Six tips from prize winning journalists

When people carp about the quality of local TV news–and they often do–my standard reply is that  there’s still great journalism being done out there. You just have to know where to look.

The Sigma Delta Chi awards from SPJ are a good place to start. The latest edition of Quill lists all the 2008 winners and shares many of the stories behind their stories. The honorees come from markets and news organizations of all sizes, from Anchorage to Memphis, but they all share a commitment to producing solid journalism under often difficult circumstances.

A few lessons worth sharing:

Overcome obstacles. Sometimes roadblocks that make your job harder can make your story better. Reporter Laurie Davidson of Bay News 9 in Tampa couldn’t get to the scene of a tanker truck accident but that didn’t stop her from reporting on her own experience:

It is absolutely a traffic nightmare out here…We have been stuck in traffic ourselves for more than an hour, so it’s very difficult to get anywhere in this area of Manatee County right now.

Treasure teamwork. WBIR-TV photojournalist Gerry Owens credits “a real team effort–several people working to get the different elements we needed to tell a compelling story” about a dike collapse at  a coal-burning power plant.

Be persistent. WREG-TV investigative reporter Keli Rabon “kept digging until she uncovered the documentation and the inside witnesses to get to the truth” of a charity scam. Rabon called the series of reports “an everyday reminder that the work we do is not just something to fill a newscast.”

It’s work that impacts someone’s life, their well-being, the decisions they make, and their families. It has made me appreciate the potential impact a story can have, because the words and pictures are so much more than ‘a story.’

Follow leads. Brian Conybeare of News 12 Westchester uncovered corruption at a New York casino. He says he “learned to listen to my sources no matter how far-fetched their allegations may sound.”

Trust your sources, follow the leads, verify everything, and you never know what may happen.

Cultivate sources. KTUU-TV’s Jason Moore and Scott Jensen told the story of a young boy’s agonizing wait for a heart transplant. Says Moore:

The most difficult, and most important, aspect is the relationship cultivated between the family and the journalist. While it’s important to keep a certain emotional distance from the subject, in this case I couldn’t help but become close to the family as it endured this struggle. Because of that relationship, we gained the access necessary to tell the story, and I think it provided an extra emotional connection that came through in the interviews.

Make a commitment. When Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens went on trial in Washington, Anchorage station KTUU sent reporter Jill Burke and photojournalist Carolyn hall to DC to cover it. The station felt the story was too important to local viewers not to assign a hometown crew. The team spent a month on the story, producing more than 35 live shots and 78 stories. Burke says it was a huge logistical challenge but well worth the effort.

This is the kind of in-the-trenches journalism that we feel the public deserves. It’s our job to be there when they can’t be, to be their eyes and ears and to contribute to their understanding of people and events to the best of our capability.”

Absolutely right.


How reporting has changed

Tools that most journalists take for granted can pay off for their news organizations on stories big and small.  Dave Schultz, assistant editor of the the Bluffton (Indiana) News-Banner, was reminded of that last Thursday when he got an email tip that a local retired teacher had been on national TV.

Schultz first went online to confirm the story: sure enough, a woman from Bluffton (population 28,000) had indeed been one of two people chosen at random for that morning’s Today Show “Ambush Makeover.” After watching the NBC video online, Schultz asked reporter Jerry Battiste to help him contact the woman and her husband.

Battiste naturally turned to social media to try to find them.  Here’s his Twitter post:

We are searching for Dan and Karen York, Bluffton. She was on the Today Show this a.m. getting a makeover…how cool for her! need a cell #

As Schultz tells the story in a recent column, it only took about 20 minutes for someone to provide the number he needed and he was able to reach the couple in New York via cell phone.

So let’s review: an e-mail, a Web site visit, the viewing of an online video (which we posted on our “On The Beat” blog on our Web site), the use of social media (Facebook and Twitter) as a way to get information, a response, and a cell phone call…Would any of these things have been available to us in 1989? Not at all. Not an e-mail. Not a Web site visit. Not Facebook or Twitter. Not a cell phone call.

Okay, so the story itself wasn’t that big a deal. But Schultz says he stands amazed at how quickly they were able to confirm, report and file an online exclusive.

