news is, by its definition, unexpected. While a hurricane’s path
can be predicted days ahead of time, the size and scope of the impact
it will have is an unknown. An urgent news conference might have to
be scheduled only hours in advance.
emergencies, like April’s Boston Marathon bombing, come without any
newsroom has to respond to big, breaking stories. It’s a challenge
for even the most experienced news directors to provide accurate,
up-to-the minute coverage to listeners — sometimes for hours, days
or weeks on end.
the WBZ(AM) newsroom learned of the marathon bombing, News Director
Peter Casey said, “the immediate goal was to get people down to the
site, to where the people [were] fleeing, and to the hospital,
because that’s where the stories [were] going to be.”
problem was that the reporters who had been assigned to cover the
elite race had already left to go file their stories, 50 minutes
before the blast, and it was difficult to get journalists back to the
scene, because people and traffic were being ushered away by police.
to Casey, for listeners just tuning in, “You want them to know
almost instantaneously what you’re covering [and] what has
happened. Is there a danger to people in the area? … You’re
thinking, ‘This is clearly a public safety issue.’”
Tim Scheld, director of news and programming for New York City’s
WCBS(AM), “Our job is to be the eyes and the ears of the people
listening to us.” He recalls when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 landed
on the Hudson River in January 2009. The newsroom started getting
phone calls about a plane on the river. However, “we had not seen
it anywhere else. We had not heard it anywhere else, and the scanner
chatter wasn’t really conclusive. But it became clear to us that
something was going on.
philosophy is to send everyone we can in from all directions,” says
Scheld. Better to have too many people there than too few, just in
case everyone is needed; you can always back off later.
Flight 1549, there was a reporter a couple blocks away who was called
in. It turned out that traffic cameras had a clear view of the plane.
“We literally had a live picture from a camera, showing us a plane
bobbing up and down in the Hudson River,” Scheld recalls.
reporter was on air describing the situation — “the equivalent to
having our helicopter over it.”
the story quickly is important, but so is getting it right.
“don’t have much access to officials. You’re witnessing what’s
going on,” says Casey. “What you’re seeing is accurate and
the same time, he says, “You have to use your own experience and
judgment not to be too hasty to jump on things … There’s an
adrenaline rush during these types of situations — to do as much as
we can to put out as much information as you can. But there has to be
a check and a balance.”
order to keep control over what’s going on air, Casey says, he has
reporters work from scripts rather than ad-lib, whenever possible.
BETTER THAN FIRST
days after the Boston bombing, the Associated Press, Fox News and CNN
were among organizations that wound up having to issue retractions
for having incorrectly reported key information. At WCBS, Scheld
says, “We were going on the air and being very honest. We were
saying the AP said that here is a person in custody