#fail: Learning from newsroom nightmares

My own newsroom fiascos are the best learning tools I have in the classroom.   

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 🙂


5 thoughts on “#fail: Learning from newsroom nightmares

  1. Hi Nicole,

    You are so brave and wonderful! I don’t have mistakes from the newsroom, as I don’t actually think I have ever been in one, but I have made many mistakes that I have learned important life lessons from.

    While I was reading your post, I was strongly reminded of a TED talk that Teresa led me to a while back and that I thought was fantastic. It’s about changing our paradigms about what it means to be wrong. If you get a chance, I think it’s valuable time spent watching it. Maybe you can even use it in the classroom.

    As always, best to you, my friend,


    • Ok, I’m officially a “wrongologist”. Thanks for the link Leanne, and anyone who has about 18 minutes of time on your hands, check out the TED talk above. My favourite part is the idea that we have certain expectations, and then “something else happens”. I think how we deal with the “something elses” is what truly makes people stand out, not the event itself.

  2. Pingback: Carnival of Fail – #jcarn Roundup 4 « Carnival of Journalism

  3. I have made many many many professional mistakes, and I like to think I will go on making them. But the bulk of my booboos came, understandably,at the beginning of a career in news. Lots of good reasons for that. 1- still really learning a lot 2- news means fast decisions means inherent mistakes 3- lots and lots of decisions to be made everyday, so great calls 99.5% of the time…probably still works out to a gaffe each week. A couple of personal beauties spring to mind…an editor came to me once in a rush and asked me if I had a minute to look at a story – I had written the script – about trouble in jerusalem. I was squeezed for time, so I asked him to describe the shots he had used, which sounded okay to me, and he was a very good editor, so I just said, never mind, it’ll be fine. And of course- we ended up matching pictures of ultra orthodox jews at the wailing wall, to a voice over about agitators within Hamas… My lesson there? when anyone expresses unusual concern over a story in progress, drop everything and listen to them, especially if it is inconvenient to do so… A perhaps more shameful mistake again some years ago…working weekend news with limited camera crews… the veterans parade was on my weekend shoot list….along with many other things, including the first walk to remember the Ottey Sisters, a pair of girls of impeccable promise, athleticism and academic potential, who had been murdered. It was a conflict of schedule, my brilliant assignment editor warned me it was looking like one or the other…I tried for both. No veterans parade. There were howls on our viewer response lines. The parade was a deafening absence in our local newscast. My news director, with whom I did not always see eye to eye- correctly made me go into speakers corner- our little streetside video booth, make a public mea culpa, and then put that story to air in our regular friday edition of city online…kind of like viewer mail for news. It was good for our crediblity, it was necessary really to acknowledge my error, and personally I have never had a problem with public atonement. ( And I have plenty to atone for!). The thing is though, that mistake did not have a neat and tidy lesson for me. Two simultaneous, important stories, one camera… The story with the greatest audience should trump all, that’s understood. And I still think a news person’s job is to try and tell every story that matters…but this week, as the last-ever veteran of world war one dies in Australia, and takes with him the only remaining eyewitness account of those epochal years…I wonder what make and manner of broadcast mistakes are still out there, waiting to be made by me.

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