Friday, December 11, 2009

What Tiger Woods, politicians, and people in the public eye don't understand about the media

Every kid has a Christmas memory like this. Parent puts present under tree, tells kid not to shake it, "or you'll know what it is." Statement drives kid nuts till Christmas. Kid focuses on that particular present, and it's the first one opened on Christmas morning.

You see, when you're told to ignore something, it just makes you that much more curious. It's human nature.

Combine that concept with a business populated by nosy people, and it takes the curiosity factor up exponentially.

So when someone says "no comment" or brushes you off or ducks out a back door, you know something's up. Because people with nothing to hide aren't afraid to talk with reporters.

I'm actually baffled by Tiger Woods bunker mentality, and the longer this goes on, the worse it gets. If I were his PR spin control guy, I would have told him to come out the day of the accident and say something like, "Hey, I got into an argument with my mother-in-law and just wanted to get out of the house to cool off. I was ticked off and pulled out of the driveway too fast. Guess I should have taken a walk."

And you know, most reporters probably would have bought it, considering the fact that the guy had nothing in his past to suggest what is now being reported.

Nothing kicks my reporter's internal radar up more than someone who won't give me a straight answer or provides no answer at all. Amazingly, people in the public eye haven't figured this out.

So here's what famous people need to realize when dealing with the media. And as reporters, this should be your creed.

I am a reporter.

If I ask you a question with respect, treat me with respect and give me an honest answer. In return, I'll treat you fairly and objectively. It's a two way street.

If you lie to me, I'll find out. Then I'll tell my audience you lied to me.

If you tell me there's nothing to the story, I'll know there is something really good out there, and I'll work harder to find it.

If you give me a "no comment" I'll only dig deeper until I find someone who will give me a comment, and you probably won't like it.

If you walk past me without saying anything, I'll only work harder to find the truth.

If you make yourself totally inaccessible I'll know something is up, and I'll pick you clean like a vulture.

Because I am a reporter.

It is my job to ask the questions the people want asked. To find the truth and present it without emotion or bias.

Trust me, nothing is more of a rush than playing Woodward & Bernstein and feeling your heart pound when you find the holy grail that is the truth.

If you're truly guilty, tell me now. Be honest with me and I'll respect you more for it.

And then I won't spend all day digging up something that could be even worse.


I can almost predict what will happen next, and so can most of you. And it will happen with every public figure caught cheating on his wife. The man in question (now playing the victim) will go on a talk show and spill his guts like the Pope is sitting in a confessional. We'll hear stories about sex addicts (previously known as "men") and see a wife doing the Tammy Wynette thing.

And we'll all know it's fake.

If only these people knew that by saying nothing, they're telling the media and the rest of the world a whole lot more.

When you get the runaround, a "no comment" or have an end run pulled on you, that's the time for you as a reporter to work harder. The harder they try to hide something, the more they have to hide.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The follow-up question: a dying art

Someone, and I don't remember who, once said, "There are those who listen and there are those who wait to speak."

That's a terrific way to describe husbands and an awful lot of reporters. Very often if you don't listen, you miss the opportunity for the best sound bite of the interview.

The problem with a lot of young reporters is that they head out to an interview with a list of questions. Then they'll sit down, ask question number one, and without even paying attention to what the interview subject is saying, get ready with question number two. So they end up missing really good stuff.

Example:

Reporter: "So what's your take on health care?"

Congressman: "Well, I'm in favor of it. At least the space alien who inhabits my body is."

Reporter: "Do you favor the public option?"

Okay, that's an extreme example of a reporter not paying attention, but this kind of stuff happens all the time, especially on some on the interview shows with young hosts. The Sunday morning hosts don't let this kind of stuff slip by, but during the
week it's pretty common on cable talk shows.

Look, if you've got your questions written down, they're not going anywhere. You can ask them any time. You don't have to pay attention to your note pad. Ask the question, and really listen to what is being said. Very often you might pick something up that's very subtle, but it can take your interview in a different direction and give you a big story.

And when the person being interviewed stops talking, you don't have to start. Remember that great tip given to me by a network anchor about interviewing politicians; they love the sound of their own voices and can't stand dead air. If you just sit there and say nothing after their stock answer, they'll keep talking, and very often say something worthwhile.

