reporting on the efforts of American doctors, so she interviews the American doctors. People with Ebola are quarantined, so she likely thought she couldn’t tell their story up close. But as a reporter, you need to push yourself past your initial ideas and dig deeper. The American doctors are only one part of the story. They see the effects of Ebola, but Liberians are affected by Ebola. The Liberians have seen their familes, friends, and neighbors die from the disease, and their experiences and voices carry much more emotion, and give the story more weight, than just the voices of doctors.

Surely this story affects more kinds of people than Americans?

Telling a story accurately means finding all the sides of a story. Who is affected by it? Who is actively involved in it? Doctors, police, politicians – these are all officials, and they are difficult for the average person to relate to. But the neighbors, the friends, the local workers – those people make a story real.

My story about gangs would have been a lot more impactful if I had reached out to gang members, former members, or families and neighbors who have experienced the problem. Those people likely have never had a voice, and have never been able to get their stories told. I could have given them that voice, but I failed in my efforts, simply because the thought never occurred to me. Just like I had forgotten the personal, heartfelt, relatable aspect in my story, even a seasoned reporter like Logan forgot to find the heart of her Ebola story.

As reporters, we all got into this business to make a difference in the world with our talents. We do that by going out in the world and sharing stories, and giving voice to those who previously had been voiceless. Often the most important voices are the ones we need to listen a little harder for.

Using an iPhone? Use it right

This afternoon I posted a piece about using new technology like iPhones to enhance a story. The trouble currently is that many news directors see the phone itself as an end-all piece of equipment that replaces existing cameras, tripods, and lights. With that limited mindset, you are handicapping your reporters and disrespecting your viewers.

But, if you know how to use it right, and have the correct equipment, it makes all the difference.

In January, Philip Bromwell and Glen Mulcahy of RTE News in Ireland shot a package sharing the stories of the “Dublin Dockers.”

It’s professional, it’s sharp, it’s shot well, and you probably would never be able to tell that it was shot using a iPhone.

Personally, it took me by surprise. iPhone stories by local TV stations usually look so … cheap. I tried shooting some video on an iPhone for a story earlier this summer, and I trashed it right away. So I reached out to Bromwell and Mulcahy on Twitter to find out what it took to make an iPhone story look so good. For starters: using the right equipment.

Bromwell said the story required several add-ons to the iPhone, including a tripod, iRig, and microphone.

In fact, RTE has what they call the “Mojo Grab Bag,” for use in mobile journalism. Take a look at all the equipment that’s needed to turn an ordinary iPhone into a broadcast-ready tool. Lights, mounts, lenses, microphones. It’s an investment; the total cost of all this equipment is about the same cost as the phone itself.

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Secondly, you need the right app. The iPhone itself is limited in how you can control things like focus and audio. But the right app gives you the control you would typically see on larger cameras.

Bromwell said the more he’s used this type of equipment, the better he’s become. “I’ve shot several better pieces,” he wrote, including one earlier this year called The King of Coffee.

That’s just a damn good package. The shots were unique, well framed, tight and in focus. The natural sound popped. The interview was well-lit and sounded great. It all came from an iPhone and their “grab bag.”

The two did say there were limitations for reporters to consider, including a lack of zoom and storage space.

“Positives outweigh the limitations IMO,” Bromwell said. “Remarkable what you can do with a phone in right hands & training.”

To me, the key word there is training. Too many news directors likely saw Bromwell and Mulcahy’ story and never stopped to think about all the work that went into it. Those two men didn’t go out and just point-and-shoot, they took the time to find the right equipment, trained on it, and took the time to make sure the finished product was high quality.

“Learn/be taught to do the simple things well and use what you have,” Bromwell said. “Then get good at it.”

It takes the right tools. It takes the right apps. It takes the right training. And it takes a journalist who knows how to tell a visual story. Enhance your skills with new technology. I’m willing to admit that these two made me look at iPhone journalism a little differently.

At the same time, it’s a powerful tool that needs to be used responsibly, not in the current way TV news directors are trying to use them.

If TV news stations are serious about switching to an iPhone-centric approach, then they need to take a page out of Bromwell and Mulcahy’s book. Go all the way and make that investment, which will help the product reach its highest quality. Just like you wouldn’t send a reporter into the field with a VHS camcorder and a flashlight, don’t send an iPhone reporter into the field without the right equipment. Send those tools out with a reporter and a photographer, and see what the two of them can create together. It’s an expense, and as I said in my earlier post, most news directors are looking at the iPhone switch as a way to save money on equipment. That’s the unfortunate catch-22: switching to iPhones to save money actually requires spending more money to make it work.

