Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good advice-not just for TV

Walter Dean at the Committee for Concerned Journalists does a periodic On Background column. I thought this week's was especially useful -- and not just for TV.

Every journalists should read this. In today's digital world, you simply can't afford to do things as you've been doing them, and that includes being unwilling to break up your stories or Web sites and refocus them with new news. Yet too often we still see the old stuff leading and the new stuff just tacked on the end.

On Background isn't available on the Web to link to, so Dean has kindly OK'd its reproduction here. All he asked for was a plug for CCJ's new book "We Interrupt This Newscast: How to Improve Local News and Win Ratings, Too." Consider it plugged.

There will be a test ...
Committee for Concerned Journalists
ON BACKGROUND: Ideas and approaches from CCJ's Traveling Curriculum to help you "move the needle" - October 17, 2007

Last time, I suggested that local TV newsrooms have come to rely on a restrictively narrow definition of "immediacy;" almost all "new" news comes from the scanners. Other news, however, can also be "new;" when a reporter finds a story, advances a story or even explains a story.

Just a couple of days after I wrote that column, there was "another college campus shooting." It occurred at Delaware State University where, at about 1 a.m. the morning of September 20, two students were shot and seriously wounded as they walked on campus after leaving a café.

The next morning, the shootings were the lead story on the radio. During the day, cable news featured crime scene aerials and the term "manhunt." There were constant reminders (as if they were needed) of the Virginia Tech shootings in which a deranged student massacred 33 students and wounded more than two-dozen others.

That evening, a local newscast here in Washington, DC, led with a "live" report from the scene of the latest "college campus shooting," one of those "back-to-you-in-the-studio" pieces likely provided by the station's affiliate news service.

The anchor led into the package by saying that the search for suspects continued as the campus remained uneasy in the wake of the shootings (18 hours prior). The on-scene reporter was professional and covered all the obvious bases - the incident, interviews with witnesses and concerned students, background on those wounded, their conditions, and the like. Then, at the end of the package, came this information: authorities were now saying the shooting may have had something to do with a feud and that the shooter was probably another student. In other words, never mind, this isn't anything similar to what happened at Virginia Tech.

I felt like I'd been had. And based on our study of local TV news viewership, it's a fair bet that I wasn't alone among viewers.

We all know what probably happened: the information came in later in the day and was tacked on to the end of the story, which was no doubt being assembled as various elements were captured on tape. However, this new information was a part of the edited piece (as opposed to the closing stand-up), which meant the reporter got it early enough to script and track it.

I cite this example not to dump on somebody's story but to raise the issue of timeliness, of how we handle "new" news. This story shows what can happen when:

* The master narrative of a story never changes, even when the facts do. This story began as "another college campus shooting" and was still being covered that way 18 hours later.

* The original incident (and subsequent "manhunt") is forever the "new news." In fact, there were other, newer, developments that could be used to update the story. This new information could have been the gist of the anchor lead-in or put at the top of the piece when the reporter re-tracked the package.

* The master narrative focuses on fear - the "it could happen to you or your kids" genre - ignoring other, newer, questions. Among them:
- What groups were feuding and why?
- Did the university know about this feuding? If so, how did they react?
- What are the implications of acts like this for the university community, which is supposed to be a community of learning, not violence?
- Was this incident - or the factors that led to it - isolated or part of what may be a larger trend?

* Chronological story construction is misused. A timeline is a wonderful way to help viewers understand a complex or long-running issue. But when it results in the lead - the important new news - being buried, it becomes problematic.

* Questionable assumptions drive the choice of visuals. I suspect one reason the story was built chronologically was to begin the piece with what were assumed to be the strongest pictures - flashing lights and yellow police tape. Yet research shows these presumably "hot" visuals have no impact whatsoever on viewership. And in this case, using them meant opening with the oldest pictures, not exactly a recipe for newness. I think a good argument could be made that on the day after the incident, the story had advanced from the "shots fired" phase to "how is the university community reacting?" If that's reasonable, then the question becomes: what pictures best illustrate today's story? Is it flashing lights or is it shots of campus life, perhaps including natural sound of students talking among themselves with an emphasis on their faces?

* Fails to take into account news that people consume during the day. I had already heard something about a possible feud and had definitely heard that the prime suspects were other students. So when I watched this story on the 6 pm news, I became confused rather than informed. I expected to immediately hear more about the tidbits I'd picked up during the day. And when I did not, I wondered what was going on. It was as though I was getting information from two different planets. Eventually, the reporter got to the new information. And my confusion morphed into disappointment.

What bothers me so much about stories like this is that they grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. So much of the hard stuff is past - you got to the scene, the equipment works, you're able to get on campus and conduct interviews, the reporter looks and sounds good, the bird came up on time and the IFB works. The piece looks good. All that and yet it falls short.

More frustrating still is that each of the weaknesses in this story could have been anticipated and easily fixed. Had someone pre-screened the package or at least seen a script, the new information could have been foreshadowed in the anchor lead. Or, better yet, the reporter could have put the new news at the top of the piece.

The real issue, however, has less to do with execution and more with the perceptions that govern reporting and producing.

And that leads me back to some points I raised last time. Is new news only what came over the scanners? Or can advancing or even explaining a story also be new?
How you and your staff answer that question will affect the way your news organization covers events. It will also affect what those of us in viewer-land think about that coverage.

Walter Dean
Director - Broadcast/Online, Committee of Concerned Journalists
wdean@concernedjournalists.org

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