Combating Cliches in Television News

As one who teaches young people to enter the profession of broadcast journalism, I find interesting and often puzzling the things I have to do differently than I did 25 years ago.

For one, I struggle more and more to slow the pace of my students’ speech. I have no idea what happened a decade ago but, year by year, they talk faster and faster and faster.

They don’t just do it on the air. That’s the pace they address each other in conversation. I call it machine gun speech because they rattle out their words just about as fast.

I try to explain it this way: the viewer has one shot at hearing your delivery. They typically do not DVR newscasts. If you are delivering your copy as if you are in a hurry to get home, they will never grasp your information.

In years past, I often cringed or turned the channel when Jen Carfagno started at The Weather Channel. The young woman is popular enough now to be part of the early morning “AMHQ” team. I am sure she is a delightful person. When she began, she discussed cold fronts and high pressure systems as if she were racing a contender at the Kentucky Derby. How many times did I yell at the screen: “SLOW DOWN!” Someone must have worked with Carfagno. I can actually comprehend her detail now because her rate of speech has seriously declined from seven words per second.

A couple of weekends ago, I was watching the same network’s Saturday remote from an outdoor festival. Reagan Medgie, a correspondent for TWC, is engaging and pleasant. I am certain I would like her if I met her. However, she has a case of the Carfagnos from past years. When she tossed the segment back to Maria LaRosa and Paul Goodloe, so help me, I had no idea what she said, where she was or who she was because she was speaking at the speed of a hurricane.

Interestingly, some of my students give me pushback. “Well, that’s the way I normally talk,” I have heard more than one complain. That is when we go into the control room and look at their tape. Occasionally, I will bring in a colleague who will verify my assessment. Most pay attention, though begrudgingly at times. A few are just insistent that their high school flash-and-dash conversational rate of speech is acceptable.

The other challenge we face is to eliminate terrible use of the language, some of which the TV news industry has sadly adopted. Twitter has two identities, @tiredtvterms and @producerprobs. Both are dedicated to people like me who gripe about worn out clichés and bad phrases, even if we sound like old men in a rocking chair in front of a senior citizens’ center.

My biggest pet peeve is one I have been harping on for five years. When, oh when, are anchors and reporters going to stop using the ridiculous and incorrect phrase “went missing?”

Somehow, around the start of this decade, broadcast news adopted that phrase. Here’s how it typically is presented: “Thirty-two-year-old Brenda Kaddidlehopper went missing three days ago. Law enforcement authorities are asking for your help in finding her.”

To say one “went missing” or “has gone missing” is to suggest an active or planned intent by an individual to be missing. A person can be “reported missing” to authorities. You can say that same person “is missing.” Went missing or gone missing? Don’t ever say that in my presence. Yet, I will wager you will hear it on your local newscast in a matter of days.

On a similar note, I heard a new one last week. On the local news in the city where I live, an anchor received a press release from an area police department. I was emailed the same release. The anchor reported, “Police are searching for the whereabouts of 14-year-old ____________.”

Were police not searching for the girl? That is absolutely the first time I have ever heard a reporter state that officers were “searching for the whereabouts.”

I continue to cringe when I hear a reporter say, “Some 30,000 people marched in protest today.” I scream at my TV screen: “Which 30,000 people?”

More than 40 years ago, my major professor at the University of Georgia, the late Bill Martin, confronted “60 Minutes” commentator James J. Kilpatrick at a seminar about the inexplicable use of the word “some.” I’m paraphrasing but Kilpatrick said, in effect, “I don’t really know why we do it. I think we think it sounds good, so we do it.”

Here’s another irritant. I nearly come unglued if I watch morning television and the anchors switch to a reporter for a live segment on a murder, shooting or some other tragedy. The reporter in the field will, without fail, say: “Good morning, Jan and Richard.” Good morning?? When you are about to report on death or violence? Could we all agree to drop the happy greeting on the scene of disaster?

As for clichés, sportscasters are the absolute worst and I was one for 25 years. Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, whose “Mike and Mike in the Morning” will soon end on ESPN2 after 18 years, are arguably the worst practitioners.

I wish I had $10 for every time either one has said “throw him under the bus” when a coach blames a player for a loss. I perhaps could retire before 2021.

As for another, I am convinced Golic invented the term “it is what it is,” an absolutely meaningless phrase he uses to describe something otherwise inexplicable.

When a team attempts to rebound after an off year, count on Mike or Mike to say, “They’re coming in with a chip on their shoulders.”

Once Greenberg or Golic establish a phrase enough times, count on the rest of the sports talk fraternity to adopt the same clichés ad nauseum.

News is not off the hook. During my first year in television news, I cannot count the number of times reporters would lead off stories depicting commemorative dates or events with, “It’s that time of year again.” I vowed never to use those six words in a news story. I never have.

I tell my student reporters if any of them send me a script that ends with “only time will tell,” that script will be sent right back until they come up with something original. That happened to me in the tenth grade when my English teacher Hazel Mancil returned a paper to me which ended with that very phrase.

I am also a curmudgeon about sentences that begin with the word “there,” such as “There are new tax proposals on the table from City Council.” I go back to one of the great English professors in history, Dr. Marvin Evans. He would toss back any paper that had sentences beginning with the word “there,” except in a direct quote. “There” is an existential. “There” is never a subject of a sentence, but always requires a verb.

Recently, I was watching a midday newscast on NewsON from the Southwest. A reporter actually said, “Police used firearms to shoot the suspect.” I had no idea an alternative form of ballistics had been developed.

