Anchoring Breaking News

When it “hits the fan”, the anchors backside hits the chair.  If you made the transition to the studio desk from a field reporter, you already have many of the skills you need to handle breaking news.  If not, there are some basic things you can do to make you shine in that anchor hot seat.

Before I get into the specifics, there is one main job you have when there is a news crisis. You must be a newsroom leader.  Even before hitting the air, you must remain calm, stay focused and personally organized.  The producers and others in the newsroom will be looking to you to set the tone.  Your actions and demeanor will give the entire organization confidence at this time of professional chaos.

TAKE INVENTORY           

Make your way to the set or the flash cam, but always make a quick stop at the assignment desk to thank them in advance for keep you “in the loop”.   Make a list of what you know and what video or live pictures you have.  But, also make a list of what the desk is working to get you.  Tell them the best way to get you information.

BE A VIEWER

When you first go on the air you will have very little information and you must immediately set the scene.  Many times all you will have is the video from a helicopter or live truck.  The viewers are seeing what you are seeing and they have questions about what they are seeing.  Where is that? What’s that corner? Why are those cars’s there?  Who are those people?  How far is it from a mall, school, government building?  Be curious along with your viewers. It will give you something to talk about with the viewers until more information becomes available.

WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

Telling the viewers what you DON”T know is an important tool when you are ad-libbing breaking news.  The viewers need assurance that you understand they need certain information and that you and the news team are working on getting it.  Tell them that you have calls into officials.  Tell them you have a reporter on the way to get that part of the story and let them know you what you don’t know to reassure them that as soon as you DO know they will get it from you and your station.

BE A FRIEND

Depending on the nature of the breaking news, you may need to look into the camera and just be a friend to the viewer.  During the Northridge earthquake here in Southern California, all of the anchors had to repeatedly endure aftershocks while on the air.  The viewers were feeling the same aftershocks and their favorite TV news anchor helped many get through those frightening moments.  So, whether it’s a school shooting, or major fire, or plane crash or some natural disaster, remember that the viewers are tuning you in for comfort and information.

BECOME A TEAM

This sounds simple, but it is the most difficult thing you will have to do.  Sharing the duties with your co-anchor during breaking news is tougher than winning Dancing with the Stars!  The best way to make the most of your teamwork is the listen.  Listen to what your co-anchor is saying even though the producer may be talking to you in your ear.  Another tip is to become a producer on the set.  Constantly work out with your partner who will talk first, who will do the re-cap, who throws to the next live shot.  If you wait for the booth to do it, your coverage will lose its edge.

All of this brings us back to the first point I made.  As anchors, the entire team looks to you for leadership during chaotic news situations.  Big market or small market, the anchor is the primary reporter during breaking stories. When it “hits the fan” don’t duck or run or sit back and wait for others to lead. Earn your anchor dollars and respect and win during breaking news.

 

PRODUCER MAGIC!

I am not a producer. I am an anchor/reporter, but I believe producers possess a magic potion, a wizard-like power to create a powerful, positive newsroom culture. Recently, I completed a story by wrapping a live intro and tag around a package. I was out at a local high school and it was a hot day. The story was nothing special, but I thought I did a good job and had a unique angle. I was satisfied.  As soon as I tagged the live story and before I could put the microphone down, the producer said in my ear, “great story Ross, thanks for the effort”.     I smiled, put down the microphone and felt good.  You might think this kind of simple compliment is common. Unfortunately it is not. But, it is magic!  Producing a newscast must be a tremendously tough and pressure-filled job, but most good producers know that part of that job is managing people.   The small, simple compliment given to me by the producer that day made me want to do anything for her and the rest of the news team.    So, from someone on the outside to those on the inside, realize that a simple positive word or compliment is a powerful management tool.

