The past few days I’ve had the benefit of enjoying some time off and during that time I couldn’t help but be drawn more to CNN, Fox News and MSNBC as a result of the situation in Ferguson, MO. Having spent 5 years of my career and life in the St. Louis area and still maintaining friends in the area today, I was curious to find out what was going on with the chaotic situation that has been unfolding for more than a week now.
What started as a curiosity on my part to learn more about the story, ended up becoming a reminder of how important it is to handle breaking news coverage the right way. Some of this may seem obvious but as simple as it may appear, not every individual or brand handles things right when it comes to dealing with major stories that require an ability to think and react quickly and wisely.
Case in point this past weekend’s news television programming. I think most would agree that the Ferguson, MO shooting and situation between the police, protesters and looters qualified as a major breaking news story. If you work in news television then it would qualify as an all hands on deck type of situation. What occurred though was perplexing.
On the positive side, 1120AM KMOX in St. Louis was on top of the story every single minute. The station went wall to wall with on-air coverage and I saw numerous people involved with the radio station tweeting, posting photos and continuing dialogue with listeners. I could tell quickly that the brand was connected with its audience and invested in making sure they had the most up to the minute information on the story.
Dana Loesch who hosts her own syndicated radio show and works for “The Blaze” network, was also highly invested in the story and offering different viewpoints on the situation. She too was dialed in with her audience on Twitter and was supplying audio samples of things that she had gathered on the show to further help with gaining perspective.
KMOX and Dana Loesch are both St. Louis based so they had an opportunity to be closer to the situation and to their credit they took advantage of it and went full throttle on the story. In simpler terms, they played the hits and super served the needs of their audiences.
On the local television side in St. Louis, Fox-2 KTVU and News 4-KMOV did a stellar job covering the scene to provide eyewitness footage of what was taking place and they kept their focus on presenting the facts which is difficult in situations like this. So many outlets are battling for information and want to provide it to the viewer as quickly as possible so what impressed me with both stations was how they kept their standards high and just reported what they knew rather than try to become the story.
On the flip side, KSDK-4 in St. Louis dropped the ball big time. Rather than stick to reporting the news, the station became the news after they elected to sensationalize the story and show footage of the police officer’s home which had his address on the house. This caused an uproar from local viewers and led to the creation of a “Boycott KSDK” facebook page which as of last check had over 29,000 likes. Many of those people also planned to boycott outside the TV station to voice their unhappiness with the station’s lack of judgement.
The station to its credit came out and apologized after for their egregious error but the damage had been done. Poor judgement during a pivotal time cost the station its trust and loyalty from the audience and a whole lot of bad PR. One could make the case that their quest for higher ratings on this day, could cost them a lot more in the future.
Spinning it to the national side, Fox News almost always wins in the ratings because for the most part they do a good job. That top notch programming though wasn’t on display this weekend however. Instead I tuned in on 5 different occasions for coverage of the Ferguson story only to find the network showing taped programming or a quick news update. On one occasion they even presented a live show and focused content on Rick Perry’s issues in Texas rather than the Ferguson situation. That was very surprising and disappointing for a channel which is usually the first choice for news programming.
MSNBC meanwhile was slightly better than Fox News but they too were missing in action on the lead story too often. In a few instances I once again stumbled across taped programming rather than live coverage of the biggest news story in the country.
The one national network that owned the story was CNN. Anytime I put the channel on, they were focused on the story. While some of the coverage became tiresome due to repetition, they kept the focus on what mattered to most people and I felt after 3 days that if I wanted to know anything about the story from a national perspective that I could trust CNN for their commitment to it.
When stories like this unfold I think it’s extremely important to be all-in with your coverage. I can handle a listener complaining that we spent too much time on a major news story a lot better than having to explain why we were absent on it. Listeners and viewers turn to us hoping to receive information when things like this occur and if we’re not fully invested in the content that everyone is talking about, then we not only lose the audience today but we lose them in the future too when the next big event happens.
I also think it’s critical when these types of stories come up to be very smart and factual when reporting information. When I see a channel like KSDK make an error and show a police officer’s address on live television during a time when tensions are high, I can’t help but wonder which manager made the call and what repercussions they’ll have to deal with for making such a bad judgement. The last thing you want to do in a situation like this is become the story and KSDK became that for a day when they made one really bad decision.
It reminded me of a situation I went through in St. Louis back in 2007. I was programming 590 The Fan in St. Louis the day the Mitchell Report was released. A ton of baseball players had been found guilty of using PED’s and rumors began to swirl that when the list was made public, Albert Pujols’ name would be on it. Albert was the most popular figure in St. Louis and had been a great representative of the city and his being on this list would no doubt crush his public perception and put his entire career under the microscope.
Our competitor 1380AM chose to go on-air and report that Pujols was indeed on the list. At the same time, Fox 2-KTVU made the same call and decided to send a crew over to Albert’s restaurant and ask patrons how they felt about Pujols being on the list and whether or not they’d eat at his place of business again in the future.