Next time a hurricane begins making its way up the Florida coast, count how many times meteorologists or anchors will say, “Hurricane Otto is really packing a punch.” I never knew punches were packed. They are usually thrown in boxing matches or pier six brawls. I’d like to ask such people, “Did Otto pack his punch in American Tourister luggage (does that still exist?).

Thank goodness most news producers sent emails to their reporters last week after the O.J. Simpson parole hearing. The journalists were told not to say, “The Juice is loose.” Note that I said “most” news producers. Before the hearing, I saw this graphic on a local newscast: “Will the Juice get loose?”

In a few other choice examples of tired TV terms (and these are offered by interviewees as well as reporters), try these:

  • At the end of the day
  • It has a lot of moving parts
  • There, you see it (a favorite of sportscasters when a graphic appears)
  • Gave chase (to whom was the chase presented?)
  • Using -gate at the end of a term to depict every major scandal. Forty-five years ago, Watergate sent us on this long path. Most producers or young reporters have no idea that Watergate is an apartment complex.

Here is one more for your consideration. I would like to send a year’s supply of sour milk to the person who decided the proper way to begin a response to a question is with the word “so.” I see this happening largely when younger people are interviewed on midday newscasts. I am also seeing this creep into reporters’ answers to anchor questions during a remote. So help me, in scanning newscasts last week, I saw an anchor ask, “When do you expect the next briefing from the police?” Said the reporter: “Soooooo, we think that will probably happen in the next hour and a half to two hours.”

Every once in a while, though, phrases can be a bit original and creative. The one depicted in the accompanying picture was developed for a story involving a robbery in Jackson, Tn.  Police ultimately discovered the culprit hiding in an abandoned home.  The official police report indicated that the man charged showed officers where he had hidden the $432 taken from a convenience store—-in a toilet.

A rather inventive graphic headline writer offered the phrase:  Johnny Cash? Robbery Money Found in Toilet.

When I saw that, I was reminded of the year Tennessee Ernie Ford hosted the Country Music Association Awards. He said, “When I was young, I dated a girl who was so dumb she thought Johnny Cash was money you found in the commode.”

Television news and sports often rely far too much on worn out clichés. Despite this cry from the wildnerness, those stale phrases will continue.

During the 40-plus years since I joined the television news fraternity, I have read many interviews with news directors who are newly-hired. At least six of them included the quote, “We’re going to tighten up on the writing.” Did that mean the writing was loose?  Was a rope to be used to make the writing improve?

Sooooooo, such is life in the TV newsroom.  Time for me to retire to my rocking chair in front of the Ralston Hotel in Columbus, Ga.  I will take one “Johnny Cash?” graphic for 100 “only time will tell” endings—-any time.

Douglas Edwards: The First and Forgotten Anchor

            I was a shade more than three years old when I first heard the words that gripped the nation every night:  “Good evening everyone from coast to coast……this is Douglas Edwards with the news.”

            Often, I am critical of network television for being too callous about its history.  Much of that comes from focus group research that tells network executives younger audiences don’t know much about broadcast history and—-worse—doesn’t care.

            Last week, CBS News—in the midst of arguably the biggest firestorm over journalism in history—remembered a forgotten legend.  The tribute was way, way overdue.

Edwards            Friday, July 14, CBS observed Douglas Edwards Day.  Thursday night at the end of the CBS Evening News, a 90-second montage of Edwards’ historic pioneering work was shown.  No doubt, a significant number of viewers had no idea who he was or what his role was in network television news.  I did.

            Edwards was called “the inventor of television news anchoring” by no less than one of his successors, Dan Rather.  In 1948, with a limited number of television sets in homes, the network launched CBS TV News with Douglas Edwards at 7:45 p.m. in six Eastern cities.  Edwards had 15 minutes to tell the fledgling video audience what happened in America and the world.

 For the next 14 years, his was the familiar face that informed us of Presidential inaugurations, the Korean War, the development of the Salk polio vaccine, the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala., and our first suborbital manned space flights.

Edwards 2            His trademark opening “good evening everyone from coast to coast” started in 1951 when the coaxial cable linked the entire country.  The line stuck until his final evening news broadcast in 1962.

           Because of the limited technical resources of the era and the restriction of a 15-minute format (network news did not expand to a half-hour until September 1963), Edwards did not frequently go out on stories himself.  However, he was first to the scene in a helicopter as the SS Andrea Doria sank off the coast of Nantucket in July 1956.  In its day, the coverage was both innovative and dramatic.

 Edwards AndreaEdwards Chopper           For the first 10 years, Edwards was the definitive face of network news.  He constantly outdrew the foppish John Cameron Swayze and his Camel News Caravan on NBC.

           Particularly in the flyover states, Edwards was unbeatable.  A glance back at the local ratings for Douglas Edwards with the News on WRBL in Columbus, Ga., in 1958 showed the CBS quarter-hour in the top ten in the Chattahoochee Valley.

Edwards 1

            I saw Edwards and briefly met him 33 years ago when he gave the keynote address at the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in San Antonio.  A portion of his speech was a foreshadowing.

            “With the advent of Cable News Network, CBS and the other broadcast networks are no longer alone as voices in broadcast journalism,” he said.  “As technology advances and the capability of live coverage expands, the field is open for other voices to enter the field.” 

            At the time, we had no idea what online technology would mean but Edwards’ words had a touch of a crystal ball ring.

            Broadcast news historians, such as I am, were shocked when the announcement was made in the spring of 1962 that Edwards would be replaced on the CBS Evening News by Walter Cronkite.

