Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘CBS

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

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

What Time is it Really?

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WWV

We have all been conditioned to believe that when a TV or radio program begins at the “top” or “bottom” of the hour, it means the program is starting at exactly 1 p.m. or 5:30 a.m. or whenever.

But it’s not that simple.

First, understand that official United States civilian time is maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado.  Those are the people who are responsible for ensuring the official weights and measures for the US, including time.  And precision is important to these folks. Time, i.e. the length of a second, is determined based on the vibrations of Cesium 133 atoms.  This was represented by a clock NIST called the “F1”.  But in 2014, they supplemented the “F1” clock with the “F2”, which unlike the previous clock, will not lose one second in 300 million years, making it three times more accurate than the F1.

Meanwhile, US time is synchronized with the rest of the world via something called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), although it used to be commonly referred to as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Greenwich, by the way, is a real place. It is the location of the Royal Observatory in a municipality of London. GMT was the international civil time standard until recent years when there has been a hot debate about what GMT is and whether it deserves to be the standard it has historically been.

These two may not seem to have much in common; the measurement within time versus coordination of the World’s clocks. But they are intimately connected. To demonstrate this, imagine hearing a band playing Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. Then imagine another band starts playing it, but is one beat off from the first band. The beat within both songs is the same length but the starting point of the song is different. Which beat should each group of musicians keep time to, their own or that of the other band?

That can be a problem for time keepers and, coincidentally, broadcasters. For decades, FCC regulations required holders of broadcast licenses to announce who and where their stations are before beginning a program. If you are watching KOIN in Portland, Oregon, when the previous program ends but within a minute of so of a new program, you see promos for upcoming local and network shows. Then, there will be a graphic somewhere on the screen that says you are watching KOIN 6 in Portland, Oregon. Or, if you’re listening to KOPB, you’ll hear promos, then the list of affiliate stations of Oregon Public Broadcasting and their individual locations. By law, you must see and hear these very close to “top” of the hour.

Then the next program begins, supposedly, “straight up”. But if you open the NIST’s time widget before the stations identify themselves, you notice that neither the radio or the TV program starts at the NIST’s official “top” of the hour. In the accompanying video, the CBS and NPR networks the locals go to are about 12 seconds behind the NIST. Twelve seconds might not seem like a big deal. But since billions of dollars are invested in advertising, technology and legislation for time to be both accurate and consistent, why isn’t it a big deal? Otherwise, why have a standard at all?

From simply an economic standpoint, how can stations afford to be off by up to 12 seconds an hour considering how important every moment is for generating revenue from commercials. I blogged about that a few years ago.

Anyway, I’ve had the larger question since my amateur radio days when I used to “DX” WWV, an NIST radio service that used to broadcast official time. If the NIST is the “official” US civilian timekeeper, why don’t broadcasters follow it?

*Accompanying audio and video are used under the Fair Use doctrine for the purposes of criticism, comment and news reporting.

Written by Interviewer

June 5, 2015 at 05:53

The Look of News

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Network Logos

I’m dating myself, but I remember when there were just three channels on TV.  Well, not really just three.  There were the PBS channels and everything else that lived above Channel 13 on UHF.  But in most places, viewers watched network programs through their network affiliates that existed somewhere between Channels 2 and 12.  For the most part, they still do.

I am thinking about how much the local channels try to look like their network parents and what that really means.  If you are a connoisseur of the look of TV, you might get what I’m saying.  With the years I’ve spent behind studio cameras, in master controls and at home, the feel a station wants to convey with its look is very recognizable and distinctive to me.  And I am convinced that they each have had decades long recipes for how their picture looks to the world and what they’re saying about themselves with those pictures.

CBS, it seems to me, has colors that have higher than average black levels.  Black level is one of the components of a TV signal that becomes your TV picture.  High but not too high black levels make the pictures rich in their clarity and sharpness but not overly bright or overly colorful.  The feeling I get from a CBS image is credibility, authority and power.  So with that in mind, it’s probably no coincidence that the old nickname for CBS headquarters is “Black Rock”.  Anyway, their picture is what you might see with your own eyes if somebody else was controlling them on the assumption that you wanted to see the most real reality* possible.  That may sound a little woo-woo, but I think that’s how CBS has always tried to present the world to its viewers; in a digitally sharp, not a lot of frills, down to business, just the facts ma’am manner.  Local CBS affiliates mirror the network look and feel as much as they can.  If CBS’s look was a setting, it would be an office.

