Friday, September 5, 2008

Shedding the media bias tag

It happens to me every year, and it's happened since I got into this business. I'll be at a dinner party, or some other gathering, and be introduced to someone I don't know. Then the inevitable, "What do you do for a living?" question comes up. And my answer is almost always followed with something along the lines of, "Ah, a member of the liberal news media."

Now I'm never going to tell you where my political sentiments lie. I will tell you I've voted for Republicans and Democrats and even Independents. I was always taught to "vote for the candidate, not the party." I have good friends who are ultra conservative and some who are very liberal. So call me an Independent. Maybe it is because I was born in the same town as Joe Lieberman. I was even exposed to women in politics as a child, as my Aunt was an elected official, and this was a time when there were almost no women in politics.

Anyway, I always have to "defend" myself against the biased tag. No reporter wants the label, though this year it seems that a lot of them don't mind.

You'll run into this too, and probably moreso this year than any other.

The reason this happens is that very often people cannot differentiate between local and national news. I was always amazed to receive calls for the network anchor at the local affiliate, and this happened at every station in which I worked.

So when people call me biased, I tell them to consider that the national news comes primarily from three very liberal cities. New York, LA and Washington. And that certain networks are targeting certain demographic groups. That doesn't necessarily mean the local reporters feel the same way.

When I worked in New York a lot of the people in the newsroom slanted left. When I worked in the South, the newsroom was pretty conservative.

You may be the most objective reporter in the country, but you may still have to explain yourself. And that might mean explaining how the business works.

Of course, it's a lot easier if your reporting has been fair and balanced.

Friday's story ideas

What a shocker... health care rates expected to rise next year.

New study claims autism is not related to certain children's vaccines. This has been a hot button issue with many parents of young children.

Boston starts using hybrid taxicabs. What's happening where you live?

Beef prices going way up... all that corn used for ethanol isn't around to feed cows.

In tough economic times, how should parents teach teenagers about money?

Check out this site... stuff for sale that's good for the planet.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Oooooh! A hurricane story for my resume tape!

Now that Gustav is out of the way, News Directors around the country can fully expect a new batch of re-edited resume tapes featuring reporters who either:

-got wet during a standup
-got blown around during a standup

After hurricane Katrina, it seemed that every reporter had a hurricane story. Those who covered it included the "You-shouldn't-go-out-in-this-dangerous-weather-unless-you're-a brave-reporter-like-me" stories while those who weren't on the scene had the "Katrina-refugees-have-arrived-in-our-market-and-here-is-some-file-tape-to-show-you-what-they-went-through-in-case-you've-been-living-under-a-rock" packages.

And you know what? They all looked the same. Every single one. One wet reporter looks like another wet reporter. The b-roll is the same. The file tape is the same.

And the story is the same.

Covering hurricanes is no fun. I've done my share. But seriously, when it comes to resume tapes, there's not much point sending a story that every other reporter has done.

In all my years I've seen one really good hurricane package that a friend of mine did on the evacuation of exotic animals from a zoo. Other than that, these pieces don't show off your reporting skills. Everyone has the storm surge video. Everyone has the sound bite of someone flooded out. Home Depot plywood sales video. Boarding up windows video.

Yes, it takes long hours and stamina to cover a hurricane, and hats off to the photogs and trucks ops who kill themselves doing it. The coverage is important, as it keeps the public informed. But if you're a reporter, unless you have something truly unique that no one else has, leave it off the resume tape.

Thursday's story ideas

Wind power. We hear a lot about it, but how feasible is it in your market? And how does one decide where to put wind turbines?

Old fashioned tree houses are becoming popular, as parents seek ways to get kids away from video games and out of the house.

Auto sales are way down. What are dealers going to do to spur interest, and will they ever unload those SUVs?

Los Angeles bans fast food restaurants in poor neighborhoods to fight obesity among the poor. Will this become a trend? And why do lower income people have poor eating habits?

Last chance markdowns in grocery stores. More and more stores are filling shopping carts with bargains that are about to go out of date.

Speaking of which, how accurate are expiration dates, and can you safely eat food past its expiration date?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Whether or not to pursue weather


As a reporter, I must say that all this Gustav coverage has gotten me curious about doing weather. Have you ever done it and how does one get "into" the field? Do you need to be a meteorologist?
-Career Changer

Dear Changer,

Yes, I used to do weather and actually thought I wanted to pursue it full time, but to be honest it bored me. There simply wasn't the variety offered by reporting. After awhile you just run out of things to talk about when the weather is the same for days on end. But for some, meteorology is fascinating.

If you're interested, you can start by approaching a member of the weather staff at your station in order to learn a little about the science and the weather computer. You might also pick up the "USA Today Weather Book" which has basic information and great graphics about meteorology... it's kind of a "weather 101" book.

Still interested? You can enroll online to get a meteorology degree. I did mine with Mississippi State. I figured a "correspondence" degree would be easy, but it was anything but. Learned an awful lot. That is a good program and there are others out there as well. Then if you want to get a "seal" you'll have to take a test.

Years ago many weather people didn't have degrees, but now most stations like to hire people who have them, or are at least working toward one.

What makes a good weather person? Well, knowledge of the science is very important, but on the days when nothing is happening (90 percent of the time) a weathercaster needs to be very versatile. You end up visiting schools, doing live shots from the county fair, and sometimes doing environmental packages.

I liked to hire weather people who were both competent meteorologists and had outgoing personalities, and unfortunately those are hard to find. Too many are just dull, and those types have a harder time finding jobs despite degrees. Anyone can take a national weather service forecast and stand in front of a map, but it takes real talent to make it interesting or fun. Think of a great science teacher you had, then translate that to doing weather on TV.

