May 2, 2011

Anchors and reporters scrambled in response to alerts that President Barack Obama would be making a major news announcement Sunday night. As Brian Stelter of The New York Times wrote:

“According to Brian Williams, the ‘NBC Nightly News’ anchor, some journalists received a three-word email that simply read, ‘Get to work.’ ”

We know what happened next: coverage of the historic news about the death of Osama bin Laden. Media critic Jon Friedman watched the broadcast coverage and liked what he saw:

“Commentators were careful to keep intact their professional objectivity and not share openly in America’s sense of victory and jubilation over a deeply hated foe. Anchors on the networks tried hard to remain newsy and not give in to their emotions.”

He named names and networks, with specifics on what they said and did well. It brought to mind the same recognition of quality live coverage during Sunday’s precipitating event, the tragedy of Sept. 11.

When broadcast journalists get to work on breaking news, it’s a moment that always separates the mere readers from the true leaders. The best news anchors and “live” reporters make their work look easy, but it isn’t. Beyond voice, looks or delivery, the best possess what I call “skills without script.”

They communicate with command, comfort and clarity, even — or especially — when a story is developing so rapidly that formats and scripts are useless.

“Skills without script” are built on mental agility, critical thinking and continuous learning.

Here are eight essential “skills without script” that I teach to journalists.

1. Knowledge base: An understanding of issues, names, geography, history and the ability to put all of these in perspective for viewers. It comes from the journalist’s commitment to being a student of the news.

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

3. 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 or words that add pain to already traumatized victims and those who care about them.

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

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

6. Mastery of multitasking: The ability to simultaneously: take in a producer’s instructions via an earpiece while scanning new information from computer messages, texts or Twitter; listen to what other reporters on the team are sharing and interviewees are adding; monitor incoming video — and yes, live-tweet info to people who have come to expect information in multiple formats.

7. Appreciation of all roles: An understanding of the tasks and technology that go into the execution of a broadcast, the ability to roll with changes and glitches, and anticipate all other professionals involved.

8. 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 while awaiting a satellite window, live feed or interviewee.

Whenever viewers have the chance witness the control room of a broadcast facility or observe live at the scene during breaking news events, they are inevitably amazed at the on-air calm that transcends the off-air chaos.

That’s the essence of skills without script and the measure of the best broadcast journalists.

Previously: How to publish credible information online while news is breaking

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Jill Geisler is the inaugural Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity, a position designed to connect Loyola’s School of Communication with the needs…
Jill Geisler

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