Mark Leff. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.
One of me.More than one of you. I’m not in the room with you. And I’m trying to tell you something you don’t know. That’s the essence of communication. If there are a lot of you, we call it mass communication.
If I’m talking and you’re listening—or better, watching—all at the same time and what connects us is a form of electricity, that’s broadcasting. If I’m telling or showing you about something that just happened, that’s broadcast news. If you’re not all seeing it or hearing it at the same time, you’re getting it asynchronously. And if I’m a broadcast journalist, that’s probably not a word I’d want to use, I’d want to use words and sounds and pictures to tell you what I know, and to do it in less time than it took me to learn it. Broadcast news is an effort to give you a sense of the reality that the reporter and/or videographer experienced. But it’s a compressed reality. If you don’t have time to sit through, watch, or experience an entire city council meeting, house fire, election, stock market meltdown, revolution, or that cat being rescued from a tree, radio and television news can at least give you a sense of it in a very short time.
How well broadcast journalists do their jobs can be determined in several ways. Stations and networks measure it by the number of people who tune in to hear or see the broadcasts (and the commercial announcements between the stories or segments). Some people listen to or watch certain broadcasters because they like the reporter/anchor’s appearance or voice or way with words. Some people watch because they find the reporter easy to understand.
The best reporters just talk to you. And the idea of speaking the news to people who are not in the same room goes back even before the invention of radio.
In this chapter, we’ll look at how broadcast news works, starting with how broadcast news developed into a particular form of journalism, then detailing the people and technical requirements for a 21st-century broadcast news operation. We’ll see how a news story is produced and conclude by looking at what it takes to become a broadcast journalist.
No, that’s not the world’s first anchor. It’s “good morning” in Hungarian. Back in February 1893, you could check into a hotel in Budapest, put on a pair of earphones connected to a telephone line, and listen to men in a downtown studio giving you the news of the day. Telefon Hirmondó (Telephonic News Dispenser) was very similar to the all-news radio stations you can hear today in some big cities, with local news, European and world news, business news, and sports news depending on what time you listened.
An American company tried the same wired-news idea in Newark, New Jersey, in 1911. Radio would not become a mass medium for several more years. But by November 1920, people in Pittsburgh could tune in to KDKA for live election returns and hear that Republican Warren Harding had beaten Democrat James Cox hours before they could read it in the morning papers. Sometimes, just having the information makes people want to listen.
Radio and newspapers competed for audience attention throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Television wasn’t introduced to the American public until 1939, and TV news had to wait until after World War II. But the idea of news with moving pictures had also been a reality since the late 1800s—except that you had to go to a movie theater to see it.
Silent news films were first shown in France in 1895; Abner McKinley’s American newsreel company, Biograph, filmed part of his brother William’s presidential campaign in 1896. Sound came along in the 1920s, and by the 1930s, Fox Movietone, Paramount, Universal, Warner-Pathe, and Hearst Metrotone were among the equivalents of NBC, CBS, and ABC. Twice a week, they would produce news-reels running for 8 minutes or so for distribution to theaters, and they would compete fiercely with each other and with the other news media to bring audiences the first words and images of the news of the day.
“Oh, the Humanity!”
Emotion is also a key factor in a good broadcast story. On a stormy day in May 1937, the WGN Chicago radio reporter Herb Morrison and his sound engineer Charlie Nehlsen were sent to Lakehurst, New Jersey, to record a radio feature story on the giant German dirigible Hindenburg making its first transatlantic crossing of 1937. Morrison was describing the slow, majestic docking of the airship when fire suddenly erupted on the hull. He tried to describe what he was seeing but simply ran out of words as the emotional impact of watching people die hit him. His recorded description (which was never planned as a live broadcast) may be the first case in American radio of a reporter “losing it” at the scene of a violent event.
Newsreel cameras were also at the Hindenburg crash. But nobody except the journalists and other people on the scene saw it “live.” More than 70 years later, we’re surprised when we don’t see something live. Immediacy is another factor in determining what makes a good broadcast story; it’s one reason why radio and television newscasts have so many field reporters interacting with the anchors before or after their recorded reports.
“This … is London.”