It’s worth the investment if you’re taking the same care as Bromwell and Mulcahy to create great content. Use these tools in the right way, with highly skilled reporters and photographers to make the most out of your coverage. If you just want a basic iPhone to point-and-shoot, you’re hurting your news operation.

Want to learn more? Check out the RTE Mobile Journalism CheatSheet below and follow Mulcahy’s blog.

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“The Future” is not now

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We are living in an age of incredible technological achievements. Thanks to innovations in computers and tablets, social media, and wireless technology, people have an unprecedented ability to gather and share information immediately. Our phones are mini computers in our pockets, with the ability to do the work of a camera, tape recorder, music player, organizer, clock, and Nintendo 64 all in one. It’s an incredible power.

But in TV news, that power is being abused. To paraphrase Ian Malcolm, some people are more concerned about whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Whether it applies to TV news or dinosaurs brought back to life, Malcolm was right.

In the past three years, news directors have become enchanted with the idea of “embracing” technology. That is, using things like iPhones, iPads, spy cameras, Twitter and Facebook in their news coverage. The problem is that these things are being used by news directors to replace their existing tools – cameras, tripods, microphones, live trucks. They’re skipping to the end of the book before reading what happens in the middle.

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Everything you need to create a live shot – lights, camera, microphones, etc.

To pull off a live report, you need several tools: You need a photographer controlling a camera on a tripod. You need microphones for the reporter to use to pick up direct sound. You need a lighting kit to make sure the subject is well lit. And you need a live truck that allows you to control those elements and feed it back to a news station.

Replace it all with an iPad, and you get this:

A poorly lit, unsteady, crap-sounding, too close live shot that ends up showing us nothing at all. This is the “future” of TV news equipment, according to these misguided news directors. This is “embracing technology,” sacrificing the quality of a newscast, all in an attempt to … what, exactly?

iPhones may be an all-in-one tool for consumers, but it hasn’t become an all-in-one for reporters yet. The quality of built in cameras and on-board microphones has not achieved broadcast-level quality yet. The technology may reach that point in the future, but it’s still in its early stages. News directors like this one don’t realize that yet, and in doing so, they are slapping their viewers in the face. New technology is a great tool that news directors don’t know how to use, and as a result, everyone gets hurt – viewers, reporters, photographers, everyone.

Ian Malcolm said it best in “Jurassic Park.” New technology like this is an awesome force, but news directors are wielding it “like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun.”

Once again, sadly, it comes down to money. iPhones are cheaper than broadcast cameras. It’s much cheaper to lay off hard-working photographers and force reporters to shoot their own live shots. News directors’ eyes are on the future, but their hands are on their wallets.

Just like all journalism tools that came before it, you need to find the right ways to use these new pieces of equipment. Enhance your equipment, don’t replace it.

iPhones are great at using quickly. During a breaking news situation, it’s much faster to pull at iPhone out of your pocket to shoot video that it is to rush back to the station, grab gear, drive back, set it up, and begin shooting. iPhones also allow you to post video online, which shares them with viewers almost instantly. As such, it’s a good tool to use when you are in a time crunch. After the initial breaking news, though, a broadcast camera is better equipped to shoot higher quality video, and pick up better sounding interviews.

iPhones are also good at getting in close, like this shot, taken from inside a bag. Screen shot 2014-11-07 at 11.42.55 AMA big, bulky news camera could never get that shot. Use smart phones in places where a larger camera can’t go.

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iPads are being used as mini-computers, and as scripts. A producer can field produce an entire show on an iPad, and a reporter can look up details or find a script without sorting through a pile of papers.

Treat new pieces of technology as an enhancement, just like we’ve always done. GoPro cameras are my favorite toys, and I love using them whenever I can in a story. The people who use them best are the guys from Top Gear:

Every shot from inside a car, or on the front of a jet ski, is being shot with those awesome little cameras. Again, those cameras add something new to a broadcast, but they don’t replace all cameras entirely. It’s used in a way that helps things jump out to a viewer. Could you imagine an entire Top Gear special shot with a GoPro? It would look lousy, because the tool would be used for something it can’t do yet.

I have no doubt that the future of video production will involve more mobile technology, but it’s not there yet. When it is, I’ll probably be the first in line to buy it. News directors trying to jump to the end of the book only hurt their own products in the process. For young journalists, I encourage you to experiment and find ways to use new tools in your storytelling, and push the limits of what you can create. But be very wary of a news director who tries to sell you on a future that hasn’t yet arrived.

Reporters share their election night memories

I hope everyone had a safe and exciting Hallowe– I mean, election night. Of course, like Halloween, many journalists are probably waking up with a bellyache, from having to stomach too much pizza and too much political PR.

