Local News In The Digital Age

To paraphrase, Poynter’s Al Tompkins: Blame it on the barber shops.

“There has been misinformation as long as there have been barber shops.”  That’s a quote from Tompkins in a recent article by Diana Marszalek titled “How Local News Can Avoid A Credibility Crisis” on the website TVNewsCheck.  (I urge you to read the whole article, you can find it here.)

The focus of the article was on recent mistakes in reporting made by (mostly) local television news outlets during their coverage of breaking news situations.  The recent example was the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, although the article lists several other examples as well.

To be clear, Tompkins was not excusing the mistakes television journalists were making.  Rather his point was that saying that mistakes are inevitable because misinformation is so prevalent in today’s digital age is a “cop out”.  His point is that for as long as there has been information passed from one person to another, there has been misinformation and it’s a journalist’s job to sift out the truth.  Below are some excerpts from the piece that I found particularly insightful along with some of my own thoughts.

“’I fear that too often the technology has driven the journalism rather than the other way around. And that’s never a good situation.’” – RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender

These mistakes in reporting highlight the sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful relationship television news has with technology.  It was the development of television that gave birth to the television news industry.  The on-air product was bare-bones and basic (downright antiquated by today’s standards).  Then came more portable cameras and live transmission capabilities.  The battle was on over who could be ‘first’; first with a story, first on the scene, first with the pictures.

As the pace of newsgathering quickened and the 24-hour news cycle was created, television stations once more turned to technology for an edge.  Satellite transmission allowed stations to travel further to get a story.  Helicopters with gyroscopic cameras helped them there faster.

As competition increased, the demand for better ratings intensified.  Newsrooms started producing more hours of programming and flashier newscasts.  The focus turned to breaking news and away from issues and a focus on “breaking news”.  This resulted in less time to confirm, double-check and vet information.  The attitude became: be first, be fast and (if forced to) make the correction later.

“The demand to continually crank out content for multiple platforms, just part of the new 24-hour news cycle, is taking its toll on the usual vetting process… Behind the scenes, stations having, say, just one or two-person digital teams managing content on a myriad of platforms — websites, social media, email alerts and Smartphone apps, for example — gives those people very little time to spend on confirming content, says Barb Palser, a VP at St. Paul, Minn.-based Internet Broadcasting.”

In the digital age, what had been a barely-manageable flow of news became a veritable torrent of information, both accurate and inaccurate.  From Facebook posts to Tweets to websites, information is everywhere.  With the fear of getting beat by their competition, stations have even less time to confirm any of it. 

Technology has helped make newsgathering more efficient.  Stations have fewer people who do more.  Some stations are lucky enough to have a dedicated digital team.  Others have created hybrid positions (“multi-media journalists”) who produce content for both digital and broadcast platforms.  This needs to change.

What can be done?  Here are a couple of suggestions:

Create clearly defined standards.

“Todd Mokhtari, VP of news at NBC-owned KNBC Los Angeles, says there is no excuse for a decline in newsroom standards, regardless of whether information comes in through avenues like the Internet or over the telephone like it used to.”

I’ve talked about this before but it bears repeating.  What does your newsroom stand for?  Who are your viewers, what are the stories you cover, how do you tell them?  Keep it simple and stick to it.  Put it on a poster in your newsroom so the entire staff can see it and refer to it.  A unified vision will create clarity for every staff member and be a touchstone for them when they are unsure.

Develop systems and procedures.

“Broadcasters also need to expand their digital teams and improve — most notably by streamlining — the range of platforms they oversee to be efficient and effective…” – Barb Palser

I’ve found a little planning goes a long way.  Having proper systems and procedures in place and practiced makes it easier to respond to breaking news.  Who does what, how is information processed and aired, how will you handle information on social media?  More care needs to be paid to how this is handled on the digital end.  In many operations there are one or two digital producers who repurpose content.  But when news breaks, is this enough? 

Forge a new path.

In my opinion, local television news is at another crossroads with technology.  This is an opportunity for stations to reposition themselves.  With information literally at the fingertips of every viewer and news consumer, the race to be first is becoming less relevant.  Stations should instead position themselves as the reliable, accurate news leader.  Provide more analysis, more in-depth enterprise reporting, more context.  (I’ll have more about this in an up-coming post.)  Looking at the local television news landscape, this is what’s missing most and this approach could help a station stand out from its competition.

New Year’s Resolutions For News Managers

A friend of mine is starting a new job today as a news director.  He’s one of the best managers I’ve worked for, so I figured this would be a good time to talk about what makes a good manager.  We’ve all worked for some great people and we’ve all worked for some horrible people.

Which one are you?  Are you sure?

Here’s a list of some common attributes I believe make a good manager and some goals to set for yourself at the start of this New Year.

Human being: I put this one first because it’s often the one that managers overlook.  It sounds obvious.  We’re all human, aren’t we?  In my experience, too many managers forget this.  Those are real people in that newsroom, real human beings out in the field working hard and covering stories for you.