Oh yeah, just about every weather person out there gets the forecast from a service.

In the past ten years, another problem seems to have bloomed like a weed; many meteorologists have become a bit arrogant. So if you get the degree, don't let it go to your head.... and don't let any arrogance come through in your on-camera performance.

By the way, the smartest weather guy I ever knew never even went to college.

Wednesday's story ideas

More students qualify for subsidized meals at school this year. How are the systems handling the cost?

Is there oil in your market? It's not just being drilled in Texas. Even places like South Dakota have huge oil reserves.

How bad is the hotel business? For the first time ever I'm getting called by major hotel chains offering deals.

Women who smoke can have heart attacks fourteen years earlier than if they don't smoke.

NFL football starts this weekend.. and here we go again with cable companies that don't offer the channel the NFL Network. Why is it so hard to put this on the system?

Wheelchair ramps that unfold out of a minivan make conversions a lot less costly.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Mailbag: Too valuable to get promoted?


I've been a reporter at my current station for a few years. I get most of the lead stories and I enjoy reporting, but I really get quite a rush when I fill in on the anchor desk. Recently we had an opening for an anchor and of course I threw my hat in the ring. Though I had always heard good feedback about my fill-in work, they promoted someone else whose anchoring skills were solid and about equal to mine. However, the other person was not as good on the street, and even admits he doesn't like reporting. The ND told me they hated to lose me on the street. Am I a victim of my own competence as a reporter?

-Ready to leave

Dear Ready,

Every once in awhile management has to make a tough decision like this one, and often makes the wrong one. Do you reward the person who deserves the job but will leave you weak in one area, or do you make the choice that might leave a valued employee hurt but be better for the station? The best person should always get the job, but alas, life is not fair.

I've seen this happen several times, and generally you end up losing the person who really deserved the job because that person gets ticked off, or, in your case, hurt. Yes, the old Peter Principle (people rise to the level of their incompetence) has always been in play in this business. For some reason NDs just don't understand that creative people are extremely sensitive, despite a hard shell exterior that might be conveyed on camera.

In case you hadn't figured it out (but it sounds like you have) you're never going to get an anchor job at your current station. If that is what you truly want, make an anchor tape and look for an anchor job.

O Wise Grape,

Is it a good idea to use someone as a reference who works at your current station?

-F. B.

Dear F.B.

Only if you can absolutely, positively trust that person not to spill the beans that you're looking. If you do this, make sure you list a personal phone number, not a newsroom number, as you don't want someone calling the newsroom saying, "I need a reference on so-and-so... is Joe Anchor around?"


I recently got a call from a consultant asking for a tape. I did a little checking around and found out the company consults our competitor. Why would someone who works for the other station want to find me a job?


Dear Puzzled,

Probably because you're talented and the ND at the other station thinks it would weaken the competition to get you outta town.

Consultants also maintain talent banks for their client stations, so they'll put you on a reel with people of your demographic background and level of experience. These people aren't agents, so don't expect them to actively "pitch" your work. But it doesn't hurt to send them a tape every three or four months.


I'm in my first job and I don't want to appear stupid asking someone this in the newsroom, so I'll ask you. What is the exact definition of a look live?

-The newbie

Dear Newbie,

Look Live, noun, (look leye-v)

1. A clever ruse used by news departments by which standup intros to stories are taped and then played back live during a newscast so that it looks as though the reporter is actually talking live to the anchor.

2. A fake method of presenting news that fools no one.

Tuesday's story ideas

Children's identity theft. Yep, kids have social security numbers too, and bad guys can run up bills by using them.

Late payments on credit cards are getting higher, and the "grace periods" are getting shorter.

So oil prices have gone down again... but did gas stations in your area use Gustav as an excuse to artificially raise prices?

Speaking of which, gas prices traditionally go down as Labor Day marks the end of the summer driving season.

More storms are on the way, so tell your viewers now... what constitutes price gouging in your state, and how can you report it?

Research shows advertisements for pharmaceuticals don't really increase sales. What about those sales reps you see in doctors offices?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Building a sequence

Nothing is more impressive than a resume tape that shows a terrific ability to edit. A tape without jump cuts, with great use of natural sound, can make a good resume tape into a great one.

But very rarely do I ever see what is known as a "sequence" anymore. You might not know what a sequence is, but you've seen one. They generally appear in feature stories, but they can greatly enhance a news piece as well. They can be made up of two shots or as many as you care to include.

Here's an example of a simple sequence. You're shooting a man at his desk, talking on the phone. You have a camera in front of him with a tight shot that includes his face and the phone. Then you shoot more b-roll from another angle as a wide shot, but in each shot the man must be doing the exact same thing. You shoot the man hanging up the phone in both shots. Now, when you edit the two together, you cut in the middle of the action of hanging up. If you've shot your b-roll correctly, these should match perfectly, as you are going from a tight shot to a wide shot of the same thing.

You've just built a two shot sequence. Easy, huh?

Want to get more creative? Add more shots to your sequence in the same way.

Let's use an example of a man getting on a horse for a ride. You'll have to shoot him doing the same thing a few times for this to work. Once again, the man must be doing the exact same thing each time.

Shot one, wide shot of man approaching horse.

Shot two, tight shot of saddle, man's hand reaching into frame.

Shot three, medium shot of the man's foot going into stirrup.

Shot four, front in front of the horse, wide shot of man pulling himself up and grabbing reins

Shot five, tight shot of hands grabbing reins.

Etc. You can build as elaborate a sequence as you like. It's just like building a little movie with the camera offering different points of view.

Put one of these in your resume tape, and a News Director will take notice.