Saturday, August 30, 2008

A note on covering Gustav

While it is some sort of weird tradition that reporters have to prove their, uh, mettle by standing in the middle of a hurricane while doing a standup, that doesn't mean you have to do it. As my dad used to say, if everyone jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you follow them?

While rain and high winds might not seem threatening to you, trust me, flying debris can do some serious damage. Would you want to be hit in the head with a two-by-four traveling at 100 miles per hour? Of course not. But it's only a matter of time before some reporter or photog is seriously hurt or killed during hurricane coverage.

Many stations are fond of saying during severe weather coverage, "we're here to keep you informed so you'll be safe," yet they look the other way when it concerns the safety of news crews. What sort of message are we sending viewers when we tell them to stay indoors and take cover while our own people are putting themselves in harm's way?

I've heard some stations are issuing helmets, which is a great idea. Eye protection is important as well.

There are safe ways to cover a hurricane. You can get the story without getting killed. Stay safe and live to report another day.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Jump cuts: an old problem is back

I was very lucky in that I learned to edit from a CBS producer. And the very first lesson he taught me was that jump cuts are taboo. I was very proud that in all my years as a reporter, a single jump cut never hit the air.

But now it seems that every resume tape I see has jump cuts, and in this era of non-linear editing that is simply inexcusable. Jump cuts are jarring to the viewer and label you as an inexperiened editor. However, I have also discovered that many young people simply don't know they are breaking editing rules, or even know what a jump cut is.

So, let's go back to lesson 1 of editing 101. What is a jump cut?

A jump cut is an editing sequence that is physically impossible. In other words two or more shots that simply cannot occur in a natural timeline.

Common example: Your first shot is a man loading plywood into his car in preparation for a hurricane. You then directly cut to a sound bite of the man in front of his car. He has, in effect, "jumped" from the back of the car to the front.

Another example: You show a politician speaking on the floor of the legislature. You then directly cut to a shot of the politician in his office. He has "jumped" from the floor to the office.

This not only breaks editing rules, but it just looks awkward. Especially when there are three very easy ways to avoid these. Cutaways, dissolves, and getting your subject out of frame.

For the first example, you need a shot between the plywood loading and the sound bite. You could use a cutaway (shot of the Home Depot sign); you could follow the plywood into the car and get the man out of the shot completely; or you could use a quick dissolve, which allows you to "soft cut" between the two original shots. (A dissolve implies a time change.)

Unless you are using a dissolve, you need cutaways, and you should be thinking about these when shooting your story. They will make your editing much easier and your story will look a lot better.

Next week we'll talk about "sequences" and how to "build" a sequence of edits so that you have an impressive bit of shooting and editing in your packages.

Friday's story ideas

For those along the Gulf Coast.. how are zoos preparing the keep the animals safe in the event Gustav strikes?

Lots of people have bought generators the past few days, but how much gas do you need and how much do they use? Does gas usage depend on how many things you have plugged in to the generator?

Study shows that students who celebrate their 21st birthday often do so with binge drinking.

Feds are staging raids on companies that employee illegal immigrants.

Gas prices up for the first time in a month. Will they go back down if Gustav doesn't whack an oil facility?

Drunk driving is down in 32 states. Is this due to security checkpoints, efforts of groups like MADD, or what?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

How to run the morning meeting

Over the years I've worked with numerous people who manned what I consider the toughest and worst job in any newsroom: the Assignment Desk. Being an AE is like having homework all the time, and I'm honestly amazed more of them don't go postal after having a scanner in their ear for several years while dealing with angry staffers. The job is so hard I have never, ever heard anyone say they wanted to be an Assignment Editor.

That said, reporters tend to come to the morning meeting looking at the AE as some sort of supreme oracle who has an unlimited amount of story ideas up his or her sleeve. Well, guess what... the AE rarely gets to leave the building. So it is up to the people on the street to come up with most of the story ideas.

But here's where the Assignment Editor makes a common mistake. The morning meeting sets the tone for the whole day, and if it starts with the Assignment Editor running down a list of stuff in the daily file, your station is starting the meeting backwards. When an AE goes first, he is, in effect, letting the reporters off the hook.

People who come to the morning meeting need to come armed with at least two solid story ideas. So what the AE needs to do is start the meeting by going around the room and asking every single reporter for his or her ideas.... without mentioning a thing about what is in the file. After each reporter has shared story ideas, the AE should then ask anyone else in the room (photogs, producers) if they have any ideas. (Photogs, by the way, should be encouraged to attend the meeting. They are on the street more than anyone and frequently have good ideas.)

After collecting and discussing the ideas, then and only then should the AE share the stuff in the file. And after all that is out on the table, the News Director should then make the decision as to what is to be covered.

Trust me, this works. If you're an AE, you'll end up with a lot more ideas from the staff and the meeting won't be as stressful. The morning meeting needs to be a sharing of ideas, not just the doling out of assignments.

Finally, a note to management and producers. If you don't like an idea, don't rip it apart in front of the staff. Do that often enough and you end up with reporters who are afraid to bring ideas to the table for fear of being ridiculed. If you don't like something, talk about the idea that you like better.

Make the morning meeting a positive experience for all. Reporters and photogs are more challenged when they get to do stories they've found themselves than those which are simply assigned.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thursday's story ideas

The new version of Internet Explorer supposedly offers more privacy. Explain how this works.

Does an IQ test at an early age really determine if a child is "gifted" or do those characteristics show up later?

Do bags of produce labeled "washed" need to be washed at home anyway?