Presence is an important criterion for many broadcast stories—having a reporter “on the scene” describing or summarizing what is happening. Edward R. Murrow, who built the CBS News team of radio reporters who covered World War II, was a master of description that conveyed both factual information and emotion. His accounts of a German bombing raid on London or flying in an Allied bomber over Germany, to cite two of his most famous broadcasts, set the standard for what are still called radio on-scene reports, or ROSRs (pronounced RO-zers).
The January 1991 bombing of Baghdad as carried on CNN was essentially a ROSR. CNN had installed a special audio line to the hotel room where its correspondents were staying, intending to use it just for communication. But once the attack began, there was no way to get live television pictures out. So, for several hours, viewers in the United States and much of the world could only hear the live description by John Holliman, Peter Arnett, and Bernard Shaw of what was going on. Only later did video of the anti-aircraft fire and explosions make it out of Iraq. By the time the U.S.-led coalition was fighting the second Gulf War 12 years later, American TV correspondents were broadcasting live pictures from military vehicles racing across the desert toward Baghdad.
Television and Television News Anytime
Just as radio news challenged newspapers for audiences (and advertisers) in the second quarter of the 20th century, television news was a new competitor as the broadcast networks grew after World War II. The first newscasts were short broadcasts of theatrical newsreels; in 1949, NBC began the 15-minute Camel News Caravan using newsfilm that its own cameramen had shot. The three broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—eventually expanded their newscasts to 30 minutes; as of mid-2008, PBS was the only broadcast network doing an early-evening 60-minute news program, called simply The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.
Radio news also expanded after World War II. In the 1960s, as demand for news grew—especially in bigger cities—some radio stations began offering nothing but news 24 hours a day. All-news radio sprang up in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego/Tijuana, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities, where it remains a successful format. In 1975, NBC News tried a national 24-hour radio network feed called the NBC News and Information Service; it lasted only until 1977 and never made money.
But in 1980, the cable TV entrepreneur Ted Turner decided to try 24-hour news on television. CNN was born in the basement of a little wooden house next to his WTBS television studio in Atlanta and spent its infancy in the basement of a remodeled country club not far away. The growth of 24-hour cable and satellite news networks such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News in the United States, BBC World and Sky News in the United Kingdom, Al Jazeera in Qatar, and Euronews in France, among others, extended the 24-hour news radio concept into television—constantly updated information and images on a schedule that the audience can remember.
At the international level, the 24-hour news services often have national identities. CNN International is not Voice of America television, but it is sometimes television with an American voice. The U.S. government does fund and run television services for viewers outside the United States: Al-Hurra in Arabic and TV Martí in Spanish. BBC’s international television services reflect a British worldview. China Central Television (CCTV) International is news from an official Chinese perspective. Al Jazeera’s Arabic language service has been the most successful of the various pan-Arabic news channels, and its English language channel has a distinctly Arab point of view.
And as the chapter “The Changing Nature of ‘News’” (67) has pointed out, the nature of news is changing—now, some stories are available online faster and in more depth than broadcast news can possibly provide. But from those first silent newsreel films more than a century ago to the latest form of vodcast, some things remain constant about telling stories with spoken words and moving pictures.
The Big Picture: Getting it in and Getting it out
Television news is not a career choice for hermits. Even in the smallest TV newsrooms, more than a dozen people can be involved in turning an event in one place into a report in front of a viewer’s eyes and ears in another place. They work in one of two broad areas: getting the news from the source to the newsroom (known as news gathering or news intake) and getting the news from the newsroom to the viewer (known as news production).
Here are some of the jobs involved. Depending on the size of the news operation, one person may do more than one of them.
The Camera Operator. Sometimes called a videographer or photographer, this person captures the images and sound of the event. Although some small consumer-type video “camcorders” can take broadcast-quality video, most professionals use much larger cameras that can cost more than $50,000.
The Sound Technician. You’ve seen pictures of news crews surrounding an interviewee where some people are holding what looks like a fishing pole with a fuzzy gray salami on the end near the person speaking. The “soundman’s” job is to get the best possible audio by getting the microphone close to the speaker, while the videographer concentrates on getting the best possible image and camera angle.
The Light Technician. Some television news crews have a third person whose primary responsibility is getting the right kind of light at the right angle on whatever the video-grapher is shooting, whether it’s a sit-down interview or just something happening in a place that doesn’t have enough natural or artificial light.
