If you spend time on social media, you might have seen the story of nine-year-old reporter Hilde Kate Lysiak, who broke the story of a murder in her small town of Selinsgove, Pennsylvania—beating adult journalists to the scene. Not long after, critics took to social media to suggest someone her age would be better off “having tea parties” or “playing with dolls” than covering serious crimes like a murder. Lysiak later read the list of complaints in a YouTube video, and went on to say, “If you want me to stop covering news, then you get off your computers and do something about the news. There, is that cute enough for you?”
Lysiak later told the Washington Post she received a tip from a reliable source, confirmed it, and went to the crime scene. She then posted the story on her digital and print newspaper, Orange Street News, hours before The Daily Item, a local community paper newspaper that declined to comment for the Post article. Her father, author and former New York Daily news reporter Matthew Lysiak, said there were no other reporters at the scene of the crime when she arrived.
Although the Post story only mentioned the local newspaper, Selinsgrove appears to be part of the Harrisburg DMA, which is 44 on the Nielsen ranking list. Stations that serve small towns in addition to larger ones don’t always have the resources to cover crimes in the smaller, outlying areas. In these cases, an assignments editor may choose to report the story based on the information in a police report rather than sending a crew to the scene.
Getting Scooped Happens
Every journalist wants to be the first to report on a big story, and many TV stations place a high value on bragging that they were “first on the scene” or “first to bring you the news of such-and-such event.” While no reporter or media organization can be first to the scene of every story, you should aim to get the scoop more than you get scooped.
There are a lot of reasons reporters and producers lose the opportunity to break a story. Sometimes it simply isn’t possible—in smaller markets, stations may only have one or two reporter/photographer teams on duty, especially during slow news times, like overnight. If news happens and all your available teams are on the other side of town covering other stories, but your competitor happens to have a crew nearby, you may be out of luck. Stations in larger markets have the opposite problem—they have more reporters and photographers, but they also have more news.
Avoidable Causes of Losing a Big Reveal
While some missed opportunities aren’t avoidable, many are. Sometimes, especially in smaller markets, the person assigned to monitor the news room’s police scanner simply misses something. Maybe he or she steps out of the room at the wrong moment. Maybe something sounds less newsworthy than it actually turns out to be. Plus paying attention to the scanner isn’t the only way to gather news—some reporters have missed out on major leads because they ignored a viewer tip that sounded like a crank call, but wasn’t.
The Police Scanner Is Your Friend
If it’s your job to monitor the police scanner, pay attention and remember just hearing the radio isn’t enough. It’s easy to get focused on a task, like stacking the next show, and hear something without really processing it—especially if you’re used to the sound of routine conversations between the police dispatcher and patrol officers. That’s why it’s helpful to have other people in the newsroom listening at the same time—a coworker might hear something that you’ve missed because you were concentrating on writing an intro to a package, for example. If you happen to have interns, teaching them what to listen for on a scanner can be a good learning experience for them, and take some pressure off you.
But sometimes you may be alone in the newsroom if you work in a smaller station—or, your coworkers might all be as distracted as you. It’s a good idea to train yourself to listen for specific things that are out of the ordinary—an increase in chatter on the radio, for example, over the normal level, might signify something is happening beyond a traffic ticket. You should also familiarize yourself with the codes dispatchers and officers use. While there are far too many to memorize all of them, you should make note of the ones that indicate the most newsworthy events, like a homicide, bomb threat, car accident, etc. After you’ve been listening to the scanner for a while, you should have yourself trained to take notice whenever you hear one. Keeping a comprehensive list of codes handy is also helpful, in case you hear a less-common one you can’t place.
…But Not Your Only Friend
While the police scanner is a great tool for any news organization, it’s not the only one. Most stations also maintain a “tip line” for viewers to call in when they witness news, a link to report news on the station’s website, or both. As you might guess, this setup can attract crank calls, and you should always take anything you get from these sources with a grain of salt until you confirm—but you should try to confirm the information, no matter how kooky the person delivering it might seem.
If you receive a phone call or email about potential news, ask appropriate follow-up questions. Where is this news event happening? Have the appropriate authorities been contacted, if necessary? Does the caller have any video or pictures of the news event? Sometimes a quick call to your press contacts at the local police or fire departments can confirm or refute a story quickly. If the claim doesn’t involve a call to authorities, you may be able to find the answer by searching on the internet.
Don’t Forget Social Media
Not every viewer with a great tip is going to call a tip line or use the appropriate link on your station’s website. Sometimes audience members may just post something on your Facebook page or Tweet a tip to your official Twitter account. Even if you’re busy, it’s a good idea to frequently check your social media accounts, if only briefly. You may just get a big tip that turns out to be legitimate. On the other hand, if a viewer is mistaken, confused, or just getting a good laugh out of posting lies on the station’s social media feeds, you want to know so you can delete the posts—or respond with a correct version of the story.
How You Look at a Story Is Important, Too
Sometimes you might cover a story, but miss a bigger related piece of news. This is easy to do when you’re focused on reporting the facts, especially if you’re working under a tight deadline. Once you’ve written your script, however, it can help to think about the story and all its angles. Have you missed something? Could this news affect any particular public figure, or maybe a group of people in the community?
If you have time, it’s always helpful to do an internet search on people involved in crimes or accidents, whether you consider the story newsworthy or not. Even if the event seems cut-and-dried, you never know what might turn up. It could be the guy who just got arrested on a drunk-and-disorderly charge is running for City Council. While drunk-and-disorderly stories usually aren’t that newsworthy—except on a really slow news day—it’s always interesting to viewers if a local politician is arrested, even on a misdemeanor charge. Or you might find out a company that just received a lucrative city contract is run by someone related to the mayor or a City Council member. Considering all the angles might open up new opportunities to report on a big story.