Journalist as punching bag

Today at work I covered the sentencing hearing of a man convicted in a particularly horrendous case of child molesting. The man kept his cool in court as the judge told him he would be spending the next 70 years in prison. He was quiet, simply burying his face in his hands. It wasn’t until he was out of the courtroom that he let out his anger. On me.

“Get the f***ing camera out of my f***ing face, b****!” He yelled, as I quietly followed him down the hall with my camera. In his defense, I’d probably be pretty annoyed if every time I entered a courtroom I had a camera with a bright light shoved in my face. But something tells me I wasn’t the one he really wanted to scream at.

What is it about us journalists that seems to make us hate magnets??

Lately, this has been happening a lot.

Last week, a Purdue student died in his apartment, found by his roommate. After attempting to talk to several students around his apartment building, I inadvertently found (with the help of my awesome videographer) the roommate, carrying some of his things to his car with his dad. After talking to them for a few minutes, he agreed to do an interview with us.

Imagine my surprise when, days later, a female student who I spoke with for all of 30 seconds sent a scathing email to the entire newsroom about how apparently “rude” and “disrespectful” we were. Our news crew was “one of the most disrespectful news crew I have ever experienced,” she wrote (Here is where the skeptic in me asks, “And how many news crews have you experienced in your life?”).

“Why would you ever think it was right to go to the roommate of someone who just passed away and conduct an interview (no question mark)…I hope you guys can rest well at night with your level of disrespect you have had to our campus and community of those close with [the student],” she said.

It’s moments like these that add insult to injury. I had to ask this student’s roommate, What was it like to come home, knowing you were about to find your friend dead on the couch? The thought that I would enjoy this, would want to discuss and rehash the death of someone barely a year younger than myself, would make me stay up at night.

I know that it’s not days like those that keep me pushing forward with this job. While sometimes tragedy makes for the best backdrop to a compelling story, I’d just as soon live in a world without it. But when it comes up, it is my job to tell that story. I’m just baffled as to what it is about my job that pushes people to find the cruelest part of them and lash out at me.

The harshest moment this week didn’t even directly affect me. Several weeks ago, local police shot a man several times after he stabbed an officer in the face (he later died). Yesterday (my day off), the police chief released the police dash cam video of the incident, along with the 9-1-1 call. In addition to a comparably tame email from the suspect’s brother, one of our producers had to respond to a long, raging phone call with the man’s sister, angry that we decided to air the video on our newscast and our web site.

“We’re his family!” she screamed. “Who are you? You’re no one!” Later, she threatened to come over here and “f*** somebody up.” Apparently when one of my co-workers reminded her that her brother stabbed a cop in the face, she said she didn’t give a f***ing sh** about the f***ing cop. Listening to a partial audio recording of the phone call, half of what this woman said was inaudible. It was impossible not to feel a tidal wave of rage, seemingly directed at us.

When I sit back and really analyze the events of this week, I’m starting to realize that these moments didn’t have much to do with us at all. But isn’t it always, always easier to shoot the messenger? If they didn’t have us (the media) to blame, they’d have to start asking the really heavy questions. Like why after suffering a lifetime of abuse am I now forced to spend the rest of my life in prison? Is it possible to love my brother and know he did a terrible thing? Why does a 23-year-old have to die? Why do any of us have to die? Faced with these questions, it might be easier to scream half-inaudible nonsense at a stranger over the phone, miles away…


The feedback dilemma

At the end of the work day today, I ran into my news director on my way out of the building.

“Nice live shots,” he said. “1400 coats, wow.” (I had been heading our station’s coverage of a Coats For Kids drive.)

It wasn’t until I was almost to my car that I realized I was smiling.

Now the reason for this was twofold. One: It was a rare moment, indeed. A genuine compliment, minus any thinly veiled criticism? I’ll take it. And two: It reminded me of this.

Just two days ago, I read Jill Geisler‘s article “5 ‘praise erasers’ reveal how bosses undermine positive feedback.” It was one of those moments where I sat in front of my computer, nodding like an idiot. “Yes, Jill! This is my LIFE!” Her opening paragraph just about sums it up:

“Who among you gets too much feedback at work? I’ve asked this question of groups time and again, always with the same result: No hands go up.”

In an all-staff news department meeting a couple of months ago, my boss (aforementioned news director) leaned casually against a desk and said, “I’d like to talk about morale. Where do we feel morale is around here?”

I was the only one who raised my hand.

I picked my words cautiously: “Now, I know this is easier said the done, because, after all, it is our job to find out what’s wrong in the world and talk about it…but a kind word really does go a long way.”

