Keeping Calm in a Crisis: The Reporter’s Perspective
“This is part one of a three part series on covering news in the face of crisis or tragedy.”
This is part one of a three part series on covering news in the face of crisis or tragedy. I wanted to highlight perspectives from three different positions; that of a reporter, a host and a program director. These conversations are all with people I’ve worked with over the years and highlight (in my view) the right way to deliver the news in difficult the face of difficult situations.
We start first, with the perspective of a reporter……
7/14/99- A TRAGIC DAY IN MILWAUKEE
Doug Russell is a veteran reporter and host who had two different stints at Milwaukee’s legendary news-talk station WTMJ. On July 14th, 1999, the city was shook when “Big Blue” a heavy lift crawler crane being used at the construction site of Miller Park, collapsed. Three workers were killed and significant damage was caused to the stadium. On this day, Russell, working in the sports department, had to “flip that switch” to hard news and cover what turned out to be a local tragedy. What resulted was a team effort by WTMJ that earned Russell and the station local and national accolades.
RM: Take us back to that day and set the scene. When did you first learn of this situation and what was your reaction?
DR: I was at my desk at WTMJ’s Radio City studios. There was an old television on wheels in the office that happened to be on the closed feed from the static camera our sister television station, WTMJ-TV had. I glanced at it as I went to my desk to prepare for that evening’s Sports Central show that I was producing at the time. The camera was trained on it because there was a scheduled roof “pick” that day involving the Big Blue crane and TMJ4 wanted it for their archives. These “picks” had become mini-events because they were the most visible signs the stadium was coming together.
Nothing was amiss and I didn’t think anything of it until about 60 seconds later when our airborne traffic reporter, Tom Carr, first reported on the accident (audio below). I turned around and on the screen was a crumpled blue crane draped over the first base side of the ballpark and dust was flying everywhere. My reaction was to find my news director, Dan Shelley and asked “what can I do?” He asked me if I had recording equipment. I told him I always keep a crash bag in my desk (a helpful hint for everyone involved in live news reporting). Dan immediately told me to take the cell phone (we only had one for the entire station; they weren’t commonplace yet) and get down there as fast as I could in afternoon drive time traffic.
RM: When you were on your way to the scene, what was going through your mind?
DR: On my way down from Milwaukee’s East Side to the stadium I was listening carefully to WTMJ for any information the guys in the studio were looking for as well as traffic reports. What I didn’t realize is that WTMJ morning anchor Cheri Preston (now at ABC Radio News) was on the Marquette University campus for a graduate level class when she heard the report as well. Marquette, only being a very short drive to the stadium, gave WTMJ the first reporter of any kind on the scene (audio below). Cheri was the first to report from an eyewitness that three iron workers died in the accident. She was unflappable. Just an incredible reporter…even borrowing a stranger’s cell phone to do her first report (attached). Through her early reporting, she gave me, a very young radio personality at the time, instructions through her example of what we were looking for as a station.
As a side note, as it turns out, I was also the last reporter to leave the scene, at 5am the next morning, as WTMJ rightfully made the decision to have a 24 hour presence at the sight of the biggest news story in America that day. From midnight-5am, I did live on-site reports during the top of the hour news.
RM: You arrived on the scene and I can only imagine it was chaotic. How were you able to get yourself balanced with what was going on and also with what your newsroom was asking of you at the time?
DR: When I was a news reporter, I covered the court case of David Spanbauer. David Spanbauer was a monster who terrorized Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley for years, sexually assaulting, torturing, and murdering young women and girls. The news training I had from that court case, talking to the families of Cora Jones, Ronelle Eichstead, and Trudi Jeschke steeled me for just about anything. You lose part of your humanity, but that’s the price most journalists have had to pay to varying degrees for dispassionately doing their jobs. Think about how 9-11 was reported on, for example. At some point you still have to just put your own human feelings aside and do the work your audience demands.
RM- You have lived in Milwaukee most of your adult life. How were you able to put your emotions aside and focus on what was such a tragic event for the city…in the days and weeks afterwards?
