Avoiding Awkward On-Air Situations For Journalists

March 21, 2016

awkward reporters

Recently, on a local news program, the show’s anchors congratulated their meteorologist, who wasn’t there because she’d had a baby that morning, and had sent them a picture of the baby to share with viewers. The anchors gave the baby’s name and weight, noted how adorable she was, and then moved on to the next story.

Unfortunately, the next story involved a man being arrested for beating his infant son to death. Obviously, it was a tragic situation no matter where it appeared in the show, but the producer’s choice to go from a happy baby story to a tragic one made the story awkward as well, for everyone involved. It appeared that the news anchors didn’t know that would be the next topic, because they both had horrified looks on their faces when they started reading it. They stumbled through the story and managed to pitch to break, looking somewhat relieved.

How Do I Avoid These Situations?

Production of a nightly newscast is always chaotic, becoming more so as you approach air. This is especially true given how programs often include multiple “live shots” in the course of the broadcast. It’s the details that kill you, so as the producer you have to maintain the ability to stand back and consider the entire program. Equally important, you have to be open to comments and suggestions from the show staff. You will inevitably miss something. Story producers and junior staff need to know that they not only are permitted, but encouraged to speak up.

Some stories are sad, tragic, and awful. Unfortunately, there is some truth to the old adage about the news business, “If it bleeds, it leads.” If you plan to be on-air, you’re going to have to report on murders, accidents, domestic abuse, and many kinds of avoidable deaths. In general, it’s best to read these stories with a somber and respectful tone.

However, you can’t read the entire newscast that way or your viewers may start to get depressed and change the channel. An upbeat tone is fine for stories that don’t involve death or tragedy. The problem comes when you have two very different stories right next to each other. It’s difficult to transition from a happy story to a sad one—and vice versa. You have to change your tone and facial expression abruptly while on camera.

Pay Attention When Producing

If you are producing a show, you should pay attention to how you stack stories. Usually, the A block involves the biggest news of the day, and the biggest story is what you lead with, whether it’s a political story, an accident, a murder, or the weather. (If you work in a small market, it may be the weather more days than it isn’t.) Usually producers will start with the most important story and add other subjects in order of importance, continuing through the A block.

This is a good system, and in general you should follow it. However, with the exception of the lead story, most other topics in the A block can be moved around to avoid awkward transitions. This is sometimes done to avoid technical problems, like going from one camera shot to another without giving whoever is controlling the camera sufficient time to move the camera, set up and focus the new shot. However, it can also be done to avoid problematic transitions on-air.

One solution is to build your A block, then look at the stories. Think about their content and how the transitions will look and sound on air. Keep in mind that typical lead-ins to segments like, “And now John’s here to tell us what’s happening in the exciting world of sports today!” may sound perfectly normal in some circumstances, but tacky if they immediately follow a particularly tragic story.

When going over your A block, if you note a very sad or tragic story is immediately before or after a relatively happy one, consider whether you could add a more neutral story between them. Stories about business, the economy, road work, and city council meetings generally don’t require an especially happy or somber tone. Inserting one of those topics between two emotionally disparate stories can help make smoother transitions for everyone involved.

Anchors and Reporters Also Play a Role

Avoiding awkwardness isn’t just the producer’s job. Producers are often extremely busy, and may not always have time to consider the emotional impact of each story in a block. Anchors and other on-air talent should look over the scripts beforehand if possible. As a reporter, you should make note of the stories before and after yours, your tag, and any possible problems. As an anchor, you should look over all the stories, the lead-ins, the tags, and note if there are any drastic differences in emotional tone. If something looks problematic, let the producer know—he or she may be able to move things around for a better transition.

Several years ago, when this writer was working at a local TV station, the block dedicated to national news always ended with a teaser of the sports segment, which followed after the next commercial break. Usually the anchor’s tease was something like, “Well, our local team had an exciting day at the ballpark!” and the sports anchor would say something in agreement.

On this particular night, the world news included a story about gas prices, some sort of political news, and a story about a pregnant woman who was brutally murdered, after which the attacker cut the fetus out of her body and left the scene with it. It was an awful story, made worse by the fact that it immediately lead into an upbeat tease about an exciting day at the ballpark.

The anchors did their best to hide their discomfort and pitched to break as smoothly as possible. Afterward, they told the producer that she should have rearranged the stories in the block so the murder was in the middle, and either the gas price story or the political story lead into the sports tease. They were right, of course, but if they’d carefully read over their scripts beforehand, they could have let her know ahead of time and possibly avoided the awkward on-air situation.

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