Lessons from the movies

There are some universal truths about good journalism: It’s hard work and it’s vitally important in a democratic society.  But it also can be hard to pigeonhole what it takes to produce good journalism, and that’s not a recent development.

Frost/Nixon, the fictional retelling of David Frost’s 1977 interviews with ex-President Richard Nixon, brought all of these issues up for me. While the film doesn’t pretend to be a documentary, it does reflect some of these truths.

Here are a few of the things that struck me:

Interviews take preparation. Lots of it. The movie suggests that Frost didn’t get serious about preparing until just before his final encounter with Nixon. That’s apparently not historically accurate. The team of researchers Frost hired worked tirelessly to dig up new information and rehearsed strategies for dealing with what they expected Nixon to say.

Good journalism can come from all kinds of sources. Frost wasn’t a journalist and didn’t work for a news organization. He was a well-educated talk show host who put up his own money to produce the Nixon interviews independently. “Serious” journalists thought of him as a lightweight, an attitude that comes through pretty clearly in this piece about the interviews that Mike Wallace did for 60 Minutes.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Journalism plays a key role in holding the powerful accountable. The only time Nixon ever came close to admitting his mistakes in office and apologizing to the American people for Watergate was during the interviews with Frost.

A couple of other points: There’s no denying that Frost engaged in “checkbook journalism.” He paid Nixon $600,000 for his time. Would the networks have paid to get Nixon on the record? The movie suggests that CBS was ready to part with $350,000 but Frost outbid them.

Finally, the movie reminded me of how much times really have changed in TV news. The film opens with a montage of 1970s network news footage–reports on the Watergate break-in, Nixon’s resignation, and Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon his predecessor. All of the reporters and anchors were male and white. And when NBC covered Nixon’s 9 a.m. departure from the White House live, Today Show host Tom Brokaw was on the air.  The era of the big-foot anchor was yet to come.

Frost/Nixon isn’t the only current film with lessons for journalists. State of Play, which I haven’t seen yet, makes a strong case for the importance of investigative journalism, according to Gina Chen of  Save the Media.

I won’t advocate some of the “reporting” methods used in the movie that were over the top in my mind. But I do applaud the movie’s depiction of journalists as skeptical, tenacious, and not easily duped. That’s a good lesson for bloggers, journalists — anyone trying to spread information in our evolving media world.

Either or both of these movies would be good discussion fodder for any journalism class.

Sam Donaldson memories

After 41 years at ABC News, Sam Donaldson retired last week. I had the pleasure of competing against him during the 1980s when we both covered the Reagan White House.  I shared the CBS News booth with Lesley Stahl and Bill Plante. Sam was next door with Ann Compton and Brit Hume.

Sam may be remembered best for shouting questions at President Reagan, which many people thought was rude. The truth is, we all did it. Sam just had the loudest voice. And we had to shout for a couple of reasons.

First, Ronald Reagan held so few news conferences that the only chance we really had to question him was as he came or went from the White House and outside events. But he often didn’t want to talk, so the staff would make sure that Marine One, the Presidential helicopter, kept its engines running while parked.

That meant it was noisy on the South Lawn, so the only way to get Mr. Reagan’s attention was to yell at the top of our lungs. Didn’t always work, of course. He’d cup his ear as if he couldn’t hear us and just keep walking. When Sam yelled, we knew for sure the President was just faking deafness. Tourists waiting in line outside the White House could probably hear Sam just fine.

Sam was also a master at asking simple questions that often produced the most revealing answers. I vividly remember this exchange at a Reagan news conference in 1983, at a time when Congress was debating whether to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national holiday:

Sam Donaldson: Mr. President, Senator Helms has been saying on the Senate floor that Martin Luther King, Jr., had Communist associations, was a Communist sympathizer. Do you agree?

Ronald Reagan: We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we? No, I don’t fault Senator Helms’ sincerity with regard to wanting the records opened up. I think that he’s motivated by a feeling that if we’re going to have a national holiday named for any American, when it’s only been named for one American in all our history up until this time, that he feels we should know everything there is to know about an individual.

Sam’s career had lots of memorable moments. ABC has a video retrospective. And then there’s this memorable interview from the end of the 2008 campaign:

Here’s something else you need to know about Sam. He’s a big-hearted soul who’s fun to be around. Yes, we were competitors and nobody was more determined to beat the other guy than Sam. But he could also be compassionate and  generous. He’s one of a kind.

The Web changes crime & coverage

Crime reporting is a staple of local news, so it’s important for journalists to provide context for their stories. At the 4th Annual Guggenheim Conference on Crime in Society, dozens of criminal justice reporters, criminologists and representatives of law enforcement gathered to talk about new research, policies and trends affecting criminal justice and the coverage of the system.

In a session on the impact of the Web in this arena, Doug Salane from the Center on  Cybercrime Studies at John College of Criminal Justice said that he continues to see more traditional crimes moving into the online world as computers and the Internet make things easier for criminals.

“For example, the “pump and dump” scheme to artificially raise the price of a stock – a botnet can send millions of emails about a stock for a very low price,” Salane said. Those emails encourage investors to buy a stock, which would pump up the price and allow the criminal to dump his own stock for big profit.

He also talked about a change in the way journalists need to look at hacking. “Hacking was individuals in the past, trying to prove something. Hacking is now more of an organized activity, largely emanating from outside the U.S., which makes it much harder to address, and the motive for most hacking is now profit.”

Salane discussed “carding sites” – Web sites, often based in Asia, that will sell all sorts of information about individuals for 80-cents an identity.

“This underground economy is growing at an alarming rate,” Salane said.

So, how does a journalist keep up with this growing form of crime? Salane points to the Internet Security Threat Report, which tracks the latest in Internet-based crimes.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics tracks identity theft, in particular, and will be issuing a new report in the fall of 2009.

Should journalists be armed?

The question, posted on the international journalists’ network IJNet, drew me up short. Wouldn’t carrying a weapon jeopardize a journalist’s neutral status? Couldn’t it put them more at risk, especially in a war zone where a gun could make them appear to be combatants? So why even ask the question?  Here’s why:

Following the recent fatal shooting of Russian reporter Anastasia Baburova, who worked for Russia’s liberal opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the paper’s management announced last week it had appealed to Russian authorities to allow its journalists to carry weapons.

News organizations in Mexico and Iraq have made similar requests recently, but it’s not a new issue. This AJR report a few years ago looked at threats against journalists in the Philippines.

So should some journalists, in some situations, be armed?  No, says Ron Steinman, former NBC bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Wearing a gun, he says, does not protect you from harm, it causes harm.

When reporters carry a weapon, forget the argument of how the subject of your story looks at you when they see you armed. It changes how you cover news. Reporters never want to be part of the story. When you carry you have become a different person.

Sounds about right to me. What about you?

In defense of TV reporters

You know the public image of TV news reporters, right?  They’re unethical, lazy and overpaid. Not.

In this brilliant blog post, former Atlanta TV reporter Doug Richards  debunks  those myths, and several more–like this one:

They can tell you what’s really going on. Well, yes.  But chances are they’ve put almost everything they know into a story already.

It always amazed me, when I was reporting for CBS and CNN, how many people thought I knew much more than I was telling them on the air.  Of course there were times when I got stuff off the record, but my goal was always to find a way of confirming it so I could use it.   I heard this assumption a lot, too:

They have writers who tell them what to say. No.  They write it, which explains why some of it is so poorly written.

Ha! It also explains why one of my most requested workshop topics has always been “better broadcast writing.”

When news finds you

Sometimes, the most amazing stories just fall into your lap. NJ Burkett, a reporter at WABC-TV in New York, says a viewer phone call this week led him to this story about a trail of personal information found in the street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

I learned about the story when Burkett tweeted on Monday that he was on to something.

In newsvan now in Manhattan working on a maddening story about a real estate firm that apparently left its trash unsecured on the street…Now I’m calling people, “Hi, this is NJ Burkett. I found your name in the middle of Columbus Avenue along with your 401k statement…”

Wasn’t it risky to make that information public while still reporting the story?  Not really, says Burkett.

