Skills Without Script

Looking back on the year 2001 in television, New York Times writer Caryn James posited that the events of Sept. 11 changed Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather from "dinosaurs in a changed world of cable and the Internet" to men of "a central importance in the national consciousness, a position they hadn't filled for years."

James went on to describe their role as one of holding the coverage together, "expressing the grief and shock the country shared while playing down the fear and panic that many people felt as well."

James was correct. The Big Three anchors did provide a sense of rock-steady comfort. But I believe they did much more, as did their high-performing counterparts at local stations around the country. They reminded viewers and the journalists who serve them that excellence in anchoring transcends cosmetics and charisma.

Sept. 11 separated news readers from news leaders. Those news executives who had hired poorly -- picking on-air talent for their "look" or "focus group appeal" -- had gambled and lost. Sept. 11 and its aftermath demanded the best of anchors as journalistic leaders, not prompter-bound performers.

This was a story that, in its first day, had no script. Top performing anchors possess an array of competencies that define what I call "skills without script":

  • Knowledge base: an understanding of issues, names, geography, history, and the ability to put all of these in perspective. The result of continuous study, learning, and reporting.

  • Ability to process new information: sorting, organizing, prioritizing, and retaining massive amounts of incoming data.

  • Ethical compass: sensitivity to ethical land mines that often litter the field of live breaking news -- unconfirmed information, graphic video, words that potentially panic, endanger public safety or security, words that thoughtlessly add pain to already traumatized victims and their loved ones.

  • Command of the language: dead-on grammar, syntax, pronunciation, tone, and storytelling -- no matter how stressed or tired the anchor may be.

  • Interviewing finesse: an instinct for what people need to know, for what elements are missing from the story, and the ability to draw information by skillful questioning and by listening.

  • Mastery of multi-tasking: listening to a producer's instructions via an earpiece while scanning a bulletin on the computer as a floor director motions a forthcoming camera change and a reporter in the field wraps up a live report and tosses it back for one follow-up question from the anchor. (Got all that?)

  • Appreciation of all roles: an understanding of the tasks and technology that go into the execution of a live broadcast, rolling with changes and glitches, anticipating the needs of other professionals involved in the broadcast.

  • Acute sense of timing: the ability to condense or expand one's speech on demand, to sense when a story needs refreshing or recapping, to know without even looking at a clock how many words are needed to fill the minute as we wait for a satellite window, live feed, or interviewee to appear.

The most interesting thing about "skills without script" is that when anchors possess them, they appear to be doing their job effortlessly. Viewers see only the smooth on-air product, not the intellectual heavy lifting that made it happen. But in every television station, the support teams of producers and directors, engineers and floor crew -- they know the real story. They know which anchors possess "skills without script."

So do their bosses, the news executives who engage in the risky business of hiring anchors. Will this talent attract viewers? Repel them? One of the cruel realities of the television news business is that there are anchors who are superb journalists, who have superior skills without script, but who fail to make the grade with viewers. And in the bottom-line world of TV news, in which short-term strategy reigns, a long-standing bromide says that in the fight for ratings, "every news director gets two anchors, and every general manager gets two news directors." After that, …they're all replaced.

For that reason, TV news execs resort to focus groups to test-drive talent before making a final hire, or they hire a competitor from the station across the street. If the anchor demonstrates viewer appeal, that -- more than anything else -- can seal the deal. If the anchor reads well enough and is attractive to viewers, "skills without script" may be desirable, but not required in the job description. The news exec gambles that the anchor will hone those skills, and prays that they'll be there when the Big Story breaks. If not, other staffers will have to work harder to fill in for the anchor's gaps and maybe, just maybe, the viewers won't be any the wiser.

CNN's hiring of former NYPD Blue actress Andrea Thompson as an anchor for Headline News was the highest profile hire of this kind. In the "news lite" days before Sept. 11, the debate over her hiring was often cast as "cranky dinosaur journalistic purists wanting to keep the club private" versus "spunky beauty just wants a chance to do a job that's mostly glamour anyway."

Last April, Seattle Post-Intelligencer television critic John Levesque wrote:

"I mean, what's the big whoop? That she has little journalism experience? That she was a professional actress? That she never finished high school? That she appeared nude in a film and a magazine pictorial?

"How much mass-media seasoning is required for one to sit at a desk, read from a script, and appear friendly/concerned/accessible on camera? I'm thinking it would be about as much experience as Andrea Thompson has, certainly. I know some 10-year-olds who could do it."

Clever writing, yes. But not fully informed about the talents that separate true news anchors from news readers. It would take Sept. 11 to drive that point home. Passionate as she might be about news and committed as she might be to on-the-job training, Andrea Thompson wasn't prepared to handle a story of this magnitude, one that plumbed the depths of anchors' journalistic and communication competencies. Anchors who lacked "skills without script" were adrift that day.

And in city after city, though most local stations turned their air time over to network coverage on Sept. 11, local anchors also had to rely on far more than their charm. Suddenly, they were weaving live, late, local information into updates and newscasts, with scripts and without.

As George Ryan, lead anchor at Baton Rouge's WBRZ-TV, told me, "I wrote down three things on a reporter pad I had with me. Steady. Measured. Careful. These three words were reminders to myself. People want facts. They want reassurance. They don't want speculation. They don't want erroneous jumps to conclusion."

Ryan is among many broadcast journalists from the U.S. and abroad who've attended Poynter's "Anchors as Newsroom Leaders" seminars. As I've led those sessions, I've seen their commitment to journalism as a vocation, not a glamorous job. Ryan, for example, is an investigative reporter in addition to serving as anchor--hardly a job for critic John Levesque's 10-year old friends.

I've also heard the anchors in our seminars share concerns about the direction of television news and the shallow nature of many of the stories they deliver each day. The last such anchors seminar we held was in late August 2001. Only days after the anchors left Poynter, their lives changed, too.

They would work long hours, keeping local vigil over the national story. Some would be sent to ground zero. They would be the Dan Rathers, Peter Jennings's, andTom Brokaws of their communities. They'd be the Katie Courics and Diane Sawyers, too, I should note, since local stations are far ahead of the networks in placing strong women at the anchor desk. All would need to be at their best, theirs skills superior, for a story that mattered more than any they'd delivered in a long, long time

Because when a story really matters, as the Times's Caryn James wrote, anchors matter.

The right anchors.

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    Jill Geisler

    Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist "spin." It takes exceptional leaders to build trust, along with the systems and culture that grow great journalism.


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