Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Katrina Memories

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November 2004 Pictures 661

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina came ashore in New Orleans. The hurricane didn’t do the worst damage. The breaking levees did. By the time I, as a public affairs specialist for the Department of Interior, arrived as part of an interagency cohort to assist FEMA with disaster communications, a month had passed.

I first went to Little Rock as the PAO for the Katrina field office. Through a snafu between agencies, I was forced to return to my home state in Utah. But after an appeal to higher DOI authorities by a FEMA disaster coordinator also with high authority, I was sent to the FEMA Joint Information Center in Austin. For the next month, I and a team of other FEMA staff and agency PAOs conducted press conferences, disseminated disaster information and helped the JIC coordinate between the state, localities and the feds about everything from abatement checks to bottled water.  And we worked not only in the aftermath of Katrina, but also of Hurricane Rita.

Then, three months later, I was sent to New Orleans as a debris specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers, where I inspected debris haulers to insure their loads were carrying acceptable debris and weren’t violating load requirements as set by FEMA, the Corps and the EPA.

In both cases, the assignments were a month long and each day was 12-hours. By the time I left, I never wanted to see another broken anything again. But there are memories I will never lose.

  • An acres-big field of nothing but water logged refrigerators and freezers, unopened, and full of spoiled food.
  • Miles of dead trees all bent at the same angle
  • The Louisana Superdome with huge blue jean like patches on the roof
  • A rusted barge, visible from the bridges, protruding into a lower ninth ward levee
  • Streets full of real houses that look like stomped on toy houses
  • A steel freeway billboard sign bent parallel to the highway
  • Mardi Gras and ankle deep garbage on Bourbon St.
  • Watching the end of Mardi Gras marked by a line of mounted police pushing drunk revelers ahead of them off Bourbon St.
  • A water line two feet above my head drawn on every building in sight
  • Eating a dinner of black bean and sausage soup in a restaurant with a “B” on a piece of paper taped to the window
  • Every windshield of every car seemed to be cracked
  • The flooded out and destroyed Walmart on Tchoupitoulas St. not far from the Corps field office.
  • Vast and ghostly expanses of empty neighborhoods
  • A stolen, burnt Ferrari discovered right behind my work assignment one morning that wasn’t there the night before

And many, many more.

I hope to go to New Orleans someday. Maybe even Second-Line. But today, I remember the people who suffered, who died and everyone who worked so very hard to try to make it right.

And I remember the sentiment of New Orleanians, as expressed in something I found scrawled on a bathroom wall.

Photo by me.

Written by Interviewer

August 30, 2015 at 08:05

Ad Perpetuam Memoriam

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Microphone and Ribbon

Two journalists from WDBJ TV in Roanoke, Virginia, reporter Allison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, were killed by a former station employee while they conducted a live TV interview.  According to NPR’s Sandy Housman, the image of Vester Lee Flanigan, who worked as a reporter under the name of Bryce Williams, was captured by videographer Adam Ward’s camera.  Flanigan apparently also videotaped himself carrying out the shooting and later, posted it on social media.  The BBC reported that as someone who understood the power of TV and video, Mr. Flanigan stalked and ambushed both journalists.  Virginia police reported Flanagan suffered a self-inflicted, life threatening gunshot wounds and has been transported to a local hospital.  He has since died from those wounds.

I cried when I heard of the shootings.  I’ve worked in a TV newsroom.  I’ve worked the early morning shift with people who shuffle in at two and three in the morning and scrounge for stories to have ready by a 6 or 7 a.m. newscast.  I’ve joked with cameramen as they grabbed their gear and warmed up a truck.  I’ve watched reporters scoop up notebooks and tape recorders as they hurry out the door into the dark to get ready for some live shot who-knows-where.

An American journalist hasn’t been murdered in America since 2007.  According to Wikipedia, Chauncy Bailey of the Oakland Post was the most recent reporter killed by the target of an investigative report he was working on.  The Committee to Protect Journalists says 1141 journalists have been killed around the world since 1992.  But many American journalists have been killed on American soil.  Wikipedia lists 48 journalists killed in the United States since 1837.

I have never been in a reporting situation where I thought my life was in danger.  But, this simple and routine interview these two professionals went to cover; one of a thousand they’ve done before, almost certainly seemed ordinary and harmless to them as well.

Allison Parker – WDBJ-TV Reporter
Adam Ward – WDBJ-TV Cameraman

Written by Interviewer

August 26, 2015 at 23:13

Real News

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Thigh Cream

This is a quickie.