The Reporter/Correspondent. The viewer sees and hears this person deliver the report from the scene or later from the studio/newsroom. He or she may gather all the information on the scene, interview all the available people, and write the script for a prepared report or make notes to do a live report.
The Field Producer. In larger news operations—especially the broadcast and cable networks—this person may do everything the reporter does except actually go on the air. Field producers often do interviews for stories, often gather information for stories if the correspondent is busy doing on-air reports, and are often the people “in charge” of coverage at the story location. That includes making all the logistical arrangements and sometimes writing the story script with or for the correspondent.
The “Truck Operator.” You have all seen pictures of TV news vehicles with big dishes and/or antennas on their roofs. Some are the size of minivans; others are as big as delivery trucks and even semi-trailers. Before the Internet added yet another distribution and transmission medium, television news crews covering a story “in the field” had two basic ways of transmitting their stories back to the studio. If they were in the same city as their newsroom, they could use microwave transmission to broadcast from an antenna on the truck to a receiving antenna or a series of antennas that would deliver their pictures and sound to the station. If they were in a different city, they would have to get the story back to the station by satellite—using a different kind of antenna that relays their pictures and sound to the station through a receiver/transmitter “hovering” 22,000 miles above the earth. Both microwave transmission and satellite transmission work on the principle of “line of sight.” The transmitter has to be able to “see” the receiver—either a microwave receiver that’s usually on a tower like a TV transmitter tower or the satellite in space. Sometimes, in urban areas with lots of tall buildings, it’s impossible to see either one from a truck on the street. And a satellite can “see” only about a third of the earth’s surface. So if a correspondent is transmitting a report from China to the United States, it may have to go through twosatellites—up and down and up and down—before it gets to the newsroom. Each of those transmissions takes time—not much, but it adds up. That’s why if you watch an anchor in New York interviewing a correspondent in Beijing, there’s a couple of seconds delay between the time the anchor finishes asking the first question and the time the correspondent hears that question 12,000 miles away.
The Assignment Editor. Usually, the most frazzled-looking person in the newsroom, the assignment editor is in charge of all aspects of news gathering, both editorial and logistical. As any good reporter does, the editor (sometimes known simply as “the desk”) keeps in touch with sources and contacts and keeps track of upcoming events that are worth covering. The desk also dispatches and coordinates crews in the field, using two-way radios, telephones, and various forms of text messaging to make sure that videog-raphers and reporters and transmission trucks are where they need to be, which is usually wherever the producers (see below) want them. As a result, assignment editors often have to think ahead in several different directions—kind of like playing speed chess. Often, the desk will do research to pass on to reporters in the field who are too busy covering one aspect of a story to get all the information needed for a complete report. Sometimes the desk also handles the logistics for microwave and satellite transmissions from the field to the studio, though many stations and networks have a separate department for that.
The Producer. Just as the assignment editor is in charge of getting the news into the newsroom, the producer is in charge of the newscasts that get the news from the newsroom to the viewers. Producers design the broadcast using a rundown that lists each story/element of the program; who the anchor or reporter is; whether it’s in the studio, newsroom, weather set, sports set or whether it’s a remote broadcast from a reporter; how long each segment is; what graphics are to go with the story; and when to pause for commercial announcements. Producers make sure that there is a “flow” between related stories and often write much of the broadcast—especially the important “teases” designed to keep the viewer from changing channels during the commercial breaks. A producer may be responsible for one or two newscasts each day; there’s often an executive producer in overall charge of a 2-hour morning program or a 90-minute early-evening newscast.
The Assistant/Associate Producer (AP). In some newsrooms, this person helps the producer by designing over-the-shoulder and full-screen graphics that help anchors and reporters tell stories visually. The AP often coordinates all the visual elements in the newscast, making sure that there is video for every story in the producer’s rundown. Like producers, APs also write some of the newscast.
The Video Editor. Without video, a television newscast might as well be on the radio. Editors work with the material that videographers shoot locally and with nonlocal material that may feed in from a bureau in another city or from a network or news agency. Through the mid-1970s, editors worked mostly with images shot on 16-mm film—cutting it into individual shots and assembling the stories by gluing or taping the strips of film together. Then came the shift to videotape, where editing happened by dubbing (copying) shots and sounds from the camera source tape to the tape that would be played back on the air. Now, most television news operations are moving to computer-based (nonlinear) editing, using much more sophisticated versions of the simple video-editing programs found on most personal computers. Many of those newsroom computer video systems also play the edited video back during the broadcasts.