DR: The aftermath for the city was significant at the time, but as the saying goes, time really does heal all wounds. There is a generation of Brewers fans that never saw a game at Miller Park and will never know the names of the three men (Jeffrey Wischer, Jerome Starr, and William DeGrave) killed that day. At the time it was devastating. To the families of the men killed, even more so, obviously and still to this day. But the city has moved on. As for me, it gave me the opportunity to show that I could cover a major breaking news story live on the air. The audio eventually landed on One-On-One Sports VP of Programming Mark Gentzkow’s desk, and he hired me as an anchor/reporter a few months later. Cheri would end up in New York at ABC, so she did pretty well too. WTMJ’s coverage was recognized with several awards from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the Milwaukee Press Club, the Associated Press, and the Radio-TV News Directors Association, bestowing us with the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for spot news coverage.
RM: If you could give advice to anyone who would have been in your shoes that day, what would it have been? For anyone that is rushing to the scene of a situation like this (especially where loss of life is involved) how do you best handle it?
First, always have a “crash bag” at arms length with everything you need to report a breaking story. It’s a terribly overused term nowadays, but they call it “breaking news” for a reason. You never know what is going to happen when. So have a bag with a recorder, a mic, mic flag, paper, pens, extra batteries, a computer if you can. Whatever you would normally take to a news situation, have in your crash bag. If it’s your first time on the scene of a tragedy where loss of life is involved, take a moment to realize that you probably will be speaking with someone who just lost a family member – how would YOU like to be treated if the shoe was on your foot? Know to not ask a question like “how does it feel” to lose a loved one (how do you THINK it feels, jackass?). Empathy goes a long way in those situations. On the flip side, you still have a job to do. You can be empathetic while still calmly reporting the facts. But I think it’s important for every reporter to just take a breath and recognize the gravity of what they are reporting on before going on the air and just blurting out the first thing that comes out of their mouth.
That’s a wrap on part one. Next week, we’ll take a look at this topic, but from a host’s perspective.
Ryan Maguire is a columnist for BSM, and a longtime sports and news radio program director. He has managed KIRO-FM in Seattle, WQAM in Miami, 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, 610 Sports in Kansas City, and 105.7/1250 The Fan in Milwaukee. Presently, Ryan serves as the Executive Producer of Chicago White Sox baseball on ESPN 1000 in Chicago. Originally from Michigan, Ryan still holds out hope that the Detroit Lions will one day deliver a Super Bowl title. He can be reached on Twitter @RMaguire1701.
Nielsen Will Face Many Questions With Major Methodology Changes
Let’s consider the potential reasons for differences in results between the paper diary and an online version.
I hope you had a great Memorial Day weekend! Last week, I gave a little history of the seven-day Nielsen radio paper diary which, if you believe the trades (and the trades are always right including this one!), could be replaced with an online version by late 2025.
This week, I’ll discuss the issues surrounding what would be a major methodological change in a system that not everyone loves, but for the most part, everyone involved knows well.
Will the results differ when Nielsen changes methodologies? The answer is almost always a resounding “yes”.
Even the smallest changes can affect the results and when results differ from expectations, someone will be upset or as I’ve told people for years, “We’ve never figured a way to create more than 100 share points in radio”.
On a share basis, if someone gains, someone else has to lose. And for now, let’s not think about what might happen to usage levels.
Let’s consider the potential reasons for differences in results between the paper diary and an online version. The list is not exhaustive, but you’ll get the general idea of the complexity:
- Will the sampling be the same as currently used? The Nielsen Audio sampling system has evolved over the years from using only landline telephone numbers to adding cell phones in 2009 (probably the first major survey of its kind to do that in the US) to using mail-out pre-surveys (the address-based sampling frame) ensuring the most everyone has a chance to be part of the sample.
- Will individuals that fill out paper diaries be the same ones who fill out the online diary?
- What will be the effects on response rate and proportionality?
- Will the listening levels (PUR meaning Persons Using Radio) be statistically the same, in other words, the results could be different, but not due to the method?
- What about the number of entries and the quality of those entries in the online diary compared to the paper diary? Will the online diary be easier or harder to edit when there are unclear entries?
- The paper diary is completely unaided, in other words, the “diarykeeper” fills in whatever they think they’re listening to with no help from Nielsen. An online diary could include prompts. Will such a version be tested?
- Will diarykeepers be more likely to fill out the diary in “real-time” versus taking care of the chore at the end of the week? We know that a majority fill out the current diary after the fact.
