What ‘Cutthroat Kitchen’ Can Teach Journalists

Imagine if Alton Brown was your news director…

“One contestant will have to cook with this potato masher duct-taped to their hand!”

If I have one guilty pleasure, it’s the Food Network. And the best show is “Cutthroat Kitchen,” which takes the creativity and pressure of “Chopped” and goes completely psychotic with it.

If you’re not familiar with the format of the show, four contestants are asked to cook a certain dish. But each contestant is given $25,000 to bid on sabotages that derail their competitors. Some sabotages include being forced to cook in a tiny kiddie kitchen, replacing all cooking tools with tin foil, and replacing fresh ingredients with frozen, canned, or junk food varieties (imagine cooking Chicken Parmigiana using only the chicken you can get out of a can of soup). No matter what sabotage you get, you have to keep cooking.

At the end of each round, the contestants’ dishes are tasted by a judge who has no knowledge of what transpired in the round. They don’t know how the contestants were sabotaged or where the food came from. They only care about what’s on the plate. If the dish doesn’t cut it, the contestant will be eliminated. The winner leaves with whatever money they have left over from the bidding. Truly it is cutthroat.

It doesn’t matter if you have a masher duct-taped to your hand (or if it gets stuck in an oven handle), you need to keep cooking.

As I binge-watched “Cutthroat Kitchen” on Netflix this weekend, I realized “this show is a great lesson for journalists!”

Sabotages will always happen in journalism. Maybe a reporter turns in a sub-par article. Maybe your live camera breaks down 10 minutes before the newscast. Maybe a photographer forgets to attend an event and has no photos. Or maybe a source calls back and recants their story at 2 p.m. Believe me, these things happen.

But how you react to it makes a huge difference in your ability as a journalist.

You can complain about it, or you can make a Vietnamese-style shrimp scampi!

We can’t run a crawl during out 5 p.m. newscast telling viewers “sorry our video isn’t very good; our camera battery died during the shot.” We can’t run a box on page one of our newspaper saying “sorry this story didn’t turn out well; our reporter waiting until the last minute to get interviews.” As much as we’d like to explain away the problems in our news gathering, we can’t, because our audience DOES NOT CARE.

They don’t care that a reporter got busy juggling other stories. They don’t care that our 30-year-old equipment broke down. They don’t care that a plane flew overhead just as our interview subject said the most important thing. THEY. DON’T. CARE.

The only thing that matters is what’s on the plate.

Our audience are just like the judges on Cutthroat Kitchen. It doesn’t matter if we had to make a deviled egg with an ostrich egg. We still need to deliver, or else we fail. Do the judges get something they can eat? Do our readers get an article that engages them? Do our viewers get a package that grabs their attention?

They don’t care how they get it, as long as they get it.

Journalists could learn a lot from the attitudes of some of the show’s contestants. Despite being forced to grind a garbage bag of peanuts to make peanut butter, they still adjust and make the most of it. They change plans, adapt, shift ideas, and deliver something of high quality, even with limited resources. Then as judges give their verdicts, the contestants keep their mouths shut about the sabotages they endured, knowing that it won’t make a difference in the end.

When difficulties arise, rather than focus on what you can’t do as a journalist, focus on what you can do. Make up for a weak story with a strong layout. Cover up a poorly-lit soundbite with b-roll. Use graphics or info boxes in place of missing photos. Play to your strengths, instead of dwelling on your shortcomings.

Because you never know when you may have to make ice cream in a traffic cone while wearing a dog cone. That ice cream better still be good, and your news presentation should be the same.

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