Edwards Cronkite Rather            Many books on CBS News have suggested that Edwards lost the anchor slot because he failed to aggressively become as much of a journalist as he was a news reader.  That is as much baloney as what’s in the packaged meat counter at Publix.

Still other accounts knocked him because of his moonlighting into entertainment formats.  In the summer of 1952, Edwards presided over the panel game show Masquerade Party.  For five years, he was the host and narrator of CBS’ Armstrong Circle Theater, an alternate week series of live and taped dramas.

He was not alone in reaching across the aisle from the newsroom.  The erudite commentator Eric Sevareid served as a substitute host on a panel game.  Cronkite, unbeknownst to many viewers, was host of the Mark Goodson-Bill Todman game show It’s News to Me in the summer of 1955.  Before he became the central figure of 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace had a career as the host of three game shows—including the big-money $100,000 Big Surprise.  Wallace also did the pilot for To Tell the Truth under a different title.  The father of broadcast news Edward R. Murrow spent six years as host of a popular Friday night CBS celebrity interview show, Person to Person.  In an era where network news salaries were suppressed, news personalities took crossover roles because the pay was better.  The public perception that news and entertainment were rigid, uncrossable tentpoles did not solidify until the decade when Cronkite assumed the reins of the Evening News.

As for Armstrong Circle Theater, which aired every other Wednesday at 10 on CBS, I submit the series did not compromise Edwards’ credibility.  Every play on Circle Theater was a docudrama based on current issues in the news, such as corruption in the coin-operated jukebox industry, emotional difficulties created by a divided Germany, the effects of compulsive gambling and the influx of heroin into large American cities.  At the end of many of the dramas, Edwards conducted a news-themed interview with an expert analyst on the subject matter.  Though scripted drama, one can argue that Edwards gave Circle Theater added credibility and delved into serious issues in a perspective that a 15-minute news format of the era could not.

Edwards with the News              As for pure journalism, Edwards had plenty of experience.  Exhibit A:  from 1942 to 1948, he was a correspondent for CBS Radio.  He reported on a number of fronts during World War II.

             Exhibit B:  in 1948, Edwards anchored the first television coverage of all three conventions.  He was there with the Democrats (who re-nominated Harry Truman), GOP (which went with Tom Dewey) and the Progressives (who chose Henry Wallace).

             Edwards, for reasons only CBS News executives of the era knew, was not included in the network’s convention coverage in future quadrenniums.  Cronkite was always at the helm for the Presidential selection weeks from 1952 to 1980.  At the 1956 conventions, Cronkite was anointed as “anchorman” for the first time.  We needed another decade before the term “anchor” became a verb in the industry.

              The truth is:  in 1960, a turn occurred in something that drives all of television—-ratings.  The climb for Edwards’ evening opponents was a gradual one.

Huntley Brinkley              In 1956, NBC chose to pair two correspondents who had never previously worked together—-Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.  Huntley’s looser style and Brinkley’s dry wit struck a chord with viewers.  Anxious to move on from Swayze, The Huntley-Brinkley Report was born in late 1956.

 The NBC pair were not an immediate hit.  Gradually, their conversational style and tag line of “Goodnight, Chet.  Goodnight, David” began to attach to viewers.  They began to inch up on Edwards’ ratings.  By the end of 1959, Huntley-Brinkley slid ahead of Douglas Edwards with the News.

            In Gary Paul Gates’ 1982 book “Air Time:  The Inside Story of CBS News,” the author suggested Edwards began to feel the strain as Huntley-Brinkley week by week took an even larger lead that culminated in his departure in 1962.  Gates outlined that instead of working harder professionally to improve his broadcast, Edwards succumbed to drinking more.  Most of the sources for the that assertion were unnamed.

            Gates wrote that on the day the switch to Cronkite was announced, Edwards came out of his office and extended his hand to Cronkite and offered him congratulations.  “That was the classiest move I’ve ever seen from anyone,” Cronkite said.

Edwards 1960             Douglas Edwards did not suddenly deteriorate into a poor news commentator because he began losing the Nielsens to Huntley and Brinkley.   If anything, viewer tastes began to change from the straightforward style and presentation of Edwards and CBS News to the looser, faster-moving performance of NBC’s dual anchor format.  Further, NBC gave both Huntley and Brinkley separate prime time, though low-rated, half-hours that expanded their reach with news viewers.

Arguably, Edwards may have suffered from CBS News’ decision to make Cronkite the face and voice of big news events:  election night, conventions, and manned space shots.  I used that example when ABC News made the decision to anoint David Muir as the anchor for World News but declared George Stephanopoulos would be the lead for all major breaking coverage.  We can only guess whether Edwards would have developed the same reputation as the most trusted man in America had he been assigned the major coverage Cronkite assumed.

Edwards may have been professionally humiliated by his demotion but he did not take his toys or his talents to another network.  He never complained in the media.  Not once did he express any bitterness toward CBS or Cronkite.  He displayed some of the finest character ever shown by a television journalist who had been demoted from one of the most influential assignments in television news.

I have no recriminations,” Edwards told The Christian Science Monitor. “I leave with no pique, no sadness.”

 Edwards Newsbreak           Only 45, Edwards was relegated to a five-minute newsbreak, The CBS Afternoon News with Douglas Edwards, immediately after daytime To Tell the Truth.  He held that spot he held onto until his retirement in 1988, though the interstitial eventually retracted to two minutes and then one and moved to late mornings after Love of Life.  At the outset of his Evening News exit, he anchored local early and late evening news on New York’s WCBS.  Eventually, he took over The World Tonight, the CBS Radio flagship evening newscast.