- For that matter, the “diary week” has been Thursday to Wednesday for nearly 60 years. Could that change and if so, what would be the effect of that change?
- How will incentives be delivered? Currently, money is included with the package that includes the diaries, but I don’t think Nielsen wants to try using Venmo or PayPal or some other method to send out incentives. If there is one thing that’s been learned over time about survey incentives, cash is still king. That means plenty of mailings just as is done currently.
- How many markets will be part of the test?
- What kind of pretesting will be done? Will various designs be tested with focus groups or “one on ones” ahead of a major test?
- What will be considered an “acceptable” online diary? It’s easy to leave a question blank in the paper diary, for example, race and ethnicity, but the online diary could force an answer. Perhaps the online diary will offer “none of the above” or “I don’t want to answer this question”, but would options like that lead to more ascription (meaning filling in the data based on other information)?
You’ve just read twelve research and operational issues and almost certainly, I’ve missed something. The researchers inside of Nielsen have likely put together a longer list and also considered the costs and benefits.
These and other questions will be asked by the various industry groups and committees such as the Media Rating Council, NAB’s COLRAM (Committee on Local Radio Audience Measurement), the NRRC (Network Radio Research Council), and the big ownership groups.
My perspective is that this change should have taken place years ago. As noted last week, the original E-Diary had one easily fixable design flaw which should have been changed and then refined over time so that the industry could adjust.
Instead, the early termination in 2007 and focus on the 48 PPM markets put the industry in the situation we have today. Nielsen Audio has painted itself into a corner. The online diary has to work because failure means the paper diary will be with us through most of this decade.
The financial side of the house has likely figured the cost savings from the change which means “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” regardless of the test results unless the test is a complete disaster, which is unlikely.
Further, any change means IT fixes which are often slow. Speeding things up requires the assumption that the test version can be implemented as designed, in other words, the programming changes will be done in parallel. If the test works well, you’ll see far faster implementation, which is great. If the results are controversial, you’ll also see a fast implementation, whether you like it or not.
Considering that the video side of Nielsen is facing an unprecedented amount of competition as well as criticism, the company would no doubt like to see even more profit from the near-monopoly radio service. The industry may complain, but the end result will be similar to the change to monthly rolling averages a few years back.
If you don’t like it, find another vendor. Of course, competition in this field is rather limited. My advice to the industry is to work together, ask a lot of questions, and fully understand what the outcomes mean for your companies, your stations, and your talent.
Let’s meet again next week.
One of the radio industry’s most respected researchers, Dr. Ed Cohen writes a weekly column for Barrett News Media. His career experiences include serving as VP of Ratings and Research at Cumulus Media, occupying the role of VP of Measurement Innovation at Nielsen Audio, and its predecessor Arbitron. While with Arbitron, Cohen spent five years as the company’s President of Research Policy and Communication, and eight years as VP of Domestic Radio Research. He has also held the title of Vice President of Research for iHeartMedia/Clear Channel, and held research positions for the National Association of Broadcasters and Birch/Scarborough Research. Readers can connect with him by email at email@example.com.
5 Media Sources You Can Count On To Deliver News, Not Misinformation
“This list will consume under 2 hours of your day and allow you to sound smart at dinner parties, pick a President, know the sports scores and go about your day.”
The internet is a beautiful thing, except when it is not. At a tap of your finger it brings a world of information, or a firehouse of disinformation. Rabbit holes of conspiracy theories and unvetted “news” from every angle of the political, medical and economic spectrum. The internet is NOT to be trusted, and frankly the world needs to get off the web at least 22 of the 24 hours in a day.
Gone are the days when trusted filters with long track records and editors with green-shaded visors poured over copy for sources and evidence. Today, we are bombarded with tweets, blogs, and aggregates written by anyone with a computer who claims “I do my own research”.
So, as a public service I here now recommend the following list of 5 vetted, trusted sources of information and news which have systems in place to avoid misinformation, and when they make mistakes, retract and revise. Yes, the New York Times and many in the mainstream media made huge errors in the run up to the Iraq War, but they later admitted as such and chastised themselves.
This list will consume under 2 hours of your day and allow you to sound smart at dinner parties, pick a President, know the sports scores and go about your day.
