The Lifeblood of Broadcast Journalism (Hint: It’s Not Technology)

May 28, 2014

Author: Bill Einreinhofer, Chair, Broadcast Journalism Department, New York Film Academy

Broadcast Journalism

At first glance, talking about Broadcast Journalism means discussing technology. Microprocessor-based HD cameras produce stunning images. Nonlinear editing software allows for intuitive, imaginative editing. “Live shot” reports are sent back to studios via powerful microwave transmitters. Stories are uplinked to satellites, and then distributed around the world.

Technology is useless, however, without meaningful content. A good news story must always address what in Journalism School are called “the 5 W’s” – Who? What? Where? When? Why?

Classic narrative storytelling actually dates back to the start of human civilization. It is the most basic, and most effective, way to share information. The structure is deceptively simple. In every story there is a beginning, middle and end.

Often this is termed “writing a story in three acts.” The first “act” provides basic information: the time of the story, the place where it is taking place, and the characters. This locates your story, and the people within it, in an understandable context. Without context, most information is meaningless.

The Weather Bureau says it is going to snow tomorrow. But where will it snow? When? Why?

In the second “act” complications and conflict are added. Good journalists know that there are at least two sides to every story. Sometimes there are five or even six. Like life itself, these stories are complicated. As the storyteller, you have to make sense out of them for your audience.

“Act” three provides a resolution and outcome, or sometimes sketches out what might happen next. Because complex stories can continue for days, months, even years. After all the votes are counted, it’s usually clear who has won or lost an election. In life things are seldom resolved so neatly.

While Shakespeare had the luxury of time, broadcast journalists don’t. We work in an environment where a two-minute news package is considered “long.” That’s one of the reasons why we are always looking for “compelling storytellers.” Audiences respond to intriguing, empathetic characters. In fact, when you are sent out to cover a story, you become something of a “casting director.”

But the people you are dealing with aren’t “characters,” they are real people. In telling their story, you must respect them. It is their story, not yours. You have a duty to honestly represent them in your report. One of my mentors once provided me with a basic guideline to judge the accuracy of my reporting. “If you show your story to the people in it, will they feel they were authentically represented?”

If they don’t, then I haven’t done them, or my audience, justice.

Narrative Storytelling is a technique you can use in a variety of ways. In fact, look at the structure of this essay. It has a beginning, middle, and an end…

Bill Einreinhofer is Chair of the NYFA Broadcast Journalism department. A three-time Emmy Award winner, he has developed and produced programming for PBS, CBS, ABC, Discovery and HBO. His work has been seen on major broadcast and satellite channels in North America, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.