Wednesday, February 09, 2005

TV News For Dummies - What Makes A Good Reporter?

For those of you who didn't see it in the comment section, Jonathan Ahl, News director at WCBU posted the following:
I've enjoyed your comments and critiques of some of the TV reporters in the
market, but I think there is one thing you have not addressed that is critical
to someone being a good reporter: general intelligence and an understanding of
the world around them.There are plenty of reporters that have "the look" and use
the latest techniques pushed by consultants, but they just do not understand
what it is they are reporting on.I can't tell you how many times I have seen a
story about a TIF District, business deal, or government process where it was so
obvious the reporter had no idea what they are talking about.Now it's no secret
I'm a public-radio-policy-wonk-government type, so let's take that out of the
equation.How many times have you seen a reporter in Peoria TV:-do a story about
a farm issue when it is clear they don't understand how corn or soybeans are
planted and harvested (or for that matter can tell you what happens to the crops
once they are taken out of the ground.)-reported on a criminal's arrest, and
have no real clue about what the charges mean, what an arraignment is, or how a
plea works. (Is it pleading not guilty or pleading innocent -- I've heard both
on TV in Peoria. Ugh!)-done a piece on some medical procedure and obviously not
had a clue about the nature of the disease, its effects, how it is diagnosed,
etc.My point is that so many reporters forget the fact that if you are going to
explain something to people, you have to understand it. REALLY understand it.
Not just lift some facts from the press release or the interview with the
"spokesperson" and rearrange them with a stand-up that has reporter involvement,
good hair, and "the look" that will get you to the next market.
All excellent points, to which I responded that I've thus far kept my thoughts on delivery and presentation separate from what I feel makes a good journalist.

I'll start with three basic things:

The first thing is curiosity about the world. If you don't wonder about how things work, why things are the way they are or want to find the answers to the world's questions big and small, this probably isn't for you.

Second is knowledge and understanding. To start, if you're a student, and you want to be a reporter, don't major in broadcasting or communications. You can learn all the presentation aspects in your internships and by minoring in one of those areas of study. Take journalism classes, but have a solid foundation. Major in history, political science, economics... whatever... something that will give you a good start into understanding how your world works.

Third is a commitment to fairness and accuracy. Working as a TV reporter, when done well, means so much more than (as Jonathan mentioned) the right look and the latest techniques. It is about taking sometimes complex issues, making them easy for viewers to understand and putting the facts of the story into meaningful context.

There is of course much more than this, but I think the point Jonathan is trying to get at is that people depend on reporters for reliable information and without a solid foundation and deep understanding of the issues the audience, in many cases, is being cheated.

To all this I will say as TV news goes, there needs to be a good balance between the journalism and the presentation. The fact is Jonathan speaks the God's honest truth in his post. It is also the truth that a solid journalist who looks uncomfortable and stumbles through stories with a bad voice won't make it in this part of the business.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see television people demanding more than a "good look" when it comes to reporting. When I was a newspaper reporter in a market like Peoria, I stopped asking questions at news conferences unless I needed affirmation of a story already written, or if I needed some public set up for a story I was working, or if it was my one and only shot at a newsmaker. The TV guys always went with the talking head rather than the real story. Meanwhile, I would quietly work my story out of sight and out of camera range, because I knew the TV guys would never do the legwork. When my stories hit the afternoon paper, the TV guys had to play catch up before the evening news. I loved doing that.

One TV news director called one day complaining about my sandbagging news conference and I said I refused to do the work for his reporters. After some heated, but friendly conversation, he finally agreed that his reporters weren't working their stories very hard. But rather than lay done and do nothing, he forced his staff to work harder. As a result the competition for stories got better, and the public got the benefit of some healthy news competition. His station became the leader in the market because they provided more and better news information, not just "if it bleeds, it leads" news. (They still didn't have the credibility of the newspaper, however.) We became good friends after that and he started inviting me back on his Sunday morning public affairs shows that nobody watches. I'm not sure if that was to reward me, or punish me.

Anonymous said...

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