As your day in front of that computer develops, pay attention to crews or reporters who are doing a particularly difficult story or one that you know is taking a lot of energy or time.  They will deserve your kind words and you can turn a frustrating day into a positive one.     BE A MANAGER In the field, reporters manage their crews. They compliment them, organize them, buy them a soda or anything to try to build a team feeling.  Producers need to do that too.  There are times when you thought you had a great program and it aired flawlessly and no one said a word.  Be the kind of manager who knows the power of the compliment.  Make it part of your morning preparations to decide which field team you will pay attention to that day and give them encouragement   Good managers motivate, and so do good producers.  BE SINCERE  Don’t just pay lip service.   Word will get around if you are just going through the motions.   There is no reason to compliment a field team that let you down or came up short.   But, if there is some one thing that is good, like a particular shot or interview or interview question, point it out and tell the reporter or photographer they “hit a home run” with that  one.   BE RESOURCEFUL  If you are too busy during the newscast, send a note.   Email or “top-line” it does not matter, but it will let the field teams know you appreciate their work and when you ask for more the next day chances are you will get it.   The same goes for the team at the assignment desk or graphics.  Jot a kind word on a sticky note and let them find it on their computer.  If you are reading this and find yourself thinking this is just common sense, you are right!  If you find yourself saying, I don’t have time to baby-sit the whinny reporters and photographers in the field, then you are also sometimes right.   Of course, they are whinny babies, but it’s in your power to change that.   I call it producer magic.    By the way, when I returned to the station I went over the producer and thanked her for the compliment. I told her it meant a lot to me. She smiled. It works.

 

 

Choosing the Right Words

Water is one of the most powerful elements on earth.   When it is out of control it is destructive.   When it is harnessed and focused it is energy that can be used for many good things. It can clean, generate electricity and even create art.  But without focus or purpose water is also wasted.  If words are the flowing water and our power in the TV news writing game, then we can learn something from letting this power flow out of control.  We can learn what not to do.

Every hour during newscasts around the country, cable news outlets and on tabloid shows, we hear words used like they are water rushing over the banks of a creek swallowing buildings and landscape. Words, such as, shock, disaster, terror, tragic, frightening, nightmare, heart breaking are rushing past us. Sometimes the words are washing by so quickly, in such great quantities, that the emotions they are supposed to touch can’t keep up.   Learning to use fewer of these powerful words channeled or focused in a targeted way will help our viewers really get a sense of the emotion we are trying to convey.

Decide what one emotional aspect of your story is most important and most accurate. If it’s the story of a gang shooting in a neighborhood known for violence, chances are those in the neighborhood are not generally “shocked” or “surprised” by it.   Of course it’s a tragedy, it is anytime someone dies, but what is it about this shooting that will illicit a true story-telling emotion or aspect. Violence in traditionally violent neighborhoods is always “heartbreaking” to those who live there and sometimes those who don’t. Many are working to stop the violence and more of it means frustration.   Know your story, your viewers and decide what is the best way to tell it.   So rather than “another tragic shooting” it is “a frustrating story of more violence in a neighborhood trying to save itself from more heartbreak”.

Don’t Flood the Story

There are some writers and reporters who believe the more “buzzwords” they can weave into a 30 second voice over or an anchor lead-in the more the viewer will feel the urgency and importance of the story.   Just the opposite is generally true. One powerful and targeted word used to describe the emotional effect of the story will do more to grab the viewer.   One powerful word along with good storytelling will allow the viewer to be drawn in.   If we begin throwing several of these “buzzwords” into the copy, the viewer will be forced to duck instead of sliding to the edge of the chair and focusing in on your story.

The Inverted Emotional Pyramid

Grab the viewer’s heart and soul and their minds will follow. Good writers have always known this, but too many try too hard and sacrifice the story. Look for the emotional aspect of the story and exploit it. Every story has one, even the story of a new ordinance being considered by the city council. Will it change a historic neighborhood? If so, begin your story with the story of a woman who is facing saying goodbye to the memories of the place where she grew up. Look for universal emotional themes and put those at the beginning of your story. But pick only ONE and use the right word to describe that emotion.  So turn on your newsroom computer and get ready to tune the nozzle on your water hose of powerful words.   It should not be an emotional rushing river flooding the viewer and drowning them with emotion.   Instead, it should be a focused stream of water pointed at the target.

Don’t create a flood.  Don’t make the viewer hold their breath. One well-placed and focused word can do the job and you can save a few of those powerful words for the next story.