  • Take a minute to get to know the people on your staff.  Schedule one-on-one meetings.  They don’t have to be long.  Just a few minutes to find out who they are as people.  A small investment that will pay dividends over the long run.
  • Show a sense of humor.  Some of the best people I’ve worked for have been the ones that I have genuinely enjoyed being around.  I think we’d all rather be around someone that makes us laugh rather than someone who is always yelling at us.  Sure, you have to take things seriously, but as a former news director of mine once said, this isn’t brain surgery and at the end of the day no one died.  Keep things in perspective and take a minute to laugh and have some fun.
  • Have fun.  I once worked with a news director who would hold a raffle every month.  All of the promotional items that got sent to the news desk by PR companies looking for coverage were given away to the staff.  My first month on the job I won tickets to a Broadway show that was in town.  It made a huge impression on me and showed me this was a special place to work.  Whether a monthly raffle or free pizza, a break from the routine will help improve morale.

Leadership:  This one seems pretty obvious too, but I am constantly amazed by the number of news managers who seem incapable of leading.  How many of us have worked for someone who gave vague directions, expected their staff to carry them out with little guidance or oversight, and then criticized people when things went wrong?  Leading is not just telling people what to do.

  • Show courage.  Managers have difficult decisions to make.  Don’t avoid them.  Too often, a manager will pass the buck to the people underneath them.  Be decisive, take some responsibility and make those tough calls.  People will respect you more when you do.
  • Empower your staff.  No one likes to work for a dictator or micro-manager.  While you should be willing to make the tough decisions, that doesn’t mean that you should make every decision.  Know which ones you can delegate and support the decisions your people make.  A good way to lose the trust of your staff is to undermine, second-guess and criticize everything they do.
  • Get out of your office.  It’s easy to get bogged down in day-to-day responsibilities and spend every day cloistered inside four walls.  Break out.  Vow to spend an hour a week in the newsroom, at the assignment desk or out in the field.  Sure, you’ll probably freak people out at first.  They’ll wonder why the boss is spying on them.  But seeing how a news producer puts together a rundown or how a photog covers a story will give you a better sense of the challenges they face every day and what you can do to help them.  You won’t learn this in your office.

Journalistic ethic:  You have this job for a reason.  You have proven you know how to cover news, how to be fair, how to be objective, when to be aggressive and when to hold back.  Lead by example and challenge your staff to follow your lead.  A good news director or manager should set the standard for the entire staff when it comes to journalistic principles. 

  • Push your people to go beyond just covering the headlines.  People can get the news whenever and wherever they want.  Give them more.  Too often, in the frantic world of television news, context and substance are sacrificed at the expense of flash and sensationalism.  Cover more than just the ‘who’ and ‘what’.  Those are easy.  Make sure you include the ‘why’.
  • Think outside of the box.  Too often we are constrained by the idea that everything needs to be fast-paced.  Sometimes a story needs more time produce or more time to breathe.  Identify those stories that may take longer to dig into or more on-air time to tell.  Long-form investigative pieces and feature stories are often cut to make room for mediocre stories that you can tell in less than 90 seconds.  Push your staff to do some old-fashioned journalism.
  • Provide feedback.  When you see an example of good work, whether it’s a reporter package or an entire newscast, highlight it.  Let that person know and use it as an example to the staff of what you expect from everyone.

Vision:  I once worked for a manager who was asked a simple question at a station-wide staff meeting: “What do we stand for?”  Other stations in the market had clear and definable brands: the station to turn to for breaking news, the legacy station with a strong journalistic background, etc.  He was stumped. A good manager should be able to clearly say “This is who we are, and this is who we are not.”

  • Challenge yourself.  What does your news operation stand for?  Can you put it in a sentence?  Certainly your news product should be more than just a snazzy slogan, but a clearly defined mission statement will be the North Star you can follow through turmoil and uncertainty.
  • Share your vision.  It’s not enough to just have a vision for your operation; you also have to share it with the people who will be putting it in motion.  This means clearly communicating your ideas, setting goals and reviewing your progress.
  • Be creative.  A leader with vision also brings a level of creativity to the table and will encourage their staff to do the same.  Never settle for doing what you have always done.  Is there a better way?  A different way?  Find new ways of covering the same, old story and encourage your staff to do the same.  You will be surprised by the results.

By no means is this a complete list.  Rather, these are just some qualities that many managers sometimes forget in the frenzy of day-to-day news coverage.  Take a hard look at yourself and find just one that you feel you need to work on, then set that as your goal for the New Year.

The Newtown School Shooting: 3 Challenges For Journalists

The school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut is one of those horrible, senseless tragedies that has shocked the nation.  Twenty-eight people killed, 20 of them children, when a gunman opened fire inside the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  This type of story is one of the most difficult kinds to cover.  There are several factors that come in to play that will impact the overall coverage, how the information is presented and how that will shape the way this story is presented to the public.

Being First and Being Right

This is the tug-of-war news outlets must face on a daily basis.  Is it better to be first with a big story even if some of your information may be shaky?  Or is it better to hold off, take the extra time to double-check what you have even if that means being one of the last to report it?  Certainly, no outlet wants to be wrong, but some are more fast and loose when it comes with the truth.