NBC, by comparison has a film-ish look.  Not grainy exactly, not soft focus exactly.  But when I watch NBC, I think of history in the making.  Also, for many people, film is to images like vinyl is to sound.  There is just something about the earlier mediums that feel original and thus, more true.  Film makes the things we’re seeing more authentic and believable in part because film is what we all grew up with.  That’s why almost all of the movies we see don’t look like a TV news story and instead, look like, well … life.  Even movies that are shot digitally are made to look like film.  You can bet the engineers, producers and executives at NBC, as well of all of its affiliates know that’s how people see them and that is a perception they want to protect.  If NBC’s look was a setting, it would be a library.

ABC has always struck me as the most immediate network.  I think that mostly because of the colors.  Colors always seem most intense and lighting always seems brightest to me in ABC programming.  I see this especially on ABC news programs although I also noticed it on the old After School Specials and see it in many current prime time shows.  Of the three networks, the action on ABC programs seems to move fastest, with quicker edits and effects, more in-your-face use of sound and overall pacing.  The feel I get from watching something on ABC is it’s a wind in your hair kind of experience.  To me, ABC creates a mood of immediacy and energy with the way it presents itself.  And again, local ABC stations seem to follow suit.  If ABC’s look was a setting, it would be a party.

What I’m talking about here is how television engineers light for the camera to create a world that exists on a continuum from stark reality to dreamtime and everything in between.  Each of these networks has settled on a recipe for a picture of the world that mirrors how they see it, and they attract people who see it the same way.  They and their affiliates, present that world but we each have a preference for how we want to see it which is why many of us choose one network over another.  Of course, if a better show is on a different network, that’s where the viewer goes.  But networks are brands and they have brand loyalty based in large part on how people have come to expect they will look and feel to them.  There are distinct differences which is no accident.

*BTW, Aaron Schachter of PRI’s “The World” also used the superlative “real reality” in an April 7th radio story but I hadn’t heard it yet.

Journalists Do Good Work Until They Don’t?

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Brian Williams

The flap with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is not unique to Brian Williams, to broadcasting or to the 4th Estate.  The halls of journalism are littered with pockmarks from shots taken at reporters for not upholding the standards to which they supposedly pledge themselves.  Cast your memory back a few short weeks and it was CBS 60 Minutes reporter Lara Logan and questions not only over her reporting of a 2013 story on the US Embassy attack in Benghazi but her return to on-air reporting at the network.

About Williams, he claimed more than 10 years ago that he was in the second of four helicopters that was attacked in Iraq.  That seems to be mostly true.  The question is how it was attacked.  When he first told the story, he said the lead chopper was hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade but both were taking small arms fire.  Over the years (and masterfully explained by NPR Media Critic David Folkenflik – http://www.npr.org/2015/02/05/384119679/brian-williams-criticized-for-exaggerated-iraq-story) the story changed to William’s chopper being the one that was hit by the RPG.

Brian Williams has been sitting in the NBC anchor chair since 2004.  He began his career in 1981 at KOAM-TV in Pittsburg, Ks.  From there, he worked at WTTG in Washington, DC, then WCAU in Philadelphia.  In 1987, he began broadcasting from WCBS in New York where he remained until 1993 when he joined NBC News.  Wikipedia says he anchored the Weekend Nightly News and was chief White House correspondent before serving as anchor and managing editor of the News with Brian Williams, also broadcast on MSNBC and CNBC.  His career has been extensive and his climb up the network ladder has been long.

But this is in no way a defense of Mr. Williams, Ms. Logan or any journalist that has gotten sloppy.  And that seems to be what has really happened here.  Whether it’s a refusal to do the deep checking a complex story requires, or a subtle need to “be the story” rather than just report on the story, sloppiness is the result.  Back in the day, it was harder to fact check the details of blockbuster stories because those resources weren’t as available to the general public and there was no venue for the public to say a reporter had gotten it wrong. But in the 70s and 80s, the subjects started fighting back.

Remember ABC vs. “Food Lion”, NBC and the exploding gas tank of the General Motors pickup and CBS vs. General William Westmorland?  Since then, with the advent of social media and the taste of blood increasingly on everyones tongue, no iota of information goes free from scrutiny for reasons that range from payback to schadenfreude.