1. Turn off cable news, unless there is a major breaking news; a new war, a school shooting, plane crash or otherwise. And then tune into CNN which has the world’s largest TV reporting staff, way ahead of any other domestic broadcast service. The rest of the time, CNN and the other major cable networks MSNBC and Fox are filled with comment and opinion. While that can be entertaining, it is not news and not necessary. My guilty pleasure is Rachel Maddow.
2. Watch one or more of the 3 evening network TV broadcasts and 60 Minutes on Sunday. Even watching all 3 nightly news programs takes less than an hour if you fast forward through the commercials. They are a quick 18 minutes of news, a summary of the top stories of the day reported with perspective and in most cases experienced journalists. They have seasoned editors who vet each story and best of all, there is no time for opinion. No commentators, just news. CBS is my favorite, NBC a close second. But that’s subjective, the most popular is my former place of employment for nearly 20 years, ABC. CBS has 2 excellent Washington political correspondents, Ed O’Keefe and Robert Costa, former newspaper reporters (Washington Post) with an emphasis on straight reporting, rather than looks and performance. NBC has Andrea Mitchell, Kelly O’Donnell and Peter Alexander, with years of experience. ABC has Jon Karl, Martha Raddatz, Pierre Thomas and the up and coming Mary Bruce, all of whom know their stuff.
But perhaps most important, the process at the networks makes for few mistakes. Each script is reviewed by “the rim”. That consists of a senior producer, the executive producer and in most cases, the anchor/managing editor. Opinion, error and bias are flushed out. As are grammatical mistakes.
3. Respected national newspapers: The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Reading the top stories in these papers takes more time, but each has more actual reporters than television, radio or blogs. Their reporting is straight and dependable. And in an hour over morning coffee you will be educated and filled with data and information that will be useful when you encounter the hate filled disinformation flooding your direction each day on the internet.
4. If you have time, move to the second tier of newspapers on line. More regional in their coverage….the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution or your local paper.
5. The Daily podcast. An arm of the New York Times, this half hour or so audio deep dive into one subject of importance makes one smarter. Each weekday morning the hosts who are decidedly not radio veterans with big voices or rapid fire cadences, interview a Times reporter about a story on their beat. From the Supreme Court to Congress to the White House and beyond. Another guilty pleasure: Countdown with Keith Olbermann, decidedly from the left, but smart and a great writer/performer.
That’s it. We would all be better served by limiting our intake. Choose a few of the myriad of would be news organizations. Make your own list, chosen after they have earned your trust. I know I have left out the scores of narrowly focused internet outlets from Politico to the Daily Beast. Mostly because they are insider type publications or in many cases aggregators which merely take from other news sources and re-publish to the internet. I’m not saying don’t read them but they can be done without for the general reader.
Also save your precious time by avoiding the tabloids, from the NY Post to the Daily Mail. And agenda publications like Breitbart and Daily Caller. They are not dependable, and they are filled with conspiracies and disinformation.
Use Facebook, TikTok and Instagram to share memories and photos, not conspiracies. And Twitter to alert you to ongoing events or breaking news. But switch to your trusted sources after the alert. Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, my feed has become a deluge of hate and right wing drama.
It’s hard to look away, but we would all be better off if we did.
Jim Avila serves as a weekly columnist for Barrett News Media. An Award-winning journalist with four decades of reporting and anchoring experience, Jim has served as Senior National Correspondent, 20/20 Correspondent, and White House Correspondent for ABC News. Prior to his time with ABC, he spent a decade with NBC News, and worked locally in Los Angeles and Chicago for KNBC, and WBBM. He can be found on Twitter @JimAvilaABC.
The News Media Industry Is Better in 2023 Than It Ever Has Been Before
For every news viewing option, there is an equal and opposite news viewing option. Or at least that’s what Sir Issac Newton must have meant.
The science is settled. No counter-argument will be heard. Consensus has been reached. Our futures, and that of our children, grandchildren, and polar bears everywhere, may very well be at stake.
And should you have the temerity to be a denier, you may very well be canceled.
The science is settled on this very fact — the news media industry is better in 2023 than it has ever been before.