From early in the morning, when the news first broke from Newton, the race was on: Who will be first to report it?  The first on the scene?  The first with eyewitness reports or confirmation of the number of dead?  When it comes to getting accurate information quickly, a story like the Newtown shooting is especially difficult.  In the heat of the moment, stumbles and mistakes are inevitable but every effort needs to be made to avoid them.

We saw that initially with the reports of the number killed and injured.  For the first few hours, this number fluctuated wildly depending on which news outlet you listened to.  A more egregious example was the revelation of the killer’s identity.  Initially, Adam Lanza’s brother was erroneously identified as the gunman.  Law enforcement officials did their best to fix this mistake quickly, but the damage was done.  Even when the correct name was revealed, journalists and the public alike took to social media and publicly vilified completely innocent people who just happened to share Lanza’s name.

Each network and television station has its own philosophy, its own checks and balances when it comes to confirming information before making it public.  But sacrificing accuracy just to be first is not worth it.  In the end it can create more confusion, spread more pain and damage reputations.  Take a minute, double-check your information, and get it right even if that means you won’t be first.

Competition

The competition for information in Newtown is fierce.  This is a national story.  Cable and network news organizations have descended with their anchors broadcasting live from the scene.  It has also drawn international attention.  And its geographic location means that local news stations from not only Hartford, but New York, Boston and other cities have converged on the scene.  The public park in Newtown has turned into the type of media encampment you usually see at political conventions or sporting events.

Law enforcement officials have done a good job of holding regular news briefings and keeping journalists informed.  But, understandably, they have also been careful about the information they release.  This environment creates a “news vacuum” as dozens of journalists try to uncover information, sometimes crossing the line of good taste and decency.  Already the Connecticut State Police has assigned a trooper to each family in order to protect their privacy from over-zealous reporters.

Journalists must be aggressive and not limit themselves to reporting only the “official” information handed to them by police.  But they need to be smart in how they do it and sensitive to the people torn apart by this tragedy.  People don’t need to see a mother sobbing at the loss of her child just so some station can slap a banner on it calling it “exclusive”.  This serves no purpose and should be off-limits.

The Human Factor

Finally, there is the human toll a story like this will take on the dedicated news professionals who are covering it.  Journalists work very hard to remove their personal feelings from the equation while covering a story.  But it is nearly impossible for any feeling human being to remain detached while covering a story like the Newtown shooting.  It will be most difficult for the reporters and field crews on the scene.  They are the ones who will have to talk to witnesses and family members.  There is no escape from them.  They are literally in the middle of the story.  They will also be working long hours with little rest.  It will hit them the hardest.

Managers and producers back in the newsrooms need to keep this in mind.  Their crews in the field are under tremendous strain.  Pushing them too hard will not improve your coverage and will only lead to mistakes.  A story of this magnitude is not the time to be thinking of the bottom line.  Assign extra staff to cover it and give your people in the field a chance to step back from covering the story and take some time for themselves.

The shooting in Newtown will be on the front pages and on our TV’s for many days to come.  Hopefully some good can come out of such a tremendous tragedy, specifically a national dialogue about gun control and mental health care.  Journalists will play an important role in this conversation, but it is equally important that they use all of their skill and experience and do their jobs responsibly, carefully and with sensitivity.

| Tagged , , , , , ,

Breaking News And The Dangers Of Trying To Be First

The Aurora shooting massacre is a senseless tragedy that has created a national discussion on issues such as gun control and mental health. It is also likely the topic of discussion in newsrooms across the country, but for very different reasons.

A major news event such as this once again displays the dangers of covering breaking news. In any newsroom the goal is to be first. First on the air, first with new information, first with the story, etc. But we have seen how that drive to be first can sometimes come at the expense of being careful and, in extreme cases, at the expense of being right.

I once worked with an anchor who sent a memo to the entire news staff outlining what our strategy should be for covering breaking news. It wasn’t earth-shattering and didn’t break any new ground, but it did include this motto that most news outlets follow as well: “We’ve gotta be fast and first”.

I would add this corollary: “It’s best to be first, but you better be right.”

Being first is the goal. It builds a news organization’s reputation as being the place to turn to when news happens. But even more important is the outlet’s brand. If you’re first, congratulations, that’s great. But make sure you get it right or you end up damaging the brand. You only have to go as far as Brian Ross’s reporting during the height of the chaos of coverage last week to find an example.

Now, ABC News has nothing to worry about when it comes to its brand. They are a highly regarded news operation and will continue to be after this incident. In addition, Brian Ross is a respected journalist with a strong reputation and will continue to be after this. Unfortunately, they became one of the storylines in the coverage of the Aurora tragedy: sloppy reporting in the rush to be first. A similar criticism was made of CNN and Fox News in their coverage of the Supreme Court’s health care ruling.

These examples and countless others should serve as a warning to all journalists.

It’s best to be first, but you better be right.