Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘reporters

A Shout Out to the Assignment Desk

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tornado

It seems strangely calm, that place in the corner of the TV newsroom.  A single person taking phone calls, listening to police scanners, reading press releases, flipping through traffic cameras or watching social media.  But, the assignment desk is the broadcasting equivalent to the low pressure area at the center of a tornado.

The assignment editor sits at the assignment desk.  In radio. the news director can be the assignment editor too.  But in both cases, they are responsible for taking the minute by minute pulse of story newsworthiness by watching their city electronically.  And they are also gatekeepers by taking tips from callers and forwarding them to the right reporter.  They then send those reporters and camera operators out the door into storms, floods, power failures, traffic accidents and crime scenes.  They run them ragged, from one shoot to the next or divert them in route.  They command them back because the story needs to run at noon, or five or eleven.

Everyday, stations have news meetings where the anchors and reporters postulate on what the best stories that day will be and where they are likely hiding.  And everyday, they walk out of that room, with that plan in hand and into a shower of tiny wrenches.  The assignment desk reminds them that the location of the open house has changed because the keynote speaker is delayed, or the city just closed Highway X, and now, you have to use Highway Y, which is going to make getting to that 1:30 press conference a challenge.  Or what was going to be a voice-over video only shoot is now going to be a live remote, and oh, have you been trained on the new module?  And BTW, you were going to have a reporter but now, you have to shoot it yourself.

Back in the newsroom, reporters, camera operators and producers hover around the assignment desk like moths to a flame.  Or they yell back and forth to it from across the room.

“Who, again?”  “What was it?”  “When does it start?”  “Where, exactly?”  “Why are they doing that?”  “How the hell did that happen?”

In response, assignment editors can be grumpy, but it is a grumpiness that I think is really a kind of world weariness.  They know everything in their town; every schedule, every intersection, every official, every phone number, URL or email address.  They know their team and may have even gotten into a shouting match or two with some the more high-maintenance among them.  And they know each other.  The know other desks can be just has loud, hot and turbulent as their own..

They truly are, constantly, drinking from a firehose.  I can imagine that when these folks go home at the end of the day, they want to be as far away as possible from any word, voice, sound or picture that comes out of the end of a wire.

Seven days a week, 24-hours a day, the assignment desk is manned (or womanned).  I have watched assignment editors work.  They look calm, sitting over there by themselves.

But they are a force of nature, and everybody knows it.

Written by Interviewer

May 2, 2016 at 00:38

The “Larger” Problem

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Passing the Buck

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in talking about what happened to Freddie Gray on CBS This Morning, spoke in a way that I’ve heard a lot of leaders speak in the last few days.  When asked about issues of transparency or police conduct or protester frustration, they don’t talk about the specific incidents of specific individuals but instead, put them in the larger context of a national or cultural or social problem.  They speak of it in a way that implies it is a problem that belongs to all of us.

That is quite a flip.

Back in the day, when authorities faced civil rights issues, there was never an acknowledgement that they were a societal problem.  Back then, nobody wanted to admit that black people were even part of society, let alone an issue society needed to address to be more equitable and cohesive.  But hearing that being mentioned so often as the “real” problem each time questions are asked about the circumstances of specific victims, it starts to sound to me like a get out of jail free card.  It starts to be used as an opportunity to divert talking about the problems in their town since their problem is really part of a “larger” problem.  So, passing it off as something that is so all encompassing that it’s beyond their control sounds reasonable while it also acknowledges the problem – a twofer.

Which is all well and good except that larger problem isn’t being successfully solved either.  Consider that if the larger problem is represented by a collection of similar, smaller problems and many of those problems are also contextualized the same way, it becomes a circular argument.

Reporters need to bring leaders and spokespeople back to the granular and not let them escape into the realm of the systemic.  There is safety in the ambiguity of policy and procedure.  Responsibility gets effectively diffused in the layers of bureaucratic anonymity.

Instead, reporters need to stay focused; policeman X shot person Y.  When will the report be released.  What will the Mayor do now.  What must the community do here?

Local, personal and immediate.

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

For All of the Unsung People

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Image

Unsung means, people for whom a song is not sung.  With all of the tributes made and libations poured to all of the people in the center of the light, there are people who are never seen, never known but without whom, nothing would happen.  I don’t know why this makes me emotional, but fortunately, it doesn’t affect my typing.  Here is a short list of all of the people who, especially at this time of year, need to be remembered.

Pilots who fly through some of the worst weather of the year to take millions of people to their destinations.  When the seat belt light comes on, the pilot is about to engage in a very personal conversation with nature.  Yes, they get paid to do their jobs, but their job is to carry lives, legacies, babies, pets, pictures, fruitcakes, messages and futures.  And don’t forget about the ground crews, the baggage handlers, the mechanics, the flight attendants, the customer service people.

Ambulance drivers who carry people about to enter life and people about to leave it.  And the EMT’s who hold the hand of people scared of dying and people scared of living. And don’t forget the Emergency Room Technicians, nurses, front desk people, medical technicians, doctors, nurses who see the worst on what is supposed to be the happiest time of the year.

