By John Mair
With thanks to bbc.co.uk/journalism where this will be published.
Christmas is not for us saddos.We find lots of displacement exercises to avoid too much festive spirit.This year I spent half of my Christmas and Boxing Days watching a dvd of British television news reporting through the year. Seven hours in total,maybe seventy items varying from half a minute to five. I am sad not a sadist. I was doing some judging .It led me to think of the qualities that make a great television reporter and there were some in my seven hour telly-thon. Advice for ingénues..
Firstly,be a reporter.Observe, ask questions and tell a story or two in your piece. It helps if you have done ‘real’ journalism on a local or a national paper (where the subs will have hopefully taken the wrinkles out) but it is not a necessary condition. You’ve gotta have curiosity aka nosiness and a tinge of mischief to make a good journalist on any platform in any field. Plus,naturally, the usual qualities of respect for facts,truth and speed.
Secondly use those journalism skills to their fullest and best.But always remember Television and TV news is Mickey Mouse-it looks and should be simple but getting it to that state is the complicated process. Do some research, even it is on the fly or on the flight to the earthquake or flood. There is never an excuse for researching on air or on tape. There’s simply too much out there in the global library of the internet for you not to have sampled it. Plan your interviews and pieces as much as possible in advance but change that plan if the story does not fit your template. If you don’t you are an apologist not a journalist,
Thirdly ,make sure you are in the right place at the right time with the right people. Much TV journalism involves ‘fixing’-making sure the people are there and the story is too when you turn up.Beg,cajole or bribe your way to pole position and avoid the herd instinct. The great reporters are often mavericks who will plough a lonely furrow away from the pack. It often pays dividends .Look beyond the bar of the ‘hacks hotel’ and the bleeding obvious. But do also remember that good journalism is not just about fixing. Too many times having swum through treacle and months of negotiations to get to a story,the reporter forgets the basic story telling skills .They’ve done it by getting there and they tell you that. Wrong.
Fourthly, remember you are working in television where the operative word is vision.Every picture is worth a thousand words but some are worth ten thousand. You usually have two minutes tops to get the story across mainly in sequences and sync. Stunning shots do so much of the heavy lifting for you. Your words are there to enhance the pictures not to fight them or turn the piece into an illustrated essay. The great reporters use just the phrase to lift the pictures..’like the sun in ,the death toll rises every day’ in one piece I watched.
Fifth,know when to talk and when to shut up. Economy of words is all. The great reporters allow the silences or the natural sync(real people talking) or better the pictures to do the talking/story telling for them. Write a script but then see how you can cut it down. Wall to wall commentary ruins too many pieces.
Sixth, make sure you know how to put the package together for maximum impact. Is the best stuff/story first? Have you got the running order right? Not true of some of the pieces I have been judging .If you have time before transmission ,throw it all in the air and in a different order thanks to non linear editing.
Seventh, the stand up or piece to camera shows you have been there and have the cred to tell the story.Think,carefully,of where it goes in the piece, from where to where and what it will say to the viewer. Make it stand out as well as stand up.I still remember from two decades ago Paxman in the van of a Sandinista march in Nicaragua oe MayDay and Charles Wheeler lending gravitas and quality to a so-so ‘Newsnight’ story about police violence against blacks in Notting hill with a stand up coming out of the public loo where it was alleged to have taken place. It made me pay attention.
And finally make sure your gem gets an audience. Sell it within the news organisation,sell it on the programme,trail it and get it studio intro-ed in a ‘sexy ‘way.Entice people to watch it.Otherwise all your thousands of miles in that uncomfortable military cargo plane ,time on patrol dodging bullets,fixing,cajoling,shooting ,writing packaging will have come to naught. Your piece will drift past the audience and drift past the award judges like me.Greatness needs hard work and hype but you know it when you see it.
John Mair is a senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University.He was a producer of factual programmes at the BBC,ITV and Channel Four in a previous life.