            Cronkite did not forget his predecessor on the day he passed the baton to Dan Rather in 1981.  “For 14 years before I was in this chair, it was manned by Doug Edwards—-a great broadcaster,” Cronkite told his audience.  

            During his 1984 speech in San Antonio, Edwards displayed a sense of humor rarely shown on the air.  He told a story of a week in 1960 when Harry Reasoner substituted for Edwards on the evening news.

            “Harry was getting close to the end of the first segment when the floor director started giving him a signal that meant stretch (extend) because of a problem that had developed,” Edwards said.

            Reasoner kept reading.  “Harry didn’t know but the problem was in the control room,” Edwards said.  “The producer was told the commercials had to be switched for the first break.  That’s because the first scheduled commercial opened with two women.  One of them said to the other:  ‘Harry needs a laxative.’”  The usually staid, starched-collar group of news directors roared.

            CNN made a big pitch to steal away Edwards as the lead anchor when the network launched in 1980.  Broadcasting reported he seriously considered it until then-CBS News president Bill Leonard said, “Doug, I can’t let you go,”  His pay was significantly increased to remain for the duration of his career at CBS.

I often wondered what CNN’s image would have been at the outset if the man who invented television news anchoring was the central face of cable’s first 24-hour news network.  I submit he would have been brilliant and re-energized his career.

Edwards FOT             For my money, one of Edwards’ finest assignments was toward the end of his career on a broadcast few people saw.  For more than 20 years, Sunday morning television on CBS was headlined by Lamp Unto My Feet and Look Up and Live, both of which viewed religion—-television news’ worst-covered and most misunderstood element of American life—-through drama, music and discussions from elitist theologians and college professors.

In the ’80s, Edwards assumed the helm of For Our Times, a contemporary look at religion in America.  The format took on a newsmagazine style and explored serious issues affecting Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations.  The broadcast was well-produced.  Edwards did a solid job of weaving together the threads and interviewing key analysts with expertise on the stories.  The entire package was remarkably similar to public television’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

Unfortunately, the audience was miniscule watching For Our Times.  Offered largely as a public service filler to stations, the Edwards half-hour aired all over the local Sunday schedules across the country.  The CBS affiliate at which I worked in 1982-83, WSPA in Spartanburg, S.C., scheduled For Our Times at 12:45 a.m. Monday mornings.  Some CBS affiliates chose not to carry the broadcast at all.

 Edwards Desk           July 14, Douglas Edwards would have been 100 years old.  He died in 1990 at the age of 73.  He did not live to see the impact of the internet and social media on television news.  He never saw cable news turn into prime time verbal versions of pro wrestling.  He missed the screaming charges of “fake news.”

             What he did was leave a legacy by writing the rules for television news broadcasting at a time when no rules existed.  For the entire 1950s, a domestically calmer but internationally turbulent era, he told us what happened in the world and who was affected in that slither of 15 minutes. 

             Sadly, he is somewhat the forgotten anchor of television news.  Yet, for those of us who were viewers when he was in that chair surrounded by that primitive set, we remember.  

            When Douglas Edwards was there just after sunset, we all felt a little better about the world.  When he said, “Good evening everyone from coast to coast,” we had the idea that he was talking just to us.  He was.

             Someone had to be first in that chair so others could be next.  I hope another 100 years don’t elapse before CBS News offers him another tip of the cap. 

Edwards’ last broadcast for CBS can be viewed at https://youtu.be/LZWVUXA1qbg.

            The CBS News tribute to Edwards is online at https://youtu.be/XC38imRgo_k

Should Pounds Matter When Hiring Broadcast Journalists?

Tell the truth:  if you are a member of LinkedIn, why are you there?  Do you participate just so people can say you have more than 1,000 connections?  

I actually read intelligent LinkedIn posts from quality professionals who help me learn something in a given day.  Holly MacTaggart is a human resources executive. I was glued to one of her recent offerings because she made me introspective about the hiring process in broadcast journalism.20160730_205819-1

Here is an excerpt from Holly’s post:

Today, I was disappointed in my profession. I received a call from an HR professional whom I mentor….She told me that she had been pursued for a new role. She had several phone interviews and was asked if she could set up a very short Skype for a few “tactical” questions before going in for onsite interviews with the client. She rearranged her schedule, took the call from her home office and when the screen went live she saw the two recruiters look at each other, and slightly shake their head. Within 10 minutes, they said they had enough information. A few days later, they wrote and told her the position was on hold and thanked her. She said, “I think they didn’t like how I looked.”  Now, I don’t know what happened. I do know, she isn’t model thin … but what is in this woman’s head is amazing and she would be a tremendous benefit to any company. I explained that she needed to focus on the role she had, realize she “got off lucky” and continue to work her craft. Then I wondered … did the company even know what happened? Are we a culture of “how good you look” vs what knowledge and skills you bring to the table?

Holly’s last rhetorical question made me pause to think:  if we are truly honest, how would the television news industry as a whole answer?  

Before you start throwing brickbats and saying, “You, of all people, who used to supervise newsrooms should know appearance is one of the necessities of our business,” I simply want you to think.  How many people have news directors turned away over the years because they were overweight?  I will strike a little more terror into your hearts:  are most of those who were eliminated because of their weight female?