What's a dog gotta do to get a bone around here? (Courtesy: Victor Bezrukov,

He furrowed his brow and told us that from what he’s heard from other news directors, we’re not the only ones who aren’t being praised left and right.

In a separate meeting about the weekend shows, I brought up the same point.

“I think I do a pretty good job of that,” he said. “At the same time, I’m not going to give you guys cupcakes every time you do your job.”

Touche. But fair.

That’s what I loved about Geisler’s post. She points out the fact that not all feedback is created equal.

“Don’t erase your praise by the way in which you deliver it,” she says.

All the points she makes are great, but I think her last one is the easiest to fall prey to: “Praise with a big ‘but.'”

The last piece of feedback I remember receiving from my boss (before today) was in email form. “I liked your meth story today, especially the neighbour and the map,” he wrote. “But why no tag out for the 11?” Can you guess which part of this email I spent my time thinking about?

The bottom line is, feedback matters. I appreciated reading a post that pointed that out. But I’d be lying if I told you I hadn’t sort of given up expecting any sort of praise as long as I work in this industry.

Still, at the end of the day, it’s amazing how good a “Nice live shot” feels.

Is there such thing as a “home life”?

I take my work home with me every night.

I compulsively check my work email daily. Multiple times a day. That includes days off, mornings before work, and evenings when I get home.

When I meet a new work contact, and hand them my card, I usually say, “My cell phone number’s on there. Feel free to use it. I work weekends and I have my cell phone on me 24-7, so if I miss your call, I should get back with you shortly.”

I even dream about work. I can’t count the number of dreams I’ve had where I run out to anchor a show, only to find that I have wet hair and I’m not wearing any make-up, I forgot to produce the show until 10 minutes to air, and on top of it all the prompter’s not working. (Okay, that last part isn’t always necessarily a dream…)

So last week I created this:

I taped it up, just inside my front door, and (no joke!) I even placed a cardboard box on the floor under the arrow.

We work in an industry where we’re forced to not only read about, but rehash and regurgitate a number of issues that can weigh on the mind. I personally have reported on the rape of a 4-year-old girl, a drunk hit-and-run that killed a 14-year-old, a soldier returning home from Afghanistan missing a leg…the list goes on.

Within the past few weeks, a couple of my reporter friends posted on Facebook about the kind of days they were having–one reporting on the death of a young child, and the other on the murder of a pregnant woman. We’ve all been there. How do you leave that in a box when you come home?

A co-worker recently brought to my attention a Ball State University professor’s book that shows journalists suffer from Post Traumatic Stress and depression from covering traumatic events, just as first responders do:

“People may think that reporters are only out for a good story and don’t feel anything when they’re covering a tragedy,” Massé said. “The outdated newsroom view is that if you show any empathy, you aren’t a good reporter. That’s wrong because understanding what a victim is going through actually makes you a better reporter. And it makes you a better person.”

It may seem petty compared to some of the tragedy we cover, but with the high energy and big personalities in a television newsroom, conflict is never in short supply (or, let’s face it, gossip). So if you’re not stewing over a tough story, it’s hard not to replay an argument, coverage decision, or other high-energy newsroom moment when you get home.

I still remember, when I was just an intern at a central Illinois station, one of the most aggressive and go-getter reporters there said to me (and the videographer we were with), “You know, I’m starting to wonder if I want to live to work or work to live.” Two years later, she left the business.

Maybe that’s why so many people who start out in television don’t make it to “lifer” status. They want to work to live.

I would argue we can do both. Or at least, I’m hoping my hand-made sign will allow me to do so. Live to work, sure, while you’re working. Then come home, drop your worries in a box, and enjoy the simple pleasures life can offer. Your email can wait a few hours. (After all, if big news breaks, your manager will probably call your cell phone.)

Elizabeth Vargas can give cues too!

Just read this post from my daily digest of TVNewser. It’s titled, “Elizabeth Vargas: Anchor, Reporter, Field Producer,” and it focuses on a bit from GMA this morning where Elizabeth Vargas and Josh Elliott give us a “behind the scenes” look at how a national network gets an international live shot on the air. “These days it takes a camera, a backpack and a willing anchor-turned-field producer,” TVNewser writes.

So glad that Vargas was so “willing” to be on a telephone and give cues.