The National Zoo in Washington DC helped its panda, Mei Xiang, give birth to two panda cubs overnight.  CBS This Morning has spent a lot of time covering that story, repeating it each hour and dedicating several minutes each time from it’s reporter Jan Crawford, who is covering the story.  Guest anchor Anthony Mason, after one commercial break, began by saying something like, “In our ongoing panda coverage …”.

Anyone who has spent anytime in TV might wonder if what he’s really saying is, “Is this real news?”

This is a perennial conversation in newsrooms.  I remember back in the early 90s, when I worked at WKRC, Channel 12 in Cincinnati, there was a story about thigh cream.  The manufacturer claimed that using this cream would reduce wrinkles and fat on a woman’s thigh.  At the time, reporters were furious that a business product was being elevated to a news story.  And afterwards, it became shorthand for a ridiculous story that masquaraded as real news.  Some people might have accused CBS of doing the same thing a few years ago when “This Morning” featured the new Dyson bathroom hand dryer.

How does this happen?  Sometimes, the news cycle is thin and assignment editors and news directors are looking for anything to fill time.  Sometimes, the more strategic intention is to try to appeal to an important demographic.  And sometimes, (although no one will admit it) the sales department drops a bug in a news director’s ear because a business has just purchased a lot of commercial air time.

Ms. Crawford’s story, however, was likely in none of those categories.  When CBS went to her, she responded to Mr. Mason in her intro by saying the panda story was indeed important because these were the first babies born in captivity in many years.  And she said that because such panda cubs rarely survive, the zoo was essentially in a life or death struggle to keep them alive in their first few hours.

Was it breaking news?  No.  Was it thigh cream?  No.  But this story and many others like it are fuel for the ongoing argument on both sides of the screen.

What is news, exactly?

Something’s Missing

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Tannerite

I’ve written in this blog about how CBS, under long time anchor Dan Rather, pioneered the idea of using maps as part of stories. The reason, at the time, was because studies showed American kids were terrible at geography. It was an attempt to make news not only inform, but provide basic education. It was decades before the Internet.

Fast forward to about 2009 when the New York Times starts making it easy for web users to define certain words and phrases in its online version of stories. Users who let their browsers hover over unfamiliar terms see a thumbnail description. Later, the site would underline those same words and phrases with hyperlinks to make it even easier to quickly get an in-depth explanation of those unknown somethings.

Maybe news departments have come to believe that because the Internet is so ubiquitous, people will know to look up something they see or hear that they don’t understand. And so, maybe that was the reason why KOIN’s Ken Boddie, in reporting an accident at an Oregon gun range involving the substance “tannerite”, didn’t explain what tannerite is.

Tannerite is the brand name of an explosive sold mainly for making targets on gun ranges blow up. A listener might wonder why something that has the potential to accidentally explode would be used on gun ranges. Wikipedia says tannerite is a combination of two powders that is stable until hit by a hammer blow, a low-velocity shotgun blast or dropped.

Clearly, a complete description like that is more than a news director might feel such a story needs. But that missing detail, for someone who doesn’t spend their time on gun ranges or in gun stores, was just glaring enough.

In the end, I did look it up.  But for a completely different reason.

Written by Interviewer

August 17, 2015 at 23:58

A Stumble at the Gate

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Horses at Gate

Jay Carney, former White House press secretary, showed why the transition from government to private business spokesperson isn’t always a smooth one.

Carney was interviewed by CBS This Morning in response to a New York Times article by reporter Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld about “dystopian” working conditions at Amazon. The report talked of employees in tears after meetings or at their desks. And although Kantor spoke about some of the positive aspects of the company, including its innovation, she defended the reports that Amazon’s culture encouraged employees to tear apart each other’s ideas in a effort to create an atmosphere of “unreasonably high” standards.

Carney told the anchor desk that he has held the job of corporate spokesperson at Amazon for five months. But he said neither he, nor Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos or many of the other people with whom he works recognized the company portrayed in Kantor and Streitfeld’s report. That mirrored the language in an Amazon press release but was not a firm enough rebuttal of the allegations for anchors Gail King and Clarissa Ward.

Carney stumbled often as he defended Amazon’s role and history as an innovator. When Ward and King pressed him on whether the allegations were true, Carney essentially said that employees who didn’t like the culture at Amazon were free to leave, noting that the attrition rate for the company was similar to the attrition rate for other large American companies.

When King specifically addressed a charge in the NYT story that Amazon does not offer maternity leave to its women, Carney admitted that there was no maternity leave but justified that by the fact that 80% of US companies also do not provide it.

When Carney was a White House spokesperson, his responses were crisp because government spokespeople tend to be limited by government officials in what they can say. Saying too little or just enough in press conferences is the rule of the day because it reduces the amount of backtracking or embarrassment if they’re wrong later. As a corporate spokesperson, the crisis communication goal is to try to get ahead of the story and smash as much defense into an answer as possible, no matter the question. Several times, the anchors tried to stop Carney from the all too common corporate defense ramble.