As I mentioned in my post yesterday, being able to cover election night as a reporter is an experience I will always remember. I reached out to some of my friends who are currently working or previously worked in TV news, and asked them to share their own memories of election night. The consensus: there needs to be pizza!

Have an election night memory to share? Be sure to leave them in the comments section!

Wearing blue to a GOP event, and other election night stories

The NewsWatch 12 crew after a late election night, May 2014.

I honestly didn’t mean anything by it.

It was election night 2012. Barack Obama was seeking a second term while being challenged by Mitt Romney. Oregon was voting on marijuana legalization. Several Oregon congressional seats were up for grabs. And I was going to be on the air all night with the results.

I was a big part of our station’s “team coverage” of election night. We had reporters following results in the newsroom, others stationed at ballot boxes, and me, live from the Republican Party headquarters. My producers would be cutting to me many times throughout the night, where I would conduct interviews with politicians and explain how people were reacting to the results.

Because I was such an important anchor of our coverage, I wanted to look my best. So I put on my newest gray suit, a freshly pressed white shirt, and my best looking tie.

The bright blue one.

I never had a second thought about it. I looked sharp, and that was all that mattered. It never dawned on me that a blue tie might look a little out of place at a Republican event.

So there I was, reporting live in red state country wearing my blue tie. I knew something was off right away when I started to get a few sideways glances. Eventually, two older women came up to meet me and my photographers.

“You’re wearing the wrong color!” one woman said, wearing one of those smiles that seemed anything but sincere.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“What are you wearing blue for?” the second woman asked, flailing her fingers at my tie.

“You do know this is a Republican event, right?” said the first woman. She was wearing a bright red blazer, had red nail polish, even her short-cropped hair was dyed an unnatural shade of crimson.

I get it. Red.

“It’s just a tie,” I said, exasperated.

“Oh, we’re just giving you a hard time,” red woman said. She smiled one of those phony smiles people have when they try to seem like they’re joking, but are actually deeply offended. My blue tie had cut her deep.

Such is the nature of election night; where even something as innocent as wearing a certain color tie can bring out the emotions in someone.

Interviewing Oregon state representative Dennis Richardson on election night, November 2012.

Election night was one of my favorite assignments as a reporter. It’s fast-paced, it’s exciting, and it matters. Best of all, it’s fun. Whether you’re stationed at a ballot box watching ballots be dropped off, or frantically clicking ‘refresh’ at 8 p.m. to see the first preliminary results, it’s a night where something is always happening.

And it’s an experience you share with your best friends: your fellow reporters. You are all required to stay late and come in early, and you bond over it.

The calm before the storm is between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., when the final ballots are dropped off. Then, it’s dead silent in the newsroom, except for the frantic click click click click click click click of every reporter trying to see the results first. It’s like newsroom Bingo, except everyone has a winning card. Whoever yells first, wins.

“The public safety levy is a ‘no,’ 56 percent!” someone might yell. “And Smith is winning the commissioner race with 67 percent!”

Everything goes into overdrive after that, as reporters rush to their phones and leap into their cars, hoping to get a hold of the candidates before all the circuits get jammed. Earlier this year, I was covering the Jackson County Sheriff’s race. When the results came in, I called and hung up and hit redial 12 times without stopping, just so I could catch leading candidate Corey Falls, whose phone was likely being blown up by calls from friends and other reporters.

Pizza and hard work on election night, May 2014

You’re not just looking out for yourself, you’re helping everyone else, and everyone seems to join in that team-first mentality. Our news director always ordered several pizzas to feed hungry reporters. Sports anchors were helping to shoot interviews with politicians (by the end of the night, they would joke about it. “Well, see you in four years!”) When I was standing in the rain, attempting to do live shot next to a ballot box, an elections office worker walked over while I was on the air and held out his umbrella to keep me dry. It was one of the nicest little gestures anyone had ever done for me as a reporter and I thanked him on the air.

And when things get stressful, as time starts running out and deadlines are looming, we always pick each other up. In May’s election, Rob Scott, who is now a reporter at KXAN in Austin, Texas, sensed the mood in the room beginning to turn sour, and started making up jingles to keep people laughing.

“Life is a hashtag, I’m going to tweet it all night long…” he sang. Even the most stone-faced reporter couldn’t help feeling a little happier. All of us ended up singing those jingles on our way out the door at the end of the night.

Yes, election night can be stressful. It can be a long night with a heavy workload that carries you into the next morning. But it’s one of the most memorable experiences you get as a reporter, and it only comes once every four years. So take a deep breath and enjoy the plunge.

The calm before the storm on election night 2014.

The calm before the storm on election night 2014.