Police who will be patrolling the streets when most of us are asleep, away from their own families.  Or maybe they’re walking up unfamiliar stairs, rounding dark corners or entering hostile bars to arrest someone or contain someone or pursue someone.  And don’t forget their families; wives, kids, cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers who hope their own father or son or mother or daughter will come home in time for some turkey or to unwrap a present or bounce a baby on their knee.  Also, don’t forget deputies, sheriffs, dispatchers and 911 operators.

Firefighters who, no matter how cold or miserable the weather, will gear up and run to a raging fire to protect property or save lives.  They will enter burning buildings with oxygen tanks and carrying extraction equipment and they will search for lost, afraid and dying people and pull them out.  Or they will open wrecked cars like sardine cans overturned in ditches to try to save people who made a simple, life changing mistake so they can have another chance.  To all of the firefighters and their families.

Soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guard.  I think of Coast Guard especially since a friend of mine has just moved to an island in the Aleutian Islands and the Coast Guard regularly sends helicopters and ships into raging seas to rescue people.  Soldiers walking point, sailors on an aircraft carrier, airmen working a flight line, marines advancing on a position – all far from home.  And don’t forget the veterans, as well as the active duty and reserve cooks, the admin people, the military police, the military doctors and nurses, the supply and warehouse people, the truck drivers and mechanics and their families.

Highway maintenance people who will be out plowing, salting or sanding roads in some of the most remote, God-awful places at all times of the day and night in the worst winter weather you can imagine. And if they’re not trying to keep it clear, they are trying to open up a section of highway that has just been damaged by an overturned semi-tractor trailer and it’s dropped load of railroad ties or beehives or salad dressing. And if they’re not trying to clear a road of debris, they’re trying to finish construction on a piece of road so the traffic can move faster. They hold slow down signs that people can’t read because they’re flying past them too fast. They wear colored vests but they still have to jump out of the way sometimes because some people are in a hurry. Fortunately, there is usually a fast police interceptor not too far away. And don’t forget the line and tree workers restringing downed power lines and knocking ice off trees.

Pastors, Bishops, Rabbis, Imans, Reverends, Ministers … men and women of God who leave their doors open when most others are closed this time of year.  These people are  dedicated to trying to help the lost navigate through a not always easy life by listening, holding, and helping as much as they can, as much as they are allowed.  And don’t forget about the soup kitchens, the secret givers, the missions, the volunteers, the drivers, the sorters and the warehouse workers.

Reporters, anchors, weather forecasters.  These people tell us about closed roads and bad skies and deep water.  They are running around a near empty building at wee hours of the morning all over the world so we can wake up knowing what’s been going on.  And don’t forget the camera operators, master control, technical directors, audio directors, news directors, city desk editors, photographers.

Veterinarians and people who run shelters of all kinds. For animals that have been abused or lost or hurt, who are alone and frightened; these people search for them, find them, take them in and care for them and try to heal them or reunite them with their families. This kind of selflessness without a doubt belongs on this list.

Disaster relief workers overseas including Doctors without Borders and the International Red Cross among so many others. For people in the South Sudan, in Syria, in Egypt, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in North Korea, in Uganda. People for whom hope is at the whim of a despot who tortures or disappears beloved family members, these organizations and their volunteers risk their lives and sometimes lose their lives to bring food, medicine and hope to people in the spirit of “Peace on Earth, Goodwill toward Men”.

Prisoners, inmates and their jailers. Being incarcerated is antithetical to what it means to be a human being. Sadly, many people have made choices that have put them under the control of the State. But the state is not guiltless and in many cases, it’s own mistakes have led to the unjust incarceration of hundreds, maybe thousands. Still, to be institutionalized is to be invisible and forgotten. So for the people who wish for a second chance but will never get it and the people on the verge of getting that second chance as well as the guards that must watch, control and discipline those inmates whether they want to or not, you are not forgotten.

Entertainers of all kinds, because these people are notoriously nomads and without steady income. Whether in community theater, on Broadway or at a cattle call, musicians, actors, artists work through the holidays since their Black Friday always seems to be about six months ahead of them. They are always running to the next gig, the next audition, the next tryout looking for a reason to believe the hard work they’ve put in on their music, their technique, their moves will land them something steady and something they and the they people they love can be proud of. There will be a lot of them on stages around the world during the holidays, hoping.

Prostitutes because many many women around the world are forced into prostitution and not only outside of the United States. They have children. They have bills. And they have dangers most of us can’t conceive. Yes, there are social service programs for them and their families. But for all of the “respectable people” who can’t leave their situation, no matter what it is for whatever reason, it is no easier for prostitutes to leave theirs. Also don’t forget enslaved domestic workers, the sex-trafficked, the addicted and the homeless.

Store clerks, stock boys, bus and taxi drivers, park rangers, highway patrol officers, 24-hour IT support people, tow truck drivers, credit and debit card customer support, the mail carrier, the package delivery driver, plumbers on call, roofers on call, HVAC on call, electricians on call, hotel workers, restaurant workers,… yes, we pay for these people either directly or indirectly.  But when we need them, they come and not always because they have to and not always just for the money.  What would it be like to to be someone who helped save someone’s Christmas or a family memory?

There are SOOOOO many people we forget who do what they have to do while the rest of us hope for another memorable holiday.  They must not be forgotten.  We must not forget them.

Maybe you’re one of these people.  If you are, thank you for providing. Thank you for protecting. Thank you for enduring.

If you can add to this list, please do.