Surprised by the boldness? What about the balkanization, you ask, with consumers dug into their political and ideological corners? What about the fact that families no longer gather around the television to watch the evening news, as they did in bygone eras?
How about the fact that many new broadcasters, hosts, and personalities have turned the news into a game of “look at me” instead of “just report the facts.”
And why does the news media consistently score so low in terms of respect it is given by Americans?
With all those truths, how can one possibly think we are witnessing the news media’s glory days?
The answer to these questions depends on how one defines “news media”. In years past, the television news media basically consisted of three major television networks – ABC, NBC, and CBS. They would decide what news to report and then did so in the manner they felt was proper. As has been covered here, this delivery largely consisted of an unopposed left-leaning viewpoint. The balancing effect of traditional, conservative news options, such as Rush Limbaugh and the earlier days of Fox News, had yet to emerge.
But in the year 2023, it is much more accurate to describe the news media as a conglomerate of seemingly non-related options, offered over countless modes of delivery.
We have news outlets that cover national news, local news, financial news, entertainment news, sports news, crypto news, political news, religious news, etc. They reach us through radio signals, cables, satellites, or the internet. This array of transmission methods means that more people worldwide can tap into one of these options. One doesn’t need to be sitting in front of a cable-ready television at 6:00 PM to view the news. Today, news is ubiquitous.
This overwhelmingly diverse assemblage of subject matter options makes up our modern-day news media. And this is where the real value is realized by the consumer. This is precisely why the news media industry has never been better at achieving its goal of educating and informing its audience. Separating opinion from objective journalism is a topic for another, much longer, piece.
Today, the viewer wins by having a smorgasbord of options literally at his or her fingertips. Your options are as specific and focused as your tastes.
We have so many options. You can learn about Tesla’s future by watching Brighter with Herbert on YouTube. Learn about living from a Christian worldview from Craig Groeschel’s Life.Church. Catch up on Bitcoin or Ethereum news with Rob on Digital Asset News. Among thousands of other options.
Some viewers still wind down at night by watching the primetime television lineup on MSNBC, CBS, or Newsmax, if winding down is possible while getting riled up. The options are limitless to find the content you desire, on the schedule you demand, and delivered in the method you prefer. Your options are as endless as your time allows!
Another often-unspoken benefit of this assortment of news options is that, innately, we know opposing options counter our preferred news sources. Unlike previous generations, where opposing viewpoints and diverse thought was often hidden from viewers, today’s consumers are wise to the fact that most news is delivered with a healthy dose of bias. Liberal bias, conservative bias, bullish bias, bearish bias, etc.
For argument’s sake, we can use the programming examples mentioned above and understand that there are also options available for those that believe the opposite – perhaps they don’t believe in a bright future for Tesla, maybe they are atheists, or possibly some, like legendary investor Warren Buffett, believe Bitcoin is “probably rat poison squared.”
For every news viewing option, there is an equal and opposite news viewing option. Or at least that’s what Sir Issac Newton must have meant.
Because viewers’ eyes are open and they have limitless options, they are free to go down any rabbit hole they’d like. And in many instances, they can do so, literally, for free.
One can only imagine how this dynamic might improve, or denigrate, with the rapid expansion of artificial intelligence. Will AI create even more detailed and informative content at an unimaginable pace? Or will AI develop disinformation so precise it cannot be deciphered from the real thing? Although theories abound, only time will tell what kind of impact AI has on the news media industry.
What cannot be denied, however, is that consumers have more options today to learn about endless and varied topics. For this reason alone, news media has never been better in its impact on the lives of its customers.
We should all salute Mr. Newton and agree that he has been correct all along.
Rick Schultz is a former Sports Director for WFUV Radio at Fordham University. He has coached and mentored hundreds of Sports Broadcasting students at the Connecticut School of Broadcasting, Marist College and privately. His media career experiences include working for the Hudson Valley Renegades, Army Sports at West Point, The Norwich Navigators, 1340/1390 ESPN Radio in Poughkeepsie, NY, Time Warner Cable TV, Scorephone NY, Metro Networks, NBC Sports, ABC Sports, Cumulus Media, Pamal Broadcasting and WATR. He has also authored a number of books including “A Renegade Championship Summer” and “Untold Tales From The Bush Leagues”. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @RickSchultzNY.