In the course of two weeks, the study didn't find many stories that would win awards. But stations demonstrated a variety of good ideas that local TV newscasters and project researchers found worth noting and emulating. Here are seven storytelling approaches that worked and why:
- Let People Talk – Local TV reporters often get in the way of their own stories. They write over the pictures rather than to them. This negates the most powerful aspect of television – letting viewers connect with people by hearing and seeing them. A few stories stood out because they let the subjects talk. In Wichita, KAKE told the story of State Senator Susan Wagle, whose cancer inexplicably vanished untreated. Wagle, who was to be sworn in as State Senate Pro Tem the next day, attributes her recovery to prayer. Better than half of the over-four-minute piece is Wagle, her doctor and her husband talking – and in long takes. One soundbite, a poignant exchange between husband and wife, runs uncut for 45 seconds. The reporter's restraint allows the real story – the bond between Wagle and her family – to emerge in a natural and persuasive way. It also lets viewers who might have scoffed at Wagle's religious conviction take a closer look.
- Anticipate and Make Public Policy Come to Life – Is there a way to cover politics that works? One route is to anticipate governmental actions by laying out the issues before they get mired in legislative polemics. Tucson's KOLD did it in a story about the pluses and minuses of reducing air pollution at gas pumps. Eight percent of local pollution was being caused by vapors at the pump. There is a remedy, but it would raise gas prices and cost stations $60,000 apiece – a lot for small independents. After the issues were calmly laid out, the reporter revealed that the county council was taking up the issue the next day. When New York's governor proposed a bill to create charter schools, WABC reported what it might mean for students. A university researcher explained the potential benefits and problems, giving viewers a quick primer. Parents reacted from both sides. More interviews were needed, but the station's instincts about how to react to proposed legislation were right.
- Look to Other Communities – Sometimes you have to get out of town to better understand things back home. To explore a proposed $400 million light rail system in Minneapolis, KARE sent a reporter to St. Louis to examine a similar new train service there. The story provided a way to look at how a project only in the planning stages might actually work. St. Louis's system was largely a success, although it did not pay for itself. But St. Louis had more traffic problems in the first place, and its system was bigger than the one proposed for Minneapolis. The approach cut through the sound bite rhetoric that accompanies speculative issues and provided facts about light rail that people could believe.
- Give It a Sense of Scale – A bad government agency or a corrupt police officer can make good television, but reports on such topics too often exaggerate the problems. Several pieces in the study deftly used numbers and public documents to illustrate the scope of issues – and avoid scare tactics. In a report on abuse at a local nursing home, Louisville's WAVE took a broad view and found the problem might be state standards. Regulations didn't mandate staffing minimums for nursing homes, for instance, but they did for child care centers. Regulators had found deficiencies in 118 of Kentucky's 300 homes, but state officials were not required to check whether the problems were ever resolved. Minneapolis' KARE used figures to emphasize problems with state trucker certification, but also didn't let a good story get in the way of the facts. Truck drivers could have as little as eight hours of training from one-day schools. But the lax standards had not yet led to an increase in accidents. The number of miles logged by trucks had climbed 40 percent in recent years, but the number of accidents had fallen 35 percent.
- Offer Answers – It is not unheard of for a news director to send a correspondent off to a story with the reminder, "give me the fear and loathing." In short, make it scary. Several pieces avoided the cliche by providing viewers with useful advice and coping strategies. KMOV in St. Louis ended a series on nursing homes with practical information on how to select and monitor homes. Viewers could inspect state reports, visit at odd hours and find out if there is a "plan for care" for each patient. It also gave the phone numbers of the local regulatory agencies – and left them on screen long enough for someone to actually write them down. WHDH in Boston saved an otherwise wild and ragged piece about how some companies may secretly alter employee personnel files, by detailing that people had the right to examine their files and rebut false claims. While information like this can help viewers, the "news-you-can-use" approach can also be overdone and banal. Case in point, at the end of a piece on heart attacks, St. Louis' KDNL told viewers that if they had concerns, they should call their local hospital. Really?
- Watch Your Tone – Another way to avoid the trap of trying to lure viewers with scare tactics is to acknowledge when problems are small and avoid ominous speculation. In a piece about the potential problems with an asthma drug, Boston's WCVB was clear early on that there are side effects in "less than one percent" of patients. It also resisted making a villain of the drug company, making clear that the manufacturer was working to fix the problem. In a piece on whether cellular phones cause cancer, Chicago's WLS balanced the anger of a man who blamed cell phones for his wife's cancer death with a neurosurgeon and a scientist who both said there was no actual proof cell phones cause cancer. At least for now, the story emphasized, the biggest known risk from cell phones was being distracted while driving.
- Give Viewers a Good Story – Sometimes a story should be told not because it is a burning issue but because it's just a great story. "Dying for Dollars" by KCBS's Lonni Leavitt was one of those, even though it should be noted the topic was first reported by NBC's Dateline. Leavitt chronicled how people fake their own deaths to collect insurance money with the help of crooked officials and unscrupulous funeral directors in Haiti. The story made good use of a hidden camera and a savvy private investigator. To emphasize how easy it can be to fake a death, Leavitt faked her own – watching her funeral procession from a nearby rooftop. All three tactics, hidden cameras, hiring consultants, and reporter involvement, can be overused, but here they worked. The key, however, was the cast of unsavory scammers – from the funeral director caught on tape, to one "dead" man – who after his resurrection, arrest and flight – resurfaced as a governor of a state in the Philippines.
All of these techniques can be executed poorly or well, and surely there are many more good approaches than these. Yet the study confirms what most news directors already know: The vast majority of stories are reactive. Fewer than 10% came from ideas generated in the newsroom. People in local television need more time to think – and execute.
Dante Chinni is a writer in Washington, D.C. whose last piece for Columbia Journalism Review was "Pushed Off the Press Plane," May/June '98. The analysis here is the product of a team of eight researchers and local news veterans who reviewed the tapes.