Let’s consider several givens:  I recognize viewers can be more incisive about the appearance of on-air journalists than a surgeon’s knife.  Without the benefit of empirical research, my experience during my news director years was that women viewers are far more critical of the look of women anchors and reporters than are men on men.  My first day in the news director’s chair in 1983 brought me this call from a woman who had no idea who I was:  “When are y’all gonna do somethin’ about them big swingin’ earrings that Catherine _________ wears?  I get dizzy just watchin’ them things swing.”  That’s no joke.  I suppose I could have told her, “If her earrings bother you that much, you can always change the channel,” but as a newcomer to town who wanted to encourage viewers to turn to us, I eschewed my initial inclination to respond with a smart aleck answer.

I am acutely aware that weight clauses exist in some anchor and reporter contracts, particularly in larger markets.  That is no different from the entertainment industry.  However, I ponder whether those continue because of the tradition of television news or because of the perceived expectation of viewers.

Further, news executives find no joy in their days having to field a call such as I did on my initial day on the job.  Add to that, they find even less joy taking a call from the general manager who says, “I’m getting more and more calls about ______________’s weight.”  Unspoken (or sometimes spoken) is the question:  “What are you going to do about it?”

An additional given is what should be a primary concern for anyone, regardless of their profession.  Excessive weight makes one vulnerable to health issues.  

Let me give you an example from my quarter century as a broadcast media professor.  For our purposes, I will refer to the young woman in question as “Janet.”  She entered our university as an enthusiastic, energetic 18-year-old with a goal.  Her heart and soul were focused on a career in TV news.  

When she arrived, she was—by society’s and the culture’s conventional standards—the picture of a future on-air personality in appearance.  She demonstrated maturity well beyond her years in her curiosity and performance.  However, in her first year, she tacked on the stereotypical “freshman 15” pounds.  By the end of the following year, that had become the “sophomore 60.”  One day, when I happened by the cafeteria, I passed by Janet and some of her friends.  I stopped to speak but privately was stunned.  Janet’s plate resembled the size of “The $100,000 Pyramid.”  A second casual visit revealed the same result.

Toward the end of Janet’s sophomore year, her mother called me.  Unlike typical helicopter parents of today, this was a very nice, concerned woman with a serious concern about her daughter.  “She has never been like this before in her life.  We are concerned, because she can’t push away from the table,” her mother said.  “What I want to know is this:  is she eating her way out of a chance to work in television?”

My first thought was:  how do I sensitively handle this with Janet’s mother and yet be honest.  In the next few minutes, I confided that Janet is still every bit the excellent potential journalist she was when she first entered college.  I explained to her mother that while as a college professor I can counsel with her and straightforwardly give Janet the facts of life about the profession, the industry is going to look the other way if she doesn’t begin to melt down some pounds.

Janet’s family and I both had sensitively-handled but direct conversations with her about the expectations of appearance in television news.  She received our advice affirmatively and constructively.  Sadly, she could not manage a way to drop even half of those extra 60 pounds.  Ultimately, she opted to switch her major to social work and has enjoyed a successful career in reaching out to people who are sometimes in difficult situations.

In the months after Janet graduated, I had one of those paradoxical moments of reflection.  Janet’s abilities and potential as a journalist did not deteriorate because of her weight.  I remember saying to a colleague, “I wonder what a TV news department is missing by not having her on staff, because she definitely had the tools.”  At the same time, I am confident Janet would have experienced the same as the woman in Holly MacTaggart’s example once a news director or station management would have seen that she was not model-thin.  I also asked rhetorically, “Is this really right?  What does it say about our industry?”

In the last year, I have become a huge fan of NewsON and frequently sample newscasts from around the country.  I have begun to see a miniscule increase in on-air anchors or reporters who, by the culture’s standards, would be considered overweight.  Each one of them had a pristine delivery and I could tell no difference in their communication skills than those who weighed 20 to 50 pounds less.  Likewise, each one was well-dressed and neatly groomed.  The only contrast to others on their staffs was the sizes of their clothes were larger.  In no way was I compelled to turn to another city’s newscast because of the sizes of these young men and women.

This is one of these “just asking” propositions:  does the local television news industry maintain a double standard when it comes to size?  In the last four years, we have seen lemon juice-vaccinated gripeboxes on Facebook and Twitter throwing cruel darts at pregnant women meteorologists who continue to work after their soon-to-become loved ones become significantly evident onscreen.  Some of these women have had the guts to strike back online.  In at least three instances in the last year, news directors have been quick to come to their defense and rightfully so.  I have personally emailed those three and, in so many words, let them know, “We’ve got your back.”

So here’s the opposite side of that question:  if we justifiably stand up for an expectant on-air employee who is increasing in size because she is about to experience one of the happy additions of life, are we being ambiguous if we close the door to a well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken reporter applicant because he or she happens to be overweight?  I imagine a number of people in hiring or decision-making capacities either don’t want to face the answer to that question or will dismiss it altogether with “TVnewsexecspeak.”

Holly MacTaggart’s true scenario that rekindled my thinking on this subject was of a woman who sensed immediately that she was being rejected for a job because of her weight.  No matter her ability or talents, which Holly could verify, those executives on Skype just shook their heads.

If lawsuits or job discrimination assertions are filed by people in taxpayer-paid, public positions because of weight issues, local TV news departments would be likely to pounce on that as a story.  Proving that someone is rejected for on-air employment because of weight is relative and on the burden of the prospect.  Yet, people who make such a decision know exactly if they are making that call because of pounds.  They really do.

I am convinced that “Janet” could have worked with competence and creativity as a journalist in any television news department.  She just happened to be 50 to 60 pounds over society’s (and television’s) expectation of appropriate weight.  