Monthly flea medication for pets is being sold all over the Internet, and in particular many are selling dog medicine and claiming it can be used for cats. Safe or not?

With so many classic TV shows on the Internet for free, how can you connect your computer to your TV and get decent quality?

Challenge for Gulf Coast reporters: try to do a hurricane prep story without going to Home Depot or Lowes.

Wednesday's story ideas

Canadian Wal-Marts are going green... what's being done at American stores?

Colleges ditch cafeteria trays to keep students from eating too much, as they can't carry as much food back to the table.

What's the deal with the technology at your airport? Up to date or way out of date?

Some old diseases are returning as a number of parents are choosing not to get their children immunized.

Several states are actually suing the EPA over greenhouse emissions.

Some tax credits for energy saving products are running out this year. Which ones give you the most bang for the buck?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Top ten ways to tell if a media person is biased

During the next two weeks there will be all sorts of coverage of both the Democratic and Republican conventions. Now I don't need to tell you that certain networks favor certain parties, but sometimes a reporter can easily slant coverage with some simple tactics. And these are things you should avoid, lest you be slapped with the dreaded "biased" tag.

While we all pretty much know who we will vote for in November, it is not our job to tell others what to do. Remember, tell what you know, not what you think.

But sometimes bias can come through in many ways; body language and the way questions are phrased are generally dead giveaways that a reporter has a strong opinion.

-An old reporter once told me, "If you think a politician is full of it, just begin your question by saying 'With all due respect...'"

So when you hear that one, that generally tells you the reporter doesn't agree with the politician. (Of course, in the case of a certain former Presidential candidate who got caught cheating on his dying wife, "with all due respect" would be perfectly appropriate.)

-Starting a question with, "But" or "Do you really think" is usually another indication the reporter disagrees with the politician.

-Letting a politician go off on a tangent without answering the question is another indication of bias. A good reporter will follow up with, "Let's get back to the original question for a moment..."

-Lobbing softballs. Avoiding the obvious issues and throwing easy questions only make you look like a soft reporter.

-Leaning forward and finger pointing. Regardless of your feelings, always remain polite. Body language like this makes you look too confrontational. You can ask tough questions, but don't be condescending.

-Beating the dead horse. You've seen this one many times; a reporter asks a tough question, gets a straight answer, then continues to pound the politician for something more instead of moving on to the next subject. When you hear a politician say, "I think I've already answered that" you know the horse is dead.

-Grinning ear to ear when one candidate wins or is leading in the polls or returns. Or looking as though someone ran over your dog when one candidate loses. Classic body language bias.

-Using words or phrases like "embattled" or "under fire" to describe candidates. That's your opinion, and it might not belong to anyone else.

-Editing in such a way that one candidate looks good while the other looks bad.

-Not giving equal time.

I'm sure I could come up with more examples, but those are some obvious ones. So to be the objective reporter, put your feelings aside, and make the public trust you.

Tuesday's story ideas

Home sales went up considerably in July... what caused it, and what's the situation in your market?

Bike safety classes are filling up with more people leaving their cars at home when possible.

California reaps billions in health care savings through its anti-tobacco campaign.

From the "I'm not making this up" department: Beer kegs are being stolen for their value as scrap metal.

Some high school cheerleader outfits are deemed too skimpy in some school systems. What's the deal in your area?

One state is considering banning unmarried couples from adopting or becoming foster parents.

One state will charge overweight state employees more for health insurance if they don't lose weight.

Monday, August 25, 2008

It's time to mail the resume tapes

Well, the dog days of August are almost over, which means the fall hiring season is about to begin. Next week you're likely to see more job postings, and, as people move, the domino effect ensues.

So, if News Directors have known all summer that they'll be needing people, why wait till September?

Well, as always, it is a matter of money. Why pay an extra salary or two during July and August when viewership is way down? News Directors see this as an opportunity to save a few bucks which they can use to lure the best people for the November book.

So as soon as the calendar reads September, that means it's time to get the newsroom roster filled and up to speed by November. Post a job right after Labor Day, hire someone two to three weeks later, give that person two weeks to give notice, and you've got a new team member in place a few weeks before the book starts. Two of my first three reporting jobs started in October.

If you've sent a tape during the summer and haven't heard anything, don't worry. There is simply no hurry to hire anyone during June, July or August. So don't be surprised if you get a call about a tape you've sent three months ago.

But if you're about to start a job search, now is a really good time to do it. September and October are great months to get hired. Sure, check the listings on every single day, but also check the "moving on" sections of various television news websites. And you should send tapes to every station that interests you, whether or not the station has an opening.

Why? Because the station that doesn't have an opening next week might have one in a few weeks when the dominoes start to fall. That's when the ND has to scramble for a replacement, and do it quickly. If your tape is already in the building, that gives you a head start.

And remember, some stations don't post jobs in the conventional manner. Some use local newspapers and don't even bother with the Internet. Some just use their own websites. Others use the employment sections of their corporate websites.

Job hunting is a full time job if you don't have an agent. If you're looking, now is the time to go the extra mile.

Monday's story ideas

Are people in your market interested in political conventions?

Flood insurance. In light of the flooding in Florida, how do you know if your home is covered, and what changes should you make to your insurance policy?

Study shows that women with a waist bigger than 35 inches and men with a measurement larger than 40 inches have an increased risk of heart disease.

Football season is just around the corner... what are the high gas prices doing to people who travel and tailgate in RVs?

Unauthorized background checks. How can you know if someone has done one on you?

Stocks in the dumper? Is now the time to take a "paper loss" for tax purposes?

New York City reports a big attendance drop in schools on Fridays. Is this true everywhere?