The Writer. Many newsrooms have people who write stories that the anchors will deliver on the air. Most reporters write their own scripts (sometimes together with a producer). Working from the producer’s assignments in the newscast rundown, writers look at video and information (and sometimes gather information on their own) and combine them into the most effective way for the anchors to deliver the story to the audience.
The Director and Studio Production Crew. When a newscast is on the air, the producer is in charge of the editorial (news) content, deciding whether to cut a report short or eliminate some planned stories in order to get “breaking news” into the program. The director—not a journalist—is in charge of the control room and studio crew that gets the broadcast on the air. He or she tells the technical director (or switcher) which image to put on the air: the studio camera pointed at an anchor, a recorded report, or a series of graphics (still images) that help tell a story; the technical director pushes the buttons on a device that can look like an electronic version of a five-keyboard church organ to make it all happen. Studio camera operators point the cameras at the people on the set, and a floor director relays time cues and other information from the director. And there is somebody running a device that electronically projects the scripted words onto a mirror in front of the studio camera lens so that the anchors can maintain eye contact with the audience. The best-known brand of those in the United States is TelePrompTer; in Britain, it’s called AutoCue, but the generic term is “prompter.” The president of the United States uses them too when making major scripted speeches in public, such as the annual State of the Union speech to Congress. Look for what appear to be clear glass rectangles on poles several feet in front of the president on either side. The audience sees the glass. The president sees the words of the speech scrolling by.
The Anchors. No, we haven’t forgotten them. Anchors are the voice, face, and personality of a television newscast (and of radio, too, without the faces). Their job is usually to lead the viewer through the summary of the day’s events but can also involve hours of free-form talking during “breaking” news—speaking calmly to the viewers while the producer is snapping orders and providing information through a small earphone. Anchors often write many of the stories they deliver. But an important part of their job is to deliver stories that other people have written and to do it in such a way that they appear to be just talking to the audience.
Don Hewitt, the producer who created 60 Minutes at CBS News, coined the term anchorman to describe Walter Cronkite’s duties at the 1952 Democratic convention, where he acted as a kind of host and central reference point for the various correspondents covering different parts of the event. Hewitt saw the position as similar to the captain of a track team. Outside the United States, people doing that job are often called presenters or news readers. But the greatest skill an anchor has is the ability to deliver information without a script. The term for that is ad lib, from the Latin ad libitum, which can mean at one’s pleasure or as much as one likes.
Anchors may specialize in news, sports, or the weather. Many weather anchors are trained and certified meteorologists who understand the science behind the forecasts and may even do their own forecasting rather than relying on the National Weather Service. They often design their own maps and graphics—the visual aids you see behind them on the screen. In reality, there is nothing behind them in the studio except a green wall. A technology called chromakey inserts the graphics electronically; the weather anchors position themselves by watching small monitors on either side of the wall and on the camera that show what the viewer sees at home. Most weather anchors hold a device that looks like a TV remote control. They are changing their own graphics as they speak—watch closely as they manipulate the controls.
TV News and Technology
In broadcast news, journalism and technology are inextricably linked. As technology improves, journalists have more tools to help them tell the story. But sometimes, the tools drive the storytelling. Everybody who watches television news has seen reporters standing in front of something that relates to the story they’re telling. Often, it’s part of a recorded report. As often as possible, it happens live—the reporter precedes and follows a recorded and edited report or continues to talk live as recorded or live pictures of the event appear on the screen.
As we have seen, it can take a lot of people behind the scenes to end up with a reporter speaking live to the viewers from somewhere outside the studio. And the fact that a reporter can “go live” often adds to the perceived importance of the event.
When CNN went on the air in June 1980, live transmissions of things that were not scheduled events, such as presidential news conferences or political conventions were expensive, difficult, and rare. CNN promoted itself as “the news channel.” Because of the emerging technology, that meant trying to be the live channel whenever possible—a characteristic that now applies to CNN, its competitors, and television news operations almost everywhere.
