Saturday, October 4, 2008

The "Push" Poll

These days we're inundated with polls on a daily basis. But there is one thing of which you may not be aware. Many times the people who pay for and design the poll have an agenda.

(Grape, I'm shocked!)

Yes, those ne'er-do-wells of politics sometimes don't play fair.

Many years ago I worked in a town that had a normal amount of crime but lived in a suburb that was sleepy as Mayberry. Our idea of crime was a drive-by yelling. So one day I got polled and the call went like this:

Poller: Do you feel safe living where you do?

Me: Absolutely.

Poller: Have you ever been a victim of crime?

Me: Here or in general?

Poller: It doesn't say. I'm just reading the question.

Me: Well, I've been a victim of crime but not in this town.

Poller: The choices are yes and no.

Me: I'm not answering the question.

A few days later I ran into the Mayor and casually mentioned I'd heard some people were being polled about crime in the town. He assumed it was the guy running against him who needed an issue.

I had been part of a "push poll," one in which the questions are designed to lead me in a direction and paint me into a corner so that the results come out a certain way.

A good friend of mine was polled by a national organization the other day and had the same experience.

If you're looking for good stories leading up to sweeps or for the few days before the election, polling would be a good topic.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Friday's story ideas

Credit crisis hits colleges, as some may be unable to access funds as they need them.

Study shows that overeating can affect the way the brain deals with your immune system.

Leaf peeping tourists. Changing leaves usually attract visitors in some parts of the country... how's business this year?

Not only are mortgages hard to get, but the rates just went up.

Has the popularity of dancing shows made people start taking lessons?

Many car dealerships want mechanics with some college training. Is this the end of the old fashioned "shade tree mechanic?"

Thursday, October 2, 2008

"Gotcha" is a dangerous game to play

Every four years some new terms creep into the political process. Things like "soccer moms" and "talking points" are a few that come to mind in recent history. Funny how this year the two most popular are "gotcha journalism" and "in the tank" which are both terms concerning media bias.

It's one thing to conduct an interview and air a soundbite when a candidate says something stupid. It's quite another to slant your questions with the intent of making a candidate look bad.

And that's what "gotcha journalism" is all about. Fair and objective have gone right out the window in favor of the quest for the "stupid" sound bite.

Many years ago I was asked to pick up a vo/sot with a guy running for the local school board. I'd never met the man, he'd never held office, and I had no idea what to expect. I asked a question any reporter would have, "What changes would you make if elected to the school board?"

The answer just floored me. The man said, "I don't know. I've never been to a school board meeting."

I asked a few more basic questions, then headed back to the station. Our ND at the time like to review all scripts, so I showed him the sound bite before I wrote the vo/sot. Though the bite made the guy look clueless, we aired it, since the ND said it was a fair question I would have asked any candidate.

Now, if I'd gone into the interview and asked a guy who'd never served on the school board, "What is your position on last year's expenditures on chalk and erasers?" well, I'm betting even an incumbent would have trouble answering that. It would have been "gotcha journalism."

Obscure questions that no one could answer without looking things up are the lifeblood of gotcha journalism. And here's a tip... if this is a question no one in the newsroom could answer, you probably shouldn't ask it. Think about it... is your question an honest inquiry to inform the public, or are you simply in quest of a watercooler soundbite that has nothing to do with a candidate's qualifications? I could ask Joe Biden who the first Governor of Delaware was or Sarah Palin how many pounds of salmon were caught in Alaska last year, and probably neither would be able to answer the question. It doesn't have anything to do with their qualifications.

Gotcha journalism and taking things out of context do nothing but slant the news and give the industry a bad name. If you ask a fair question and the response is stupid, by all means it is fair game. But if your sole intent is to play the gotcha game, you're not hurting the candidate, but your reputation.

Oh, and by the way... that school board candidate? He won in a landslide.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Homework assignment part three: Be a better writer

I used to work with a 6pm producer who was very good at her job. But when it came to asking for extra time, she often took a hard line. One time I told her my package ran 1:30 when it actually ran 1:32 and I heard about it the next day. "Tatano, if your package is one second over, I swear I'm gonna rip your throat out!" (I think I was five seconds under that day.)

Which brings us to today's lesson, editing your own copy. Very often you run into a package that just cries out for more time since you have so much information, but because of time constraints you just can't get everything in. At times like these every single word counts, and if you can get the little stuff out of your package without changing the meaning, you can save those precious seconds for the good stuff.

And if you're a producer, this can help you when you're really tight on time as well.

Lets start with something simple as we re-write this sentence and save a few seconds...

"The bailout bill is still working its way through Congress as members of both the House and Senate are trying to revise the bill."

OK, while that sentence is fine, let's shorten it without changing the meaning....

"Right now Congress is working on revisions to the bailout bill."

That was an easy example. We saved three or four seconds and said the same thing. Do that with every sentence and things will really add up.

Let's try something a little different...