Given that she had talent, ability and may have broken stories that would have gained attention for your news team, just consider one question.  Would you have hired Janet?  Just asking.

 

 

When Sadness Strikes a Television Station

At WREG in Memphis, the newsroom on the Fourth of July is like many across the nation—-skeleton crews, stories that depict Independence Day celebrations, and a challenge to fill one, two or three hours of news time.

However, this Fourth is unlike most in the past at the CBS station.  Friday, the people who work there lost a colleague in a horrendous tragedy.

I never met Nancy Allen, though I have other friends who work at WREG.  I dare say, other than co-workers and personal friends, virtually no one knew that Nancy was employed there.

In a scenario in which all of us have probably had nightmares about experiencing, Nancy’s home erupted in fire.  Authorities say she was probably trying to escape but was not successful.  She was found dead in the aftermath.

Nancy Allen was a graphics operator at WREG.  You never see people such as her on camera.  With the virtual elimination of credits at the ends of newscasts, we rarely see the names of those unseen workers who sustain the production end of local news and commercials.

Graphics operators are the most vulnerable to carpal-tunnel syndrome of anyone in television.  If they were paid by the numbers of words they type or logos they squeeze into a screen, they would all be half-billionaires.  They are the people who type every name of people who appear in a newscast, every logo identification in a commercial, and emergency messages and school and business closings during severe or winter weather.  You want to keep the good ones.

Nancy worked at WREG for 30 years.  People with that kind of longevity in television stations are few and will become fewer with every passing year.  If Nancy was like others I have known of that ilk—Carlos Williams at WRBL in Columbus GA, the late Cy Willis at WTVM in Columbus or Maxie Ruth (who worked under 17 different news directors at WSPA in Spartanburg before he retired), she was as familiar in her station as the location of the coffee pot in the employees’ lounge or the entrance to the newsroom.  Again, I didn’t know her—-but with that many years of service, the word institution is probably not an exaggeration.

I cannot write an obituary tribute to Nancy Allen.  However, I can offer some insight into the emotions of people in local television when they lose one of their own.

Plain and simple, the mood is no different than in any family, a church congregation, or any other business.  If one has worked with a veteran employee for an extended period, the instant emotion is like a blow to the chest.  You realize this friend and colleague whom you saw often as much as you did members of your own family will never again walk through the door, sit at her desk, or be busy at her keyboard.  Someone else will ultimately be hired for the job but the newcomer will need time and the patience of the staff to develop the personal identity that his or her predecessor possessed.

I well remember 37 years ago when a young radio news director John Patterson was seated next to me at a Columbus City Council meeting on a Tuesday morning.  The next day, a police call sent officers to an apartment building.  A couple of hours later, the body of John Patterson was rolled out of the unit.  John had taken his own life.  My colleague Richard Hyatt of The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer wrote eloquently of how we in media are no different from anyone else.  When we lose a member of our fraternity, especially in the way John died, we have regret that we did not see the signs or know him well enough to reach out to him more.  I talked with his colleague from WRCG a week later.  “We’re still in shock,” he told me.  “None of us knew.  We still don’t know how to deal with it.”

I had been gone from Wilmington, N.C., for 13 years when I received the news that my weathercaster during the years I was news director at WWAY, Shirley Gilbert, had succumbed to cancer.  Shirley had one of the sunniest dispositions of anyone I ever encountered in the congested, often tense environment of a newsroom.  She was always prepared and professional.  Her battle with cancer was an extremely difficult one.  She had not been able to work in her final nine months.  Regardless, I spoke to a couple of the half-dozen employees who remained at WWAY after learning of her death.  “You kept saying to yourself that Shirley was going to beat this,” her successor as weathercaster told me.  “Even though we had all been prepared for the inevitable, there’s a big hole in the station right now.”

The toughest moment of any I ever had in broadcasting was in 1999.  In addition to our regular telecasts of Union University basketball, we were doing the first season of a weekly coaches show.  We taped on Sunday afternoon for airing on Tuesday night.  On a cold, dreary Saturday at around 4 o’clock, I received the devastating news that the co-head coach of our women’s team, Lisa Hutchens, had been found dead in her apartment.  Lisa was 38.  She was to have taken over the team in full the following season.  I cannot tell you the emotions that swarmed over me.  Further, I realized I was facing having to do a half-hour show that dealt with Lisa’s death.  We could have opted to suspend the show for a week and our two stations would likely have understood.  However, we all agreed that the longer we postponed acknowledging Lisa’s passing, the more difficult it would be for all of us to deal with the grief of her loss.  Only the providence of God helped me through that broadcast.  We had a little more than a month remaining in the season.  We had to get on with life but not a single game telecast came and went that we on the broadcast team would not look over at the bench and glaringly realize that Lisa was not there and never again would be.

When you’re with a television station for 30 years, you survive a lot.  Nancy Allen endured more than one station sale that is always unsettling to a staff, saw anchor retirements, learned new graphics programs and experienced the nuances of this rapidly changing profession.

Nancy AllenMy good friend Tim Simpson, WREG’s chief meteorologist, and veteran anchor Alex Coleman tweeted some of the first tributes to Nancy.  That was followed by several other veteran members of the News Channel 3 staff.  I could tell instantly that the 140-character limit could not come close to reflecting the sadness and emptiness Nancy’s colleagues felt.

The easy thing for co-workers to say is “she will be missed” or “her passing will leave an empty void in our company.”  The truth is:  any condolence or tribute you offer seems so inadequate, especially when a tragedy takes the life of one you have known for years.