CNN’s first day of broadcasting included live reports from Key West, Florida, where thousands of Cubans had been arriving by boat in a huge wave of legal emigration. The correspondent Mike Boettcher later talked about the problems of getting the satellite truck and its huge transmission antenna ready in time for his broadcasts and the technical problems of coordinating with producers in the Atlanta headquarters—which were solved, he recalled, by having someone on a pay phone hundreds of yards away relaying instructions.
The Power of Technology: Two Examples
In May 1981, a Turkish gunman critically wounded Pope John Paul II as the Pope was riding through St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. The state-run Italian TV (RAI), which had camera positions throughout the Vatican, was covering what had been a routine event until the shooting. Within minutes, RAI was transmitting live and recorded pictures throughout Europe over the Eurovision network that linked almost all of the continent’s national broadcasters and transmitting by satellite to news organizations all over the world.
The author—then a producer/correspondent in CNN’s Rome bureau—quickly found himself on the air via satellite through a jury-rigged system at the small RAI building where the CNN bureau was located, while the international assignment desk in Atlanta was frantically trying to reach the bureau chief and camera crew, who were away from Rome covering another story, in order to get them and other reporters back to Rome to help deal with what had suddenly become a huge story.
The relatively new technology enabled the speedy trans-Atlantic hookup, which meant that the author in Rome was able to report live to the American audience—even when there was nothing new to say because the information was so sketchy. Technological improvements in the decades since have made it easier to “go live” from almost anywhere. But talking to anchors and the audience when the reporter has little actual information in a “breaking news” scenario remains, for many journalists, one of the most difficult things to do.
Just a month after the papal shooting, a 6-year-old Italian boy named Alfredo Rampi fell into a backyard well near his house. The story attracted a lot of local attention, because it had all the elements of human drama—a little boy, a race against time. But it also had something new—live coverage from RAI, which sent its new “live trucks” to the well because it was in a village very close to Rome.
The author included a short recorded clip of the rescue effort in the daily 10-minute international news video compilation assembled from a variety of international news sources and sent by satellite to Atlanta, and planned to file a telephone report after the transmission so that editors at headquarters could combine the pictures and narration into a story that would run in newscasts for the next several hours.
But when CNN executives in Atlanta found out that a live picture was available from Italian TV, they ordered a new and very expensive one-hour satellite transmission from Rome. The author, on the phone from the Italian TV control room with Atlanta technicians, suddenly found himself on the air and had to talk for nearly an hour about what was going—getting information by listening to the Italian TV reporters who were actually on the scene describing it for their own audience.
The pictures themselves were not compelling—just a bunch of people standing around a hole in the ground. But the drama so captivated the Italian audience that the president of Italy eventually went to the scene. CNN was one of many news organizations to use the live pictures from RAI during the 80-hour rescue drama; a story that had begun as a local accident quickly became a worldwide phenomenon.
At the time, Italians debated whether such coverage was a good thing. That debate continues among journalists and their audiences around the world more than a quarter-century later. But there is no question that the technology made the story what it was. Little Alfredo Rampi died in that backyard well, and a nation mourned him.
A week or so later, an almost identical incident happened in another Italian village that was too far away from a major city for Italian TV to send a live truck. It never became more than a local story. But in October 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell into a well in Midland, Texas. And what some critics called a “media circus” began all over again. That story had a happier ending. But whether it’s live coverage of a dramatic rescue, a war, or police chasing a car down a freeway, the debate continues.
The Anatomy of a Story
Television—and television news—has much in common with motion pictures. While the technology now exists to allow just one person to gather information, shoot, edit, and transmit a video report, the combination of available budget and manpower (often involving union rules) means that it very often takes more than one person—sometimes dozens—to do the job.
In 1979, the author interviewed the African politician Robert Mugabe, then leading one of the factions attending a London conference on who would rule a postcolonial Rhodesia (Mugabe would eventually become president of Zimbabwe). To record an interview for excerpting in a story on the conference for an American network, there were three of us, including a two-person crew (one for camera, one for sound). To record the same sort of 5-minute sit-down interview to run at the end of a British documentary that night, the British network had 11 people—because it was for the “current affairs” department, not the evening news.
The growth of 24-hour news services on domestic cable and international satellite has changed the news gathering and production process. The need to “fill” 24 hours with as much “new” information as possible sometimes means that stories that once would have been considered of limited local interest now have a new prominence.