"You can expect airlines to impose even more fees as we head toward the holiday season, as high fuel costs continue to be a hardship. Many carriers are already charging fifteen dollars to check one bag and even more to check a second bag. And if your bags are too heavy, you could be slapped with another hefty fee at the gate."

We're really going to whittle this one down. Remember, every single word that isn't necessary must go...

"Expect more fees when flying during the holidays. Fuel costs are forcing carriers to charge for checked baggage and impose fees on overweight luggage."

Once again, same meaning, lots of time saved. And we've combined the information on checked bags and overweight luggage into one sentence.

If you really want to work on this, print out your scripts from the last few days, take a red pen, and get rid of all the words you don't really need. Then re-write your copy so that it's tight and to the point.

Eventually this will become second nature, and you'll be able to get more information into your copy while saving time.

Wednesday's story ideas

As Mayor Bloomberg tries to circumvent the term limit law in New York, it makes you wonder what are the various term limits in your market.

Senate plans to vote on the rejected House bailout bill. Explain how bills become law as they work their way through Congress.

In areas that have early voting, has ad revenue picked up for newspapers, radio & TV already?

"Country of origin" labeling has arrived or is coming soon to a supermarket near you so that consumers can see exactly where heir food comes from.

Flu shot season is here. Will we run out again? Vaccinate against the wrong strain? There seems to be a snafu every year.

California will require fast food restaurants to list calories on their menus. Most

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mailbag: Accidents are ruining my career

Grape,

I'm in my first job and I was hoping to learn a lot, but unfortunately our News Director loves car wrecks. We often lead our newscast with a wreck, and I often have to package these.

What is your take on this? Why do so many stations do this, and how will I ever get a good tape in this place?

-Calling 911

Dear 911,

To answer the first part of your question, stations chase car wrecks, fires and crimes because it is easy. You turn on the scanner, follow the cops or firemen, and let them get the information for you. Some managers will argue that the viewers like this stuff, but the viewers are of the lowest common denominator. The abundance of crime stories, in my opinion, is a major contributing factor to the decline in local news viewership. Most of these stories affect no one. People die everyday... why is dying in a car wreck news worthy while falling down a flight of stairs not?

Years ago, before cell phones, it was easy to avoid these things. When you heard, "Base to any available unit" on the two-way radio, there would often be dead silence. No one would respond because no one wanted to cover this garbage.

Anyway, for the more pressing part of your question, you'll have to come up with enterprise ideas that are so good the ND cannot resist them. And finding stories off the beaten path (so you can't get pulled off your story for a wreck) is another good idea.

I've actually had a few clients who simply shot stories on their days off because they couldn't get away from the scanner nut on the assignment desk.


Grapevine,

Should I spend money on a fancy paper resume, or does it not even matter?

-Katie

Katie,

Well, as long as everything is neatly arranged on your resume with no typos, plain white paper is fine. Keep your resume to one page if you can, and include a separate sheet with three references (with phone numbers that actually work.)

Pictures, colored paper, wild designs and other embellishments are a waste of time and money.


Hey Grape,

I imagine you've covered a lot of politics in your day. Is there anything that is a constant?

-J.K.

Dear J.K.,

Yeah. Democrats throw the best parties and Republicans serve the best food.

Tuesday's story ideas

Safe money. Where is your money safest, and what are the limits on things like FDIC insurance?

How did your member of Congress vote yesterday and why?

Gas crisis in certain cities. How does the supply system in your market work?

What does it actually take to get a mortgage these days? How large of a down payment do you need?

Leg injuries are more common in the fall, as autumn sports get underway.

New York judge tosses lawsuit that claims "ladies night" in bars discriminates against men.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dream Killers

If you went for a medical checkup and the doctor told you you were going to die, what would you do? For most of us it would be a no-brainer. Get a second opinion.

So why do so many young people in this business listen to one opinion and take it as gospel?

I do quite a few tape critiques of young people in my mentoring business. On many occasions I get a tape that I really like, and write a glowing critique. And about half the time I get this reaction:

"Really?"

So many of you remind me of Sally Field when she won the Academy Award and said, "You like me, you really like me!"

And that brings us to today's topic, people I call "Dream Killers."

Dream Killers are everywhere. Most are found in newsrooms, but you'll run into them on college campuses and at conventions. The scenario is the same: you ask someone to look at your goodie reel and are told that you're hopeless, that you need to find another line of work, that you are wasting your time in this business. Or someone (usually a News Director) just offers that opinion without being asked. You slink away embarrassed that you even thought you could make it in television news, that you spent four years in college studying something that you won't be able to do. That a dream to spend your life doing something you love has been hopelessly shattered.

All because one person offered an opinion.

As reporters you are trained to get two sides of every story... so why do you accept just one when it comes to your career?

So let's look at the psychology of the Dream Killer. Many of these people actually get their natural highs from taking people down. Maybe they never made it as a reporter and can't stand to see someone else succeed. Maybe they have lousy home lives and take those feelings to work. Maybe they're just plain mean. Some can't stomach people who are smarter and more talented.

Doesn't matter.