But the message itself was a problem. Parents may recognize Carney’s responses to Amazon’s issues with attrition and maternity leave in conversations they have with their kids. “Everybody else is doing it”, is not a justification for a company that constantly claims to hold itself to a higher standard.

Jay Carney was the 29th White House press secretary. He served in that position from September 2005 until November 2008, and he was a regular contributor in the “roundtable” segment of ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos. But as this CBS This Morning interview shows, some skills are not as transferable as they seem.

The Death Toll Continues to Rise

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Chinese Explosion

This is a quickie.

At 7 a.m. PST, the West Coast version of CBS This Morning reported on the explosions at a chemical plant in China.  They said that 50 people had been killed.  At 1 p.m. PST, NPR News reported the death toll at that chemical plant was 50 and climbing.  At 7 p.m. PST, NPR News reported again that the death toll was 50.

The later newscast didn’t say the death toll was climbing and it didn’t give a higher number of deaths.  In fact, as of the later NPR newscast, the death toll seemed to have remained unchanged throughout the day.

But it is the earlier NPR newscast I am writing about.  If a death toll is 50 “and climbing”, how did NPR News know it was climbing?  And if it was climbing, shouldn’t the number have been some greater number other than 50?

It is very likely that there are people in extremely critical condition who probably will not survive.  But as of the later newscast, they apparently hadn’t yet died and their deaths hadn’t been reflected in updated numbers.  So I don’t know why, against available evidence and reporting, NPR News said the number was climbing.

Written by Interviewer

August 14, 2015 at 10:11

Pronounciation Guides

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Pronounciation Guide

When I was a reporter for the American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS), pronounciation guides were a necessity. AFRTS facilities were scattered around the world.  Local military broadcasters presented the news to military and their families serving at those bases and posts.  And the last thing commanders wanted was for one of their people to embarass the command by mispronouncing the name of a host nation dignatary.

A pronounciation guide is a list of hard to pronounce words that occur in the major stories of the day.  It’s purpose is to help news readers say the word as correctly as possible.  Sometimes, that means as a company or country or group decides they want it said.  Remember the problem the media was having with ISIS versus ISIL versus DASH?

Sometimes, pronouncing a word correctly means as a community had decided it will be said no matter what “proper” pronounciation says it should be.  For instance, In Cincinnati, there is a main thoroughfare called Reading Road.  Most people might pronounce it as “Read” with “ing” at the end.  But Cincinnatians say it like “Red-ing”.  A pronounciation guide would be very helpful there.  A new hire at a hometown station that says “REED-ING” instead of “RED-ING” is instantly pegged as not a local.

By contrast, sometimes a name is just a nightmare to pronounce.  But anchors and hosts have to speak with authority and if they continually stumble over words, they start to lose their credibility.   Besides, it’s distracting for the listener because they start paying less attention to the story and more attention to the next time the anchor stumbles.  And that stumbling can take a few forms.  As a reader, you see the word coming in the copy with the horrible realization that you have no idea how to say it.  So you crash into it, trying not to break your pace as you butcher way through it and hoping no one will notice.   Or, you start to pronounce it, realize you are pronouncing it wrong and try again, and again, and again.  Somewhere in there, a part of your brain realizes another part of your brain just isn’t getting it.  So you slam another word in place and jerk yourself to another part of the sentence.

U.N. Secretaries General are especially hard.  There was Dag Hammarskjöld.  There was U Thant.  There was Boutros Boutros Ghali.  Without a pronounciation guide, how many anchors fell into those phonetic pits.

Sometimes you think a pronounciation guide is necessary when it really isn’t.  For example, in the U.S., the word “aluminum” (AHH-LOO-MIN-NUM) is pronounced much differently than how the British pronounce it, which is AYL-YOU-MIN-E-UM.  This is sort of similar to the Cincinnati example except it’s really the difference between homophones (words sounding the same but with different meanings) versus homographs (words spelled the same but sounding differently).

I miss pronounciation guides, and it seems some broadcast outlets are missing them too.  For instance, I recently heard a local commentator call the Oregon community of YOU-MA-TILLA, UH-MA-TILLA.  But this isn’t just something small outlets do.  Earlier this week, a reporter on CBS called the Oregon based sportsware manufacturer N-EYE-K, rather than N-EYE-KEE.

But pronounciation guides can be a pain too.  When you’re writing and producing stories, you’re constantly up against the clock.  When airtime is looming, scanning through a pronounciation guide is a luxury and the last thing you have time for.  So many of us in the business assume we know how to say something.

ASS-U-ME

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