Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘story

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

The Power of the Can

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Open_can_solderless_seam

OPB’s Kristian Foden-Vencil (love his name) did a story last month for OPB about how the community of Gold Beach on Oregon’s Pacific Coast was building a hospital.  That wouldn’t normally be news except that Gold Beach and practically every other community along the upper West Coast of the United States is tsunami ground zero from the next Ocean based earthquake.

The US Geological Survey says there is a 37% chance that a 9.0 magnitude level earthquake will strike the West coast within the next 50 years.  His story focused on what seemed to the locals to be a reasonable balance between what was necessary for safety, what was needed for the community and what they could afford.

But Mr. Foden-Vencil’s story just, this minute, finished airing on NPR’s All Things Considered.

In journalism parlence, his story was “evergreen”, meaning, some stories hold their age well and can be told now or later because there isn’t anything that locks them to a specific date.  And evergreen stories tend to end up “in the can”, another colloquialism of journalism that means a place where we keep evergreen stories to run them when we need them.

A station needs a cache of such stories.  Sometimes it’s a slow news day.  Or, sometimes, you’re short staffed.  Or sometimes, the editorial calender keeps pushing your story out of the way for more timely stories.  And I’ve talked about the necessity of a can full of such stories before.  The point is, you dear listener, may hear a story that sounds hauntingly familiar.

To coin a term from the last century, you are not being gas lighted.

Written by Interviewer

February 27, 2015 at 09:31

The Segue

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Segue

This is a quickie.

CBS This Morning anchor Charlie Rose was talking about a women named Cassandra Blackwell who had created a Tumbler account called “Beyoncify my Boyfriend”  Ms. Blackwell, as a way to deal with a breakup, had photoshopped Beyonce’s face on her ex-boyfriend’s face in all of her photos with him.  The site has gone viral.  It was a cute story.  All of the anchors had smiles on their faces.

But next, Mr. Rose had to go to a story about the shooting down of Malaysia Flight 17 in Ukraine.  And because the previous story had been funny, it took a few seconds for him to have the voice and facial expression appropriate for that story.

The transition from happy to sad and vice versa is always a tough one for TV (and radio) hosts.  Blooper tapes show plenty of anchors still giggling as they try to tell a following story of tragedy.  For Randy Newman fans, the verse from his hit “Dirty Laundry” pops into mind.

“See the bubbleheaded bleach blond.  She comes on at five.  She can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye.”

But all of us should know by now that is an ugly caricature.  TV has trained us to read every facial twitch and micro-expression.  And social media makes inappropriate anything from authority figures not considered absolutely homogenized behavior.  But anchors are people and it’s not even a mistake when a funny story lasts too long in their mind.  More likely, it’s the producer who needs to take care to not put such diametrically opposed stories back to back.  It’s a reminder that a newscast is a team sport.  And to carry the metaphor a little further, sure, the athlete needs to rely on their training to not do something that loses points, but sometimes, the coach has to give players transition time between hits to recover.

Which, by the way, in the news business, is called a segue.

Written by Interviewer

July 31, 2014 at 23:31

The Callback. Sike!

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Nervous

Sometimes, it never comes.  You talk to someone and they say they can unequivocally help you.  They say they know people who can help you.  And if they can’t find anybody else, they promise they themselves will help you.  And then they don’t.  If you’re on deadline, this is the worst because you have this promise in your back pocket.  You’re assuming you’ll get what you need when you need it from this source who worked so hard to convince you that they are reliable.  They may sing their own praises all day long before they promise to help you, but not after they decide they can’t.  Afterwards, they don’t call, they don’t email, nothing.  Crickets.  They’re OK with that.  And you have to be too.

Maybe something comes up and politically, they were reminded that they were offering to speak on something way above their pay grade.  Or maybe they got cold feet or realized they weren’t the expert they thought they were.  Or maybe they just changed their mind because they remembered they hate the media and along the way decided that if they ignore you, you and their broken promise would just go away.  So what do you do?

From the beginning, you don’t believe them.  You call five other sources as soon as you hang up.  And then you call five more because you know one of them will call you back.  And you get what you need and you move on.  You forgive them, because people say a lot of things they shouldn’t say when a reporter calls and don’t say a lot of things they should say when a reporter calls.  They can’t help it.  We just have this power.

And then you forget them because you’re still on deadline.

If the source that promised to call in an hour calls in three and the story is long since done, you say thank you and hang up.  Because if they really wanted that story told and if they really wanted a voice in telling it, they would’ve called you back with something and sooner.  But if they don’t call back at all, that’s OK too because at some point in the future, they’ll have a story they desperately want told.  And you’ll be there.

Written by Interviewer

July 16, 2014 at 12:02

Guts

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Maze

There are two ways to write a story.

One is to already know what you want to say and then look for quotes or soundbytes that you can drop into the spaces you’ve carved out ahead of time.  In essence, you know what you want the story to say and where you want it to go and you don’t really care where it could possibly go on its own. Maybe you do it because you’re pressed for time, or you don’t really care, or because you want to look like something you’re not.  Doing a story that way, , you’re kinda sorta censoring.  But for sure, you are a lazy SOB who coasts the low road and God help anyone who swallows your crap thinking you’ve done your due diligence.  God stop them from making an important choice based on the slop you feed them.

The other way is to start out by knowing nothing.  You study the subject, you ask questions from every possible perspective.  You talk to people who know what you don’t know and ask them to ask you questions.  You ask questions against your own biases, against the information you’re given, with the information you’re given and with your own biases.  And once it’s all in one place, on paper, in a hard drive, on a spreadsheet, you start making connections and relationships.  You build matrices, and mind maps and block diagrams.  And when you know as much as you can know in the time that you’ve had, you start to write.  And when you finish writing, you press the button and launch it.

That way of writing a story is harder, slower and full of more dead ends.  But, it’s more sincere because it goes where it is supposed to go.  You may suffer at the hands of its path, not your own but in the end, you and it end up somewhere much much better than you though every you’d be, sometimes to your own greatest surprise.

Written by Interviewer

April 27, 2013 at 10:16