To illustrate the need for clear communication in the control room, I share a story from my producing days. It involves a reporter named Wilson doing a live hit from a fire on Wilson Road.
Just as we went to the reporter we lost his audio. I yelled “Drop Wilson!” The director dropped the tape of the fire from the show. I said, “No, leave Wilson in!” He stayed on the reporter who stood staring into the camera with a quizzical expression on his face.
Never mind the finite instructions required in any control room to ensure things go smoothly—the next few moments of our exchange could just as easily have been an Abbott and Costello skit—the results of which played out before the noon-hour news audience.
Making mistakes is something you don’t want to do as a producer. Discussing mistakes is something everyone in the business avoids at every opportunity—unless of course it’s somebody else’s.
That attitude needs to change.
In the weeks and months that followed the mind-numbing terrorist attacks on 9/11, I was the senior producer of the weekend 6 o’clock newscast for a local Toronto station. The newsroom, and the whole world, was on tender hooks.
During that time, I was in charge when a small plane crashed into a small building in the U.S. It was only an hour or two before the show went to air. There were no details about why, but there was no indication it was a terrorist attack. In fact it was so non-descript I couldn’t find that particular incident in a quick Internet search when I was writing this blog.
But that day, it was the lead in my show. I approved the script that started with something like, “Breaking news, a plane just crashed into a building…..”.
Before we went to air, one of the most experienced, skilled writers I’ve had the pleasure of working with—who had at least 30 years more experience than I did—came up to me and said, “Do you really want to go with that?”
Deep down, I knew exactly what he was saying – do I really want to give that much importance to a story that is probably nothing? I basically brushed him off, rationalizing with myself that it was the obvious lead given the fact not much was going on that day, and the recent events south of the border.
Then we went to air—and I knew I made a mistake.
The recent events south of the border were precisely why this story should not have been my lead. If it wasn’t a possible terrorist attack then why give it such prominence? I remember sitting in the control room, with a sinking feeling in my stomach.
But strangely, besides the one writer, no one called me on it. And he was gracious enough not to say I told you so. To this day, for all I know my boss thought it was a great show.
That incident made me a better producer. I weighed my options, and responsibilities, more carefully. It makes me a better teacher because I can use a real-life example of what not to do. Maybe if I’d talked about it with someone I worked with at the time they could have learned from my experience too.
The newsroom, however, is such a competitive environment the idea of being thrown under the bus by one of your colleagues isn’t cerebral—generally, you don’t bring attention to one of your own mistakes.
But if journalists are truly concerned with improving the quality of stories, and building better relationships with the audience, they need to admit it’s mere humans creating content and learn from, not jump on, each other’s errors.
The impetus for this post was the topic for this month’s Carnival of Journalism—#fail. The idea is that we can all learn from each other’s failures—if we’re willing to talk about them. So now I challenge you to bare your newsroom nightmares in the comment section of this blog. You could share a valuable lesson…and give me some new material for next year’s students 🙂