I didn’t put the name or address of the firm on Twitter because I know for a fact that several of my competitors (including at least one New York market news director) are following me.

He also held off on his Twitter post until the mess was largely cleaned up and “the exclusive was in the bag.”  By that time, he was setting up interviews with people whose names were on the documents found in the street. Or at least, he was trying. Burkett says many of the people he contacted thought he was a scam artist, pretending to be a reporter to talk them out of their personal information.

One of them was a doctor in Arizona, who finally agreed to be interviewed the next day. At that point, Burkett reached out to ABC’s Phoenix affiliate, KNXV.  He shared his video and script with reporter Tony Arranaga, who did the interview, sent it to New York, and then aired his own story.  More proof that it pays to listen when viewers call.

Confrontational interviews

Investigative reporters often have to interview people who don’t really want to talk.  In a courtroom, they might be described as hostile witnesses. For journalists, especially in television, these kinds of interviews require a lot of preparation or choreography, as my former CNN colleague Mark Feldstein puts it.

The dirty little secret of TV muckraking is that, all posturing to the contrary, interviewing is not really about getting a target’s side of the story; it’s about convicting him in the court of public opinion. Mainstream news reporters may cling to the fiction of objectivity, but hardened investigative reporters suffer no such delusions.

Writing in American Journalism Review and using the new movie Frost/Nixon as a jumping off point, Feldstein offers a “how-to” primer for confrontational interviews that includes these suggestions:

  • Take charge immediately – [By] interrupting self-serving filibusters and carefully avoiding pleasantries that might weaken the necessary resolve to go for the jugular.
  • Go for the tight shot – Arrange in advance to have the videographer zoom in slowly on the interviewee’s face when the exchange grows heated. This cinematic effect visually reinforces the editorial goal of zeroing in on the quarry.
  • Use props – As every good trial lawyer knows, such tangible exhibits – video, photos, documents – not only help buttress a cross-examination but also add theatrical flair.
  • Set up targets to lie – You can’t force them to do so, of course, but it is always better to give them the opportunity to tell a falsehood on-camera before (not after) you pull out the smoking-gun memo that proves their culpability. A single lie captured on-camera shakes the edifice of everything else they say afterwards.
  • Always keep one camera rolling no matter what – That way, if your subject rips off his microphone or storms out of the room, you have footage of his defensive tantrum. Also, interviewees may blurt out embarrassing comments during a lull when they think they are not being recorded.

Are any of these tactics unfair?  Not at all, Feldstein says.  “No more so than the carefully coached evasions, posturing, pontificating, stonewalling and outright lying that your target has perfected over a lifetime.”

A successful reporter’s approach

He’s won three Pulitzer prizes, writes a regular column for the New York Times, and his non-fiction books sell like crazy. Okay, so Tom Friedman isn’t your average reporter, but a profile in the New Yorker magazine offers some insight into what makes him so successful.

First of all, he genuinely likes people.  Friedman tells writer Ian Parker, “I’m always amazed by the number of journalists who hate people.”  Because he likes being around people, it seems, they respond in kind.

He liked to conduct group interviews that put him in the role of seminar leader, and put his interviewees into an unconscious competition to deliver lines that would be rewarded by the sound of laptop keys being struck

Second, he gives to get.  Parker notes that Friedman tends to ask a question by offering “a prepared riff.”

He pitched ideas to people, and people pitched back. “Come empty, you leave empty,” Friedman said to me one evening. “Come with a point of view, and you could come back with something original.”

Finally, he works fast.  Parker writes that Friedman got the idea for his book, “The World is Flat,” during a conversation with Nanadan Nilkani, the head of the software computer company Infosys.  The book was published just over a year later.  Nilkani says what he learned from Friedman was speed.

I realized, when you have a story to tell you can’t dither over it for years and years—you’re going to be obsolete. That’s why I often refer to him as an intellectual entrepreneur: entrepreneurs succeed because they get a business idea and then they move faster than the rest, they bring the product to market. He does the same in an intellectual sense.

Friedman’s approach won’t suit everyone, of course, but that final piece of advice is more critical now than ever: Move faster than the rest.