Just the facts ma’m, just the facts.


The tragedy in the West Virginia coal mine and the subsequent misinformation that hit the air makes me think of how many times people have skated on thin ice in the effort to be first on the air with the info. I know, newspapers ran with the wrong information too, but breaking news is what TV and radio are about.

I’ve seen it happen it happen so many times in a newsroom where, word comes in that something is happening and everyone should standby to hit the air. Everyone gets into place and the anchor is begging for information so he or she doesn’t look like a doofus and actually has something to say. Then the anchor is told off air that a live truck is almost at the scene and he or she needs to fill time while the mast goes up and the signal is locked in so the reporter on the scene can get on the air live. Too often, this is where the facts will sometimes morph into speculation and then get transformed into erroneous information as the anchor kills time trying to stretch, especially if there are only a few bits of information. Most of the time it’s minor. In the case of “breaking news” where a traffic accident has closed down one lane or one side of the “loop” the anchor can talk about the video he or she is seeing while waiting for the reporter.

But too many times, the whole point of the exercise is to be first on the air so it can be built into a promo. It’s pretty much just bragging rights in the newsroom. I think it’s safe to say most viewers don’t really care who got on the air a few seconds ahead of someone else. They just want information. Not the same old, same old repeated over and over. They want information, especially if you are interrupting their soap opera. And that interruption had better be important. Too many times, what is billed as “breaking news” in Memphis is not breaking news at all and could have waited. Too many times TV news has cried “wolf” and when I worked in the business, I felt I was one of those crying “wolf”. A tornado sighting is a legitimate reason for breaking into programming. I’ve questioned some other reasons.

In 16 years down on the river, I’ve seen some pretty good live, breaking news on TV. I’ve also seen some bad live, breaking news on TV and I was part of it. I’ll even take the blame for some of it.

I will say that one of the best examples of what local TV does best came at the hands of the competition and sold me on the idea of a dedicated TV news chopper. It was about five years ago and some little boy and his dog had wandered away from his home on a chilly winter day just north of the Memphis/Shelby County area. Law enforcement along with friends of the family had searched all night for the little boy. The big concern was hypothermia since the weather was pretty cold. Memphis PD had sent their chopper with infrared scanning to the area and news choppers were working the area as well. Apparently the police chopper spotted something but I think couldn’t stay in the area because it had to refuel. A chopper from the competition must have heard about what the police chopper found and moved into its position. That station broke into programming and the chopper, using its stabilized camera, zoomed into an object on the ground. It was the little boy and almost on cue, the little boy looked up at the camera. His dog was with him. People in our newsroom broke into a cheer to see he was alive. Yah, we got beat on the story, but that was great TV. That made it worthwhile to break into programming.

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