In some ways, Edward R. Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein, Uncle Walter and the untainted others hang like the Sword of Damocles over every modern journalist, as well they should and here’s why.  Former CBS Executive Sam Roberts told Folkenflik these incidents fuel a public already skeptical about media reporting. “Oh you guys just make it up,” Roberts said. [People will say] “See I told you.  Look at what Brian Williams did.  We’re going to hear that over and over from people who are skeptical about the media”.

All a reporter has is his or her ability to tell stories and his ability to convince people to believe them.  Once that is gone, they are no longer a reporter.  Society is quick to take that away.  But reporters tend to be harder on each other regarding this kind of thing than the general public, maybe because of what Mr. Roberts told Mr. Folkenflik.  These incidents only make it harder for us to do our jobs.  Thanks, Brah.

But I certainly appreciate forgiveness and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t.  People make mistakes and, oddly, some of those same people aren’t very forgiving of the mistakes of others.  Journalism is human recipe of storytelling fact and fiction.  And journalists are a social construction of gumshoe and celebrity.  Absolutely every reporter is subject to getting a fact wrong or embellishing a story a little too much.  Because they have a mouthpiece most others don’t, they do have a special responsibility to do everything they can to tell the transparent truth.  When they make honest mistakes, they need to own up to them quickly.  And everybody, audience and reporters, need to remember their hard work over the years before we kick them to curb for not being perfect, as so few of us are.

It reminds me of an episode of the hit TV show, “Scrubs”.  Chief in Interns, Dr. Percy Cox is telling the residents, including J.D. Dorian “Each and every one of you is going to kill a patient. At some point during your residency you will screw up, they will die, and it will be burned into your conscience forever.”

The pep talk continues …

“The point is, the harder you study, the longer you just might be able to hold off that first kill. Other than that, I guess cross your fingers and hope that the guy you murder is a jackass with no family. Great to see you kids. All the best!”

Journalism can be like that.

TMI?

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TMI2

This is a quickie.

Anna Werner of CBS This Morning did an excellent report on cloned vehicles that drug traffickers use to move drugs across the Mexican border into the U.S.  Apparently, they are copying FedEx trucks, ambulances, police vehicles and WALMART semi-tractor trailers.  It was a great, need to know story.  It reminded me of another great story and a caveat.

In 1993, the Society of Professional Journalism published a guidebook called “Doing Ethics in Journalism”.  Under the chapter “Making Ethical Decisions”,  the authors talk about a Pulitzer Prize winning story called “AIDS in the Heartland” by Pioneer Press reporter Jacqui Banaszynski.  They talk about guiding principles Ms. Banaszynski used when writing her story.  Those were:

Seek Truth and Report it as Fully as Possible
Act Independently
Minimize Harm

About that last one, it is assumed to make sense that minimizing harm, as in not letting the revealing of something actually cause damage or help more of it to happen, should be a goal.  Journalism though, might argue that it isn’t.  And there’s the rub.  In Ms. Werner’s story, it was certainly important for the public to know that drug traffickers were moving drugs in legitimately looking vehicles.  But is it minimizing harm to the public by alerting drug dealers that mispellings on the fake logos of those fake vehicles help police spot them better? The argument could be made that a mispelled logo could also alert the public who could, in turn, alert the police.  But you could make the counter argument that making that piece of information public just helped drug traffickers make better logos.

The problem with the story, as I saw it, was it gave a tiny piece of information that may make finding these fakes harder and makes me question those times when and if news reporting goes too far.  For the public, that detail may have been incidental, but for law enforcement, it might be huge.  Some of that responsibility does lie with the police.  If they didn’t want it shared, they probably shouldn’t have shared it.  Of course, if they did consider it minor and purposely released this tidbit, then all this is moot.  But if it slipped into the reporter’s notebook, then so too did some of the responsibility.

When Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban, I asked this same question.  Although this is about drugs, not crazed religious extremists, the principle is the same.  At what point in a story should reporters just stop talking?  We now know that drug dealers mispell logos and maybe, we laugh at them for their ignorance.

But I’m guessing the police aren’t laughing.

Written by Interviewer

June 12, 2014 at 01:00