Only you can take away your own dream. To listen to one person's opinion, especially when that opinion is purely negative, just doesn't make sense.

There's a difference between constructive criticism and a negative opinion. There's a difference between saying, "Your standups are awful" and, "You need a little more energy in your standups... walk a little faster." The former teaches you nothing, the latter helps you build a skill.

I've had to critique some tapes that were truly awful. I remember one in particular that belonged to a recent graduate. The tape was a mess; bad packages, horrible editing, standups that could have been done by a mannequin. The young lady's hair and clothes were a disaster. But under all that was some solid writing. And peering out of the mannequin was a pair of eyes that had some definite spark. And I could hear something intangible over the phone: passion.

In that case, I had to take her back to Broadcast Journalism 101 and teach package construction. One trip to the salon fixed the bad hair. One shopping trip took care of the wardrobe. The client worked hard, following the dream, eventually coming up with a tape good enough to get her foot in the door of a small market. Three years later this reporter is working in a good market. You wouldn't even recognize her from her original tape.

On the other side of the coin are the tapes that just blow me away. Tapes that show pure talent and potential. And very often they belong to people who have been beaten down by News Directors or opinions of "experts" who have given out free advice. Their dreams have been chipped and battered. They have lost confidence in their ability, all because of a comment from a Dream Killer.

Over the years I've seen hundreds of interns wander through stations. I am often surprised at the people who seemed clueless at the time, then eventually carved out great careers. People change a lot in their 20's... give yourself time to grow and learn. But learn from the constructive comments; throw the mean ones away. Hard to do, I know, as a cruel comment can cut right to the bone. But you guys are news people, you're tough.

Look, some of you reading this may never catch the brass ring. Some of you may reach your ultimate goal. The point is that we all enter this business with passion and a dream. No one, regardless of experience or standing, can take those away from you.

I once got a fortune cookie that read, "Without dreams you have no future." Think of that the next time someone tells you to give up.

Then don't.

Monday's story ideas

What does the congressional bailout bill mean to the homeowner? Find someone facing foreclosure.

Supermarkets are taking steps to keep their carts more germ free.

Some cruise lines are increasing the amount of shorter cruises available. Are travelers seeking shorter vacations, or just wanting to save money?

Raw diets. Is eating everything uncooked healthy? And what does cooking actually do to some foods?

Fall planting. As more and more people turn to gardens, what are some things that grow well in cool weather?

Bottom fishing. How do you find real estate at rock bottom prices? And what will the bailout do to the market? Will we see properties for pennies on the dollar?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

So long, Shea Stadium

Sometimes, it's the little things that make your stories special. Too often, reporters spend too much time looking at the big picture and not enough at the small details. Funny, when you look back, it always seems to be the little things that people remember.

Today, depending on how the Mets do, may be the last game ever played at Shea Stadium in New York. It is hard to believe it has been 44 years since my dad first took me to the park when it opened in conjunction with the 1964 World's Fair. Shea is the site of my best childhood memories. I got together with some old high school buddies this summer, and it brought back memories of the numerous times we'd spent in the upper deck at Shea. Back then you could go to a game for $1.30 (yes, one dollar and thirty cents) and bring a picnic basket. Or could could get a free ticket for ten coupons you clipped off milk cartons.

A few games have been burned into my brain, and apparently I was not alone. We went to a 14 inning game in 1969 in which Juan Marichal pitched the entire game for the Giants only to lose. Twenty years later I ran into Mets outfielder Cleon Jones, mentioned that game, and he recapped the entire thing for me, down to the smallest detail.

The Jets used to play at Shea in their early days, and I saw Kenny Stabler bring the Raiders back with 28 points in the fourth quarter. Years later I met the Snake, and he too was able to recap the game as if it had happened the day before. Down to the smallest detail.

In both cases these two sports guys told such rich stories, not just hitting the high points, but using every tiny detail to bring the story alive.

Shea Stadium has many such memories for me, all rich in details. I remember how my dad taught me to bribe the ticket seller with a folded up dollar bill so that we'd get better seats. I remember how the salted in the shell peanuts tasted, and how ice cream used to come in a wax cup. Ah, Breyers at the ballpark. We would peel the lids off the cups and try to scale them, like tiny frisbees, onto the field. If you could actually get one on the field and interrupt the game, the crowd would cheer. One night we were in the upper deck and my buddy Frank scaled his lid, only to have a gust of wind take it and plant it on the shoulder of a very scary looking man, who then peeled it off with disgust as he watched chocolate and vanilla ice cream run down his leather jacket. He then turned around, glared at us, and walked toward us only to sit behind us the rest of the game. Of all the classic sports moments I'd seen at Shea, Frank's lid incident ranks as my number one memory.

OK, I'm getting nostalgic here, but I want you to keep an eye out for those little things that make a story special. Sometimes they're lurking in the background, sometimes you have to dig for them. But keep your eyes open and prove that you don't miss a thing when telling a story. Every story has its main theme, but it is the little things, the bells and whistles, that make it different.

That bring a story alive.