What struck me most as I watched the clip was the number of people in the photo taken in Italy. My counting skills may be a little off, but I counted “one, two, THREE” experienced, New York City-level network people. I understand that more is on the line at a network, and that they were reporting from the Amanda Knox trial in Italy. But if it were my station (or likely 99% of any local news stations across the U.S.), and I were in a situation where I had no direct line in my ear from the producers, my photographer would have had to somehow find a way to balance his camera in one hand, with a phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder, cuing me with his one semi-free hand. Trust me, I’ve done this before.

I know blog commenters can be snarky, but in this instance I agree with “thenewsmonkey,” the lone responder two-and-a-half hours after this was posted: “umm… everyone else does this everyday. welcome to technology abc.”

What actually had me more impressed (again, forgive me for not raving more about Elizabeth Vargas’s cuing abilities!) was the technology they were using. I guess Elliott makes a mention of it (“Look at what is happening behind the scene. A backpack.”). But the focus so quickly shifts to Vargas, and her inability to get Elliott to shut up during his live shot, that we don’t hear much else about the “backpack.”

Courtesy: TVU Networks

According to the manufacturer’s Web site, the backpack “delivers broadcast quality signals by leveraging multiple 3G/WiFi connections.” Of course, I poked around for a while and could find no mention of cost (might make a General Manager have a heart attack at budget time). But its data sheet does claim it’s only a fraction of the cost of a fully-equipped satellite truck.

(If you’re anything like me, stop laughing about the title on the mic flag in the above picture before you continue reading.)

Pay attention, TV journalists: THIS is the future of our industry. And if you’re a one-man-band, don’t be surprised if one day you’re headed to a shoot and your assignment editor throws one of these at you.

Who knows? Some of the lucky ones might even be able to say they had Elizabeth Vargas as their field producer.

The value of a good ole man on the street

About a week ago, I did a story about an area motel that was infested by bed bugs. The finished product garnered a lot of traffic to my station’s Web site, and one of my supervisors gave me great feedback on my shooting and writing for the story. But (according to him), there was one thing missing: The two cents of local residents on what THEY think.

The absence of a man-on-the-street (or MOS, as we most affectionately call them) was something that I had noted as well; I told my editor that I (truthfully) “wanted to get some MOSes, but I just ran out of time.” Had I had only one interview (I had three), a few decent MOSes would have filled in the package nicely. Sometimes the best sound in a package comes from the concerned man (or woman!) on the street: “I just can’t believe it. Now I’m scared that our entire town will be infested by bed bugs.” (That’s where you say, “Thanks for your time; I’ve got all I need!”) In fact, I’ve done entire packages–some of my best–that consisted entirely of MOS interviews reacting to just a couple of facts that I present (One of my favorite stories I ever did was about the pedestrians at Purdue having issues with properly crossing the street–that sound was a priceless example of why TV relies on video!)

But here’s the thing about man-on-the-street interviews: In my young, journalistic opinion, they can let you down. It’s kind of like reminiscing about a time when an old friend really helped you out, then going over to his place for a ride, only to find his car can barely start, is littered with trash and smells like old Chinese food. Sure, it’ll get the job done, but do you really want it to?

Sitting in the morning news meeting, pitching a story, it’s really easy to imagine all the great sound you’ll get when you go out to get MOSes. “People aren’t going to be able to keep their mouths shut about the 2012 election/a new trash collecting system/the ethical treatment of goats! This is going to be an amazing story!” Then, three hours later, when you’re standing outside a strip mall with your microphone, being shut down by yet another person who’s late for lunch, knowing the only interview you have is from a 17-year-old chick who didn’t know what you were talking about but was willing to talk on camera probably because there’s an 80 percent chance she was high, and then it starts to rain and suddenly there’s no one else in sight…MOSes don’t seem like as great of an idea.

Anyway, I digress.

Sometimes, sometimes, man-on-the-street interviews can be a great addition to a story. In the case of the bed-bugs-take-over-small-town-motel, they probably would have elicited a decent response from people if I had had the extra hour necessary to set up camp. But in a way, MOSes can be a symptom of journalistic laziness. What would have been the best interview, would have been to have found someone who stayed at the bed-infested motel. “I felt violated,” she might have said. Or, “I simply couldn’t believe a place that I paid good money would have so little respect for my well-being.” Golden!

If you're looking for a man on the street, you could get the valued opinion of THIS guy! Courtesy: Joshua Rappeneker,

In graduate school, my broadcasting teachers wouldn’t let us report a story unless we could tell them who our “face” would be. That is, the regular Joe Schmoe who’s had his life majorly affected because of the story we’re about to tell our loyal viewers. It’s effective, no question. To see the emotions of someone struggling or grieving or rejoicing or fighting–“And hey! Listen to the rest of this story, because this could happen to you!”