If you are reading this and work for another station in any city in America, tweet a note of condolence and encouragement to @3onyourside.  The staff has had to go on with business.  Television news does not stop even in a time of internal or personal tragedy.  Nancy Allen’s memorial service will be Saturday at Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova, TN.   Many memories will be shared of what she meant to her family and to her professional family.  Those memories will never be far from those with whom she worked at WREG.

 

 

 

Another TV Journalist Joins the Battle to Stamp Out Stigma of Emotional Illness

If you’re old enough to remember the assorted series produced by Quinn Martin from the 1960s through the ’80s, you may well remember two distinct trademarks.  Each segment was labeled Act I, Act II…..until the final three-to-four minute climax to wrap the evening’s story.  In the lower right corner of the screen was the word “Epilog.”

This is one of what may be many epilogs to our four-part series on depression and other emotional illnesses within television newsrooms.  Amidst the live shots, multiple deadlines, middle-of-the-night wakeup calls, and demands to be “on” for community service is a genuine vulnerability to depression.

Saturday, a reporter whose work I have viewed during crisis storm coverage in the last year opened up on Facebook about a struggle she has had and the dilemma as to whether to go public with her story.

Ashley HardingAshley Harding trudges the streets of North Florida for WJXT, the Jacksonville station I grew up watching and which influenced me to enter the field of broadcast journalism.

As background, Ashley and her husband had a child 16 months ago.  As is typical, her colleagues and the station in general celebrated the new birth.  However, Ashley began to experience the type of depression that is often only understood if one is a woman.

She, as did many of us, read of the tragic story of the suicide of Portland, Maine (WCSH) meteorologist Tom Johnston.  Before his tenure in Portland, Johnston was the morning meteorologist for Action News in Jacksonville.  On the air, Johnston was known for his lively personality and his sense of humor.  He was probably the last person most people would perceive would even fathom taking his own life.

Tom JohnstonWhat led Tom Johnston to his decision is still and may forever be unknown.  Ashley Harding was compelled to come forward with a story that had to play heavy in her own heart.  Please read her own account at the link above.  Here are some excerpts:

“For days, I had been mulling over and over in my head, asking myself…should I talk about this with the viewers? Should I share this?  I have been struggling with post-partum depression since our son was born in December 2015,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

As is the case with anyone struggling with depression, the dilemma is to accept that one needs help.  Ashley shared about the challenge of making an appointment with a psychiatrist, a difficult act that her husband finally did for her.  She then addressed personal thoughts about Tom Johnston.

“I did not know him when he worked here in Jacksonville, but this story really hit home for me. It’s time to get real about depression and mental illness. It’s okay to talk about it, and please people, get help if you need it. Reach out to those in your life who matter. Don’t wait as long as I did to try to get better. Rest in peace, Tom.”

I have communicated with Ashley via e-mail since her Facebook post went viral via TVSpy.  As I told her, she will never know whether one or 100 people are compelled to seek help because they have seen her daily on WJXT and recognize that she is not just a TV figure, but a real human who has real problems just as the rest of us do.

In her Facebook post, she details beginning the road back with low-dosage anti-depressants.  That is a common prescription for post-partum depression and for cases of clinical depression.  The key is being patient for the medication to work.  You cannot have the attitude of people who put on 15 pounds during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, hit the gym January 2 and expect those 15 to roll off in three or four days.  Any person experiencing depression may need weeks or even months to become one’s whole self again.

Ashley has taken the two most important steps—-she recognized she needed help and, with the help of her husband, she has sought it.  If she follows through on her treatment program—-and I have no doubt she will, she will get well.

Further, her courage to share her experience will be an inspiration to people in Jacksonville who may be going through the same struggles.  My personal hope is that her story will also encourage others in the television industry who need the same type of counseling and treatment to seek help.  As I have detailed previously, TV news is a profession that is a prime conduit of vulnerability to emotional illness.

One retired news director responded to my previous four-part blog with these words:  “This is a high-stress business.  Maybe people who have depression just shouldn’t be in it.”  That was a 1975-type answer.  

No, the time has come for the broadcast journalism industry and its managerial leaders to recognize that many talented people who work for them have their limits.  Depression can occur even to people in a low-stress profession.  Further, it is time for every broadcasting chain in America to require its senior managers and mid-level managers to undergo specific and disciplined training to understand the warning signs of depression and the sensitivity to be encouraging and patient with staff members who experience emotional illness.  Those who are dealing with depression could be some of those managers themselves.

As for Ashley Harding, she is taking the first steps on the road to a full recovery.  She is not alone.  She has a vast audience of people, many of whom she has never met, who are in her corner.  No doubt, her co-workers at WJXT are rooting for her.  So is The Old TV News Coach.

By telling her story, Ashley will have a positive influence on helping people she does not even know to take that first step of seeking help.  Likewise, she is helping to stamp out the stigma of ignorance and callousness concerning emotional illness.  What do we have to lose by talking about it?  We may save another life.

Photos courtesy wcsh6.com and news4jax.com

It’s National Hug a News Person Day….So Why Not Do It?

The catchy trend on Twitter is to declare national days in honor of a favorite event, person, fictional character, or food.  Some of them click.  Some of them roll over like a dog who just wants to go to sleep.

I know from experience.  I have declared the last two October 4ths as #NationalWardCleaverDay after my favorite TV dad of all time.  I think that one received six likes and two retweets.  I don’t care if it’s none and none.  I will observe #NationalWardCleaverDay this coming October 4th on the 60th anniversary of Leave It to Beaver.

A small group online have suggested we take the premiere date of Captain Kangaroo and declare the first #NationalMrGreenJeansDay this fall.  If you grew up with The Captain, how could you not love Mr. Green Jeans, who was a master of all farm animals and inventions?

That brings me to a slowly expanding online phenomenon of April 4.  I wish #Nationalhuganewspersonday had been around in the mid-1970s when I started in TV news.  Some days, a kind word was so elusive that I thought the Chicago Cubs would win the World Series before I heard encouragement in my newsroom.  That was in the place where the news director/anchor once said in a staff meeting:  “You people are an extension of my arms to get to the places I can’t.  I would do it myself if I could but you’re here to carry out my mission.”  That was surely motivational.

Action 9 News Ad

In the location above, didn’t we all look young, vibrant, energetic, alive, and full of TV hair?  I almost cried when I uncovered this TV Guide ad last weekend for the first time in years.  I wondered, “Where did all my hair go?”  Then, I remembered I now have 15 fewer minutes needed to make those locks lay down.  

WTVM was actually a fun newsroom in which to work.  While we didn’t hug each other every day, we had far more virtual hugs and verbal cheers for each other.  We even laughed on a frequent basis, unlike some newsrooms where the temperature is often at the level of an Amana side-by-side.

Here’s the scoop:  especially in the smaller 125 markets, young people work hard every day to inform you and make the kinds of salaries that often cause them to struggle to make ends meet.  They are on call 24/7 for breaking stories, such as the one this morning in Orlando (and a few other cities) when tornado warnings were issued.  They work in a field which can strain relationships or social lives because of unorthodox schedules in which they work.  Try going in at 11:30 p.m. or 12 midnight to produce a morning show that can last as long as six hours in some cities.  When you accept a job in any television newsroom, you are rolling the dice.  You may be working for an encourager who truly cares about people as people, or you may be under the domain of a total autocrat who gives the impression of caring about nothing in life but what goes on the early evening news.

Here’s another scoop:  a significant number of people who contribute to your favorite local newscast every night are ones you never see.  When I tweeted today about #Nationalhuganewspersonday, I reminded people of the many producers, assignment editors, videographers, editors, directors, audio engineers and studio camera operators whose job it is to make a newscast and the people who deliver the information look good every night.  All too often, the news to viewers is only the people they see on camera.  When Lou Grant, Mary Richards and every one of the regular members of the WJM News staff were fired on the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, that group hug in which the gang all trotted together to grab tissues was one of the most hilarious physical comedy scenes ever.  Yet, where were the support personnel who made possible for them to do their jobs.

They deal some days with folks who are not very nice people.  Whoa be it answering a phone when a viewer calls enraged about a story which aired, even though that news watcher did not listen carefully and may have the facts out of context.  The news person’s skin has to be tougher than an overtanned sun worshiper’s face.

I hear some of you, including some veteran executives in the news business.  Some of you are saying, “What a silly thing to observe a day to hug a news person.”  Is it?

I read the accounts of former WDBJ (Roanoke, Va.) general manager Jeffrey Marks in the hours after reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward were shot to death during a live segment.  Marks gathered his staff together.  Spontaneously they sang “Amazing Grace” together and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

Marks told reporters:  “I thought it was important that all of us get together and be a family.  What can you do except bring people together?”

His news director said she began doing something she had never done before.  She began telling members of her staff she loved them.  Granted, if your staff has not experienced a cruel and inhumane loss of co-workers, you are not likely to tell your people you love them.  However, the sentiment, caring and sincerity are what count.

I recall 15 years ago when I was an RTNDA (before the acronym changed) Fellow.  One of my colleagues was assigned to serve his fellowship in a New England station.  He was told early on by the news director, “If I haven’t made a female cry at least once a week, I don’t feel like I’ve done my job.”  Yes, that was the culture in that newsroom.  I hope that management philosophy has changed, but I suspect we have a few news operations where that culture, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, prevails.

Sure, #Nationalhuganewspersonday is a fun creation of social media.  Yet, I find that unofficial observation playing into an important need in a highly stressful profession.  People in any line of work need reinforcement, encouragement and yes, at times, a small bit of love.  As deadline-driven and demanding as broadcast journalism is, if its practitioners are constantly in a den of negativity, that will create negative reinforcement, self-doubt and a reluctance to expand creative skills for fear of creating an eruption from temperamental bosses.

Dr. Brhett McCabe, a sports psychologist, recently said on The Paul Finebaum Show:   “Everything we experience is a big deal to us.  Performance anxiety is normal.  There’s a little voice inside that makes us worry about outcomes, rather than deliver outcomes.  That’s a little bit of a trap that keeps saying I have got to prevent mistakes from happening.”

 

So, if you work in a TV newsroom, put #Nationalhuganewspersonday into practice, at least for today.  Even if you’re not a hugger, at least offer a kind word or an ounce of encouragement to a co-worker—even if it’s one with whom you don’t particularly get along.  If you are married to a news person or are in a personal relationship with a journalist, make sure you give them a solid hug today as a reminder that what he or she does matters.  If you are a viewer, drop a positive email or a tweet to a favorite newscaster before midnight.  You may not see the smile on that journalist’s face, but—believe me—that will happen.

To all of you who toil on deadline every day to bring us information that is live….local….late-breaking, here is a virtual hug from The Old TV News Coach.  The same goes to all of you who once gave of yourselves in the industry and are now classified as retired.  I may not know many of you, but I definitely appreciate you.