From North Platte, Nebraska—the smallest U.S. city that has locally produced TV news—to New York City, where at least eight stations and local cable services compete for the local news audience, the process is much the same.
News in any medium comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes a reporter or producer will come up with a story idea individually or at one of the daily story and assignment meetings that go on in every newsroom. Sometimes story ideas come from press releases. Sometimes they come from listening to emergency services dispatchers and crews talking to each other by radio. And sometimes they come just by chance.
What If … ?
The scenario below has not happened—but it could. It’s based on circumstances and events that have happened, in one form or another.
Let’s say a reporter and a videographer from a TV station in a small Midwestern town are supposed to cover an academic conference on international relations at the local university. A news release from the university alerted them to the meeting. It’s about “conflict resolution” and includes academics and minor government officials from several countries. On their way to the university in the morning, the reporter and the videographer are trying to figure out how to make an interesting story out of a bunch of people in a big room. They will interview some of the important players, get video of the speeches and the audience, shoot a “stand-up” report, and bring the videotape back to the station to edit a story for the evening newscast.
The reporter knows that material from the event won’t be enough. So he asks for video from “the feed” to incorporate into the story. The broadcast networks and cable news services, including ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and NBC, provide video feeds to their affiliated local stations of national and international news that they either generate themselves from their own bureaus or obtain from international broadcasters such as the BBC in Britain or CCTV in China or from international news agencies such as Reuters TV and APTN, which maintain bureaus in many cities around the world. The assignment desk or a producer records some video clips from that day’s feed of fighting in Iraq, refugees in Africa, and a troop buildup on the border between two Asian nations and keeps the recording and associated written information for the reporter to use when it’s time to write and edit the story.
But before the crew gets to the event, the assignment editor hears the highway patrol dispatcher sending troopers, fire trucks, and ambulances to a crash on a four-lane highway along the river that loops around the town. He tells the conference crew to head there instead and report back on what’s going on.
It’s bad. As the crew arrives, the highway patrol closes that road and another major highway that intersects it. Three cars are burning, and an overturned tanker truck is leaking something into the river. The reporter and the videographer leap into action, shooting video and interviewing the police and witnesses. At least three people are dead. This is a big local story.
The producer of the noon newscast wants a live report. That means the assignment desk has to divert the microwave truck from another story and move it to the crash while updating the station’s Web site with what he and the reporter are learning about the crash. It happens all the time in local TV news.
When the truck with its antenna and portable editing system arrives, the reporter and the videographer edit the middle part of their story to transmit back to the station before the newscast. The station’s control room will play back that part after the reporter introduces it live from the crash site, unless the editing is finished so close to the broadcast that the truck operator must roll it “live.” Engineers and producers prefer to have it in the control room ahead of time.
Because the crash has now closed two major highways through that part of the state, two news helicopters from stations in the state capital show up overhead just before the noon newscast, shooting overhead video of the crash scene to transmit back to their own noon news programs. And one of the producers in the capital, whose station is with the same network as the local station, calls to ask the reporter to do another “live shot” for his station, which will relay it to the capital using satellite transmission.
Now, the local reporter has to do two reports—one for a local audience, in which he can make specific local landmark references for people who know the area as well as he does and another for an audience 75 miles away. People in the capital don’t know or care that the crash is near a spooky old former mental hospital on a hill called The Ridges, so the reporter has to describe the scene in broader terms, and focus on the regional traffic disruption.
Just after the noon newscasts, there are more developments. The county and state environmental protection agencies have identified the substance from the truck that is leaking into the river. It is threatening the fish in the river and the water supply of three communities. The county issues a “boil order” for thousands of water customers. Now, a routine traffic accident has turned into a major public health story. Radio stations, newspapers, and their Web sites and the Associated Press news service are all giving the story wider distribution.
The local station goes into “crisis mode.” The entire news department is now working on live coverage of the health threat. The local university (the one sponsoring the international affairs conference) offers several experts for interviews and analysis. Student journalists are running around shooting video and interviewing people for online, print, and broadcast coverage.
Now the local station’s network news headquarters calls from New York. Because of the environmental impact, the network wants video of the crash, the river, the water treatment plant, and anything else it can get from the station along with a complete on-scene story to feed its local affiliates while its own reporter, camera crew, producer, and live transmission truck are on the way. So once again, the local reporter has to prepare a different kind of story—environmental, not traffic—for an audience that only vaguely knows which state the reporter is in and doesn’t care about the victims or the traffic mess.
Back at that international relations conference, there is concern because the featured luncheon speaker—a former graduate student who is now the deputy interior minister of his oil-producing African nation—didn’t show up. Then, police release the names of the three people killed in the crash. He is one of them. Now the crash itself isn’t just local news.
The phone rings in the local station’s newsroom. It’s the executive producer of the national network in the minister’s English-speaking country. He has just seen the minister’s name online, and his network is about to do a special report on the minister’s death because he was about to be named the opposition candidate in that country’s presidential election. He pleads for video and a live report from the crash scene and arranges a satellite transmission to get the material to Africa for a show that begins within an hour. The station hires journalism students from the university to go through old yearbooks and archived video from when the minister was a student 15 years earlier to find something relevant to use for the overseas report.
Now, the overworked original reporter and videographer at the crash scene have yet another story to prepare. For this one, the reporter must quickly learn how to pronounce the minister’s name (his first and last names each have five syllables) and put together a story focusing on the minister and the international conference that they had never reached that morning because of the accident.
So in this very possible scenario, within 6 hours of the accident, the videographer’s images of the crash scene and the victims being put into ambulances are on the air in a country thousands of miles away, and the reporter has had to prepare four different reports for four different audiences on four different aspects of the story.
That’s television news in the 21st century.
What It Takes to Be a Broadcast Journalist
The “modern” television journalist is often doing much more than reporters did in the early days of television news—and doing it much faster. That puts a lot of pressure on the people who do the reporting, because in reporting (presenting) what they know to the audience, they often don’t have enough time to do the other kind of reporting—gathering the information.
At the International Press Institute conference in Belgrade in June 2008, the British journalist Misha Glenny, who used to cover southeastern Europe for the BBC, talked about changing times and changing pressures. Glenny, a scholar’s son whose first reporting job was for a newspaper, suggested that the role of a foreign correspondent had changed over the years—and not for the better—because of pressure from employers. He described the BBC’s 1964–]1986 India correspondent Mark Tully, who was born there, as “someone who knew everything about India and everybody worth knowing in the Indian elite.”
But he said it is rare now for reporters to know their countries—that the pressures of multiple filing demands from the BBC’s domestic and international radio and television services plus online create conditions in which he said basic reporting—let alone investigative reporting—is impossible.
Many journalism schools are training and educating their students to try to meet the demands of the “converged” newsrooms of the 21st century. The tools of the trade are getting smaller, cheaper, and easier to use. But using them to tell good stories well remains a challenge for anybody who wants to work in broadcast journalism.
We have seen how the techniques of broadcast journalism have evolved over more than a century—from live speech on the telephone to live and recorded speech on the radio to silent and then sound theatrical newsreels to live and recorded television to pictures and sound online. Over the years, journalists have adapted their storytelling techniques to take advantage of the new technology and method of distribution. But, from the KDKA announcer Leo Rosenberg, broadcasting the 1920 Harding-Cox presidential election returns, to the hundreds of anchors and reporters and bloggers covering presidential election night 2008, the aim has been the same: Whatever the technology, get it to the audience quickly—and be sure to get it right.
Broadcast journalism continues to evolve in the 21st century. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in it, be sure to learn something about something other than broadcast journalism. Expertise in economics, business, politics, or international relations will help you tell better stories. The education and training you get in a broadcast journalism program will teach you how to tell stories. The best journalism schools teach students how to do everything—reporting, shooting, editing, anchoring, crafting Web stories, producing, and assigning, because even at the big-city and network levels, there’s a growing demand for people who can do it all. They used to be called “one-man bands.” Now some people use the term backpack journalists.
Not everybody does everything equally well, but if you’re fortunate enough to be working as a reporter or producer in a newsroom that has dedicated videographers and video editors, you will do your own job better because you know firsthand what they can and cannot do. And whatever the medium, the job of a journalist is ultimately to put clear, concise information into the audience’s heads—accurate information that educates, enlightens, and, yes, sometimes entertains. Still interested?