The face is what tells the story. And as a deadline-oriented one-man-band, I’ll be the first to tell you that we can’t always find the face. Sometimes a man-on-the-street is the next best thing. But if it’s not quite…there, your audience will know.

Because I’ve had people in the community notice how heavily we rely on the man-on-the-street. People have joked that the fewer teeth a person has, the more likely they are to talk to our news station. If someone asks, “Where do you find these people?” it might be a good indication that, in that instance, you shouldn’t have gone looking.

You say goodbye, and I say hello

I come from a very large Italian family on my dad’s side. My favorite second cousins (or first cousins once removed?) like to say we only manage to all get together for weddings and funerals.

News is kind of like that.

Tonight I’m heading to a going away party for one of my fellow one-man-bands. After two years, her contract is up here in Indiana. In the newsroom today, we were talking about how quickly things change in this business. My co-worker who’s been here more than three years (which is a long time in news!) said by the time she leaves in December, the only person who will be the same as when she got here is the news director/5 and 6 p.m. anchor.

It’s a bittersweet sort of process. I once told my boss (the aforementioned news director and anchor) that one of the tough parts about working in news is you feel like you’re constantly saying goodbye to people. He countered that by saying, “True. But at the same time, you get to meet a lot of really cool people too.” That was one thing I can say I wholeheartedly agree with him on.

While my director set up my shot during the 6 p.m. news earlier tonight, she got in my ear and said, “Girl, I can’t wait to have a beer with you tonight!” And I got kind of excited. It’s rare that we can get together most of our news “family,” and just because it’s usually only to say goodbye to one of our own, doesn’t make the people I get to work with any less fun.

The beauty of this situation is, goodbye is not forever. I can boast that I have friends all across the country, thanks to this crazy business we’re all a part of. And though we’re saying goodbye right now, in a few weeks we’ll be saying hello to a new face, hopefully someone who fits in with the family just as well.

News + Running = Necessary stress relief?

Over the last several months, my Facebook has been interfering with my self esteem.

Let me explain. I’ve noticed more and more of my friends have been grabbing their running shoes and hitting the pavement (yes, those were intentionally-placed, too-often-used news cliches). Often, these aren’t the 30-minutes, twice-a-week, keep-off-the-calories runs either. I know dozens of people who have been training for, and completing 5Ks, half marathons, marathons, and even in some cases, triathlons.

So what does this tangent have to do with a blog about TV news? Well, despite the fact that (believe it or not!) I have many Facebook friends who are not in the news industry, I’m noticing that most of my run-happy friends are the ones who work in news. About a year ago, it seemed like at least half of the on-air staff at my old station in central Illinois trained for a half marathon at the same time. I have no statistics to back up this speculation, but to me, the number of “newsies” who like/love/need to run in their spare time is striking.

I’d include myself in that group, as well. In fact, I just got home from a 2+ mile run with my dog on this beautiful, end-of-summer evening. I ran my first 5K earlier this year. And maybe next year I’ll take the leap and train much, much harder, for my own half marathon.

My dad and me finishing my first 5K last spring

My favorite thing about running is the way I feel afterward. In my opinion, running makes you feel like you’re literally “blowing off steam.” With every step, and every (labored) breath, I feel like the tension of my day is broken down a little more, and by the end of it all, my body is too exhausted for my news-trained mind to keep racing, as it has been conditioned to do.

(I also attend yoga class religiously twice a week, for a similar reason; though, yoga calms me down to a clear head, whereas running pumps me up to get there.)

I am a firm believer that for most of us, our mind is our worst enemy, and perhaps more than a toned body, that is a big reason why many of my news friends have taken up running. As a one-man-band reporter, I typically have a stack of about a dozen things in my mental to-do list at any given time. My work day is a series of mental back-timing to make sure I will be able to get my stories in on time. And in some cases, if you’re working a heavy story that involves violence or corruption, that weighs on you too, whether you’d like to let it or not. For many of us in this industry, the job itself can add to additional personal stresses, like money worries or disappointment in not seeing your family or friends as much as you’d like. All of these things aren’t issues that you just drop at the front door when you come home. We need an outlet of some kind, and I think maybe this is where running comes in.

So what do you think, news friends? Am I hitting some truth here? Or am I just trying to justify why I need to keep up with my Facebook friends in the race to stay physically fit? (Your comments are welcomed!)

%d bloggers like this: