Solid Reporting Under Stress: Three Stations Excel in Active Shooter Situations

Periodically, The Old TV News Coach tackles weaknesses in television news presentation.  The object is not merely to be critical or to sound like the old geezer in a rocking chair in front of The New Southern Hotel in Jackson, Tn.

The idea is to see our industry of broadcast journalism improve and become far better than it is.

Likewise, I take genuine joy in pointing out quality practices that serve the viewer well and reflect credit on the profession.

Active ShooterIn the last week, I have witnessed three first-class efforts in the midst of the two most frightening words of the current day:  active shooter.

This is not to minimize the efforts of competing stations in these cities but I take my hat off to reporters and anchors at KHOU in Houston, WMBB in Panama City FL and WTHR in Indianapolis.

The mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Texas had many of us uttering what is now an angry cliche:  “Here we go again.”  The loss of eight students and two teachers stirred up the national debate on gun possession, mental illness and overall security measures at American schools.

KHOU was the most accessible Houston-area station for me on Roku.  Shortly after 12 noon last Friday, I saw one of the most impressive pieces of work to sort out truth from fiction and rumors.

https://media.khou.com/embeds/video/8133320/iframe

Tiffany CraigReporter Tiffany Craig, using the equivalent of an electronic chalkboard, set up three columns:  one for verified information, one for false reports and a middle section for possible but unsubstantiated data.

Craig’s work reminded me of the stories of Walter Cronkite explaining complex stories on WTOP in Washington (prior to his joining CBS News) in the early days of television by employing “chalk talks,” using a blackboard and chalk to detail specific facts in understandable fashion.

Several times during the afternoon Craig performed solid work, especially in diffusing wildfire rumors that erupted on social media.  Typically in today’s cyberculture, false information spreads from online users who claim to know people who know people who know people who have so-called specifics that they are sure the media are not reporting.

Craig did not do her work in a lecturing fashion but was almost like watching the best schoolteachers as she turned to her electronic board, illustrated the key points and turned to the camera to talk to viewers in a calm, non-threatening fashion.

The video of Craig’s work we have embedded should be a textbook for every newsroom in America on how to sort truth from baloney for viewers during crisis situations.

Jerry Amy 2

Three days later, my old friend and colleague Jerry Brown and his co-anchor and assistant news director Amy Hoyt demonstrated how small market journalists are just as professional during a crisis.

Before Brown and Hoyt took over, morning and noon anchors Chris Marchand and Kelsey Peck did a first-rate job of guiding viewers through an active shooter at an apartment complex.

Megan MyersWhile Marchand and Peck were at the anchor desk, reporter Megan Myers—who has only been with WMBB a few months—was in the midst of interviewing a neighbor in the area where 49-year-old Kevin Holroyd erupted.  As police were attempting to bring an end to the violence, shots rang out behind Myers and her interviewee.

http://www.mypanhandle.com/news/shots-fired-while-reporter-is-on-air/1192587128

Despite the fact that the sequence went viral on social media, WMBB did a professional job of following the story with marathon coverage while not employing alarming language or sensational tactics.

Jerry Brown was my prime time male anchor when I was news director at WWAY in Wilmington, N.C.  Jerry had the vocal delivery and straightforward approach that viewers need in nervous moments.  When Hurricane Dora was pounding the Atlantic coast for hours, including downtown Wilmington, in September 1984, Jerry and his colleague Stella Shelton were stalwarts all night and into the early hours of the next day.

 

PC School Board Shooting 2010When I received an alert of the Panama City eruption, I would have been surprised if Jerry had been anything but what he was—-the calming voice to a city which eight years earlier watched as an unstable man fired shots at Bay County school board members.  The shooter missed all of his targets but was shot by a security officer multiple times before finishing the job himself.

Jerry’s co-anchor Amy Hoyt was solid at delivering point-by-point retrospectives and summaries of what had transpired for latecomers to the story.

WMBB did not employ a video chalkboard but Hoyt was adept at outlining the day and the unanswered questions in one-two-three sequences.  If you were a viewer in Panama City Monday, Jerry and Amy brought you up to date within a matter of a few minutes.

This blogpost is being written approximately 15 hours after violence exploded at Noblesville West Middle School in Indiana near Indianapolis.  At this hour, a teacher who was shot and who is emerging as a hero of the day, Jason Seaman, is apparently out of danger.  A vigil continues for a 13-year-old girl who was shot, apparently by a classmate who asked to be excused from the class and returned with two revolvers.

I stayed with WTHR for better than three hours Friday afternoon.  In any marathon coverage of a crisis, television news has to draw a fine line between being invasive with parents and, in the case of Noblesville, with students of middle school age.  The wrong reporter can quickly turn off viewers either with insensitive questions or giving the impression of not respecting frayed emotions after an active shooter.

One reporter who impressed me specifically was Steve Jefferson.  He was sent to Noblesville High School, where at least temporary reports were of that school receiving threats.  Emergency personnel made the decision to send the middle school students via a large motorcade of buses to the high school to decompress and reunite with their parents.

Noblesville Parent

Jefferson was especially sensitive with the mother of a 14-year-old for one key reason—-he listened.  Jefferson did not bombard her with questions after every two sentences of her responses.  He allowed her to talk and go through the myriad of emotions she was experiencing.

A key moment in that interview was when the mom expressed what virtually every parent had to be feeling in Noblesville:  “I don’t want to sound insensitive to say that I’m glad my daughter wasn’t hurt…..but I’m glad my daughter wasn’t hurt.”

One of the keys to good interviews in any situation, crisis or feature, is for reporters to be good listeners.  Jefferson listened.  His followup questions connected with what the woman previously said and advanced the story without heightening hysteria.

A couple of low moments during the three crises:  one station made use of the phrase “bring closure.”  In the case of the Holroyd story, one reporter said, “Kevin Holroyd is now dead and this will no doubt bring closure to many people who have been on edge during this long day.”  I wrote in an earlier blogpost (and was backed up by several working producers) that the word “closure” is the most misused other than “went missing” in television news today.  Victims or people who have been in harm’s way from an active shooter often need weeks, months, or even years, if ever, to experience closure to violent moments.  Families of victims who lose their lives do not suddenly find closure if a perpetrator is killed by law enforcement officers or if the shooter takes his (or her) own life.

Three times during the Noblesville coverage, I saw WTHR reporters respond to anchor tosses with “good morning” or “good afternoon.”  When one is covering murder or potential murder, the morning or afternoon is not good.  That becomes an anachronism of habit and often conveys insensitivity.  Producers and news directors—-drop the “good morning” or “good afternoon” response from live field reporters.  Teach the reporters to just go into their narrative, especially at a crime scene.

Still, I was impressed by KHOU, WMBB and WTHR with no intent to minimize the work of their competitors that I did not witness.  In Houston, Panama City and Indianapolis, that trio comprise Allstate stations.  You’re in good hands if you watch them for news.

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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.

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.