The guys on my staff started to get antsy and wanted to run with the story and a few were starting to question why I was holding back on going with the story. I remember getting into a spirited argument with one of my guys and I told him “I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to St. Louis’ biggest superstar and if I’m late reporting on him cheating the game of baseball I can live with it….but I won’t be ok sleeping tonight if we make a decision to report him as guilty when we don’t have evidence to show that he is“.
An hour later the Mitchell Report came out and Albert Pujols’ name wasn’t on it. The staff seemed to be more relieved that we didn’t get beat to the story than happy that we were accurate but truth be told, it was a big risk. I had a 50/50 shot of being the hero or the goat and I chose to follow my gut and my beliefs which were “you’re innocent until proven guilty“. Maybe I’m old fashioned with situations like this but I’d rather be late and right than first and wrong.
The next day, I got a call from a member of Albert’s camp thanking me for how we handled the story and I specifically remember Albert expressing his disappointment with the local media during his first local news conference. Because we hadn’t presumed him guilty, he would grant a sit down interview with one of my reporters and one other local TV outlet who had also elected not to assassinate his character without evidence.
Now I didn’t care if Albert liked my radio station or not and I didn’t make that call hoping it would lead to him appearing on a show, I did it because it felt right and I believe attacking one’s character is only warranted when there’s evidence to support doing so. Going on witch hunts and reporting speculation is a dangerous area that usually results in the broadcaster having egg on their face. I can recall more personalities being suspended, fired and/or sued then those coming out on top after accusing someone of something without evidence.
It sounds basic but when breaking news happens I think you’ve got to be on top of it immediately and you’ve got to ask the right questions. As difficult as it may be, you’ve got to separate fact and speculation and do so quickly. So many people are in a rush to get content on the air that they hear one side of a story and run with it and then when the other side comes out later, they look foolish. It’s ok to report the one side that you know but how you paint the picture has a lot to do with how you’ll have to navigate the next part later on.
Even worse though is turning a blind eye to a story and pretending it isn’t there. When we first launched 95.7 The Game in San Francisco we spent a lot of time talking about these types of situations and sure enough, during our first month on-air there was a huge local story that I felt our crew did an excellent job with while our competitor missed the boat.
The 49ers and Raiders played a pre-season game at Candlestick Park in August 2011 and at that game a number of fights broke out in the stands and bathrooms. There was also a shooting in the parking lot. It was a scary situation and easily the number one story throughout the Bay Area.
Our competitor that Monday did a nice job of landing Joe Montana for an interview fifteen minutes before we did, so they had the advantage of getting the perspective on the situation first from one of the most famous San Francisco 49ers of all-time – except they never asked him about the situation.
Instead they spent 8 minutes of the interview asking Joe about the San Francisco Giants and 2 minutes on Alex Smith’s QB abilities. As soon as I heard what they were doing, I called my morning producer to make sure we had a strong plan ready for when Joe appeared with us and sure enough we did.
Joe then joined us right after that conversation and the first question from my morning crew was about the violence at Candlestick Park. We then spent the first 6-7 minutes of the interview talking about the situation with Joe and he was engaged in the topic and went as far as to tell us that when he played for the 49ers, he too saw similar situations occur in the stadium and didn’t always feel safe there. His comments would go on to make national news that day and become a topic of conversation for the rest of the broadcast day.
What happened that day was a result of good/bad strategic execution and that’s the same thing that took place this past weekend with the news coverage of the Ferguson situation.
I’ve seen people lose careers over making the wrong calls in these kind of situations and my approach is simple “dive into the story immediately, share the facts, allow for audience interaction and voice your opinion based on what you know“.
In these cases, we’re not the story – we’re simply the messenger passing along the information and giving people an outlet to express their opinion at. Your brand’s loyalty and trust are at stake and how you handle things determines whether or not your audience will turn to you again in the future.
I can tell you this, as someone who watches news television on a very limited basis, when the next major news story breaks my first stop will be to CNN not MSNBC or Fox News. It’s then CNN’s job to present the information well, keep the programming interesting and give me a reason to stay. If they don’t, then they’ve created an opportunity for their competition.
This is exactly what you’re faced with when the next big story breaks. Don’t try to be the one person in the room who thinks that just because everyone else is talking about it you don’t need to. That’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make. If you care about the needs of your audience and want their support in the future, give them what they came to you for.
It’s no different then going to see your favorite band. If they play every song that never was released and ignore the “hits“, chances are you’ll leave the show disappointed or less than satisfied. Those who crank out the tunes that everyone knows, usually benefit from having the crowd sing and dance along and spend more money on other CD’s, merchandise and tickets to future shows.
Like it or not, you work in the breaking news business and how you react to big events says a lot about your judgement and the way you value your audience. Embracing the subject, reporting the facts and allowing people an opportunity to weigh in puts you in position to form a deeper bond with the listener. Sensationalizing the content, reporting inaccurate information and choosing to ignore the story completely earns you mistrust, your brand being boycotted and in some cases unemployment.
Playing the hits isn’t difficult – you’ve just got to check your ego at the door and let the story be the star. Question is, can you do that?