It's okay to write down your questions and if you don't it's always a good idea to have an idea of what you're going to ask before you head out to an interview. Just don't forget that the most important part of the interview is the answer, not your question.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Mailbag: Companies that are "meeting happy"

Grape,

It seems my ND is always in meetings or conference calls. Most of the time when he returns to the newsroom he has a pained look on his face. Can you give us an idea as to what happens during these affairs?


Well, if there's one thing I don't miss about management, its meetings. And if you work for a "meeting happy" company, you can waste a ton of time accomplishing absolutely nothing.

Meetings fall into two categories; department head meetings and conference calls, usually headed up by some corporate poobah who has never set foot in a newsroom but thinks he knows the business. Here's what happens in a nutshell.

-Department head meetings. Most stations do these every two weeks but some like to hold them weekly. So all the department heads gather in a conference room and brace themselves for a flogging. You generally go around the room and managers talk about what's going on in his or her department. Sales might talk about new clients, production might talk about the new weather set, etc. Sadly, news, with the biggest department, only has one representative (it aint exactly an electoral college) and the ND usually gets hit from all sides about what happened or what isn't happening. Other department heads (usually who know nothing about the news business either) always want to chime in about coverage. It's a tongue-biting exercise when someone like a traffic manager rips you over a story you aired. Most NDs dread these. I did work for one station in which the GM ran a positive meeting, and there was a healthy exchange of ideas, but those are rare.

-Conference calls. Oh, if these were video conference calls a whole bunch of managers would be fired because corporate could see us not paying attention. Many times these are run by a beancounter or corporate flack who wants to impose some new mandate on the group's news managers. So you dial in (and this part is really important) you hit the "mute" button on the phone so that the person running the meeting can't hear your real thoughts.

The people who participate in these calls fall into two categories; the brown nosing suck-ups, who feel the need to chime in every two minutes to pat the boss on the back and offer even more suggestions; and the "mute button" group that chimes in at least once to let the world know you're actually there. Members of the mute button group will have the speakerphone on while filling out paperwork, playing computer solitaire, or reading the sports page because more often that not the information being passed on is totally useless. But you still have to throw in a "yeah, great idea" every once in awhile to keep your job.

So if your ND is a blue meanie after one of these, now you know why.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The reverse interview

A few people have recently asked about interviews; specifically, what questions to ask when the ND invariably says, "So, do you have any questions for me?"

Most people get caught off guard by this, stammer and say, "Uh, no."

But this is not only a good way for you to get some good information, but show that you're interested in more than furthering your own career. It also shows you're a curious person, and considering we're in the business to dig up stuff, that's a good thing.

And, some questions might turn up a few red flags as well.

So, when you get this question, try some of these.

"How did you get into the business?" Ah, nothing gets a ND's ego going like talking about his own career. You'll get brownie points for this one. Don't forget to use the husband-tuning-out-wife-bobblehead as you listen to what may be a long and drawn out story.

"What's your news philosophy?" Always a good way to find out if you'll be doing real stories or chasing car wrecks.

"What is your feeling on one man bands?" These days, this is a critical question. You'll probably get a definite answer one way or the other. If you hear something like, "Well, you might have to pick up a camera once in a while, but I don't see that happening too often," that's a red flag. A statement like that is right up there with, "Elin, honey, I'm just going out with the guys to hit a bucket of balls."

"What happened to the person I'm replacing?" Always good to know if the person moved up the ladder, quit, or was pink slipped. If the answer is, "We can't discuss personnel matters," that's a red flag. It might not reflect badly on the ND, but you need to find out the answer.

"Do you give regular feedback?" The biggest complaint I hear from people is that they never hear anything from management unless it's bad. You always want a mentoring environment, even if you're experienced.

Remember, keep your end of the interview casual. Be a good conversationalist, be interested in what the ND has to say, and act like you want to be part of a team rather than just someone who is looking for a stepping stone.

Finally, do a little homework on the ND before your interview. Find out where the ND is from and where he's worked. Sometimes managers are on the way down, or move around as much as reporters do. If you've got a ND born in Florida who is working in South Dakota, you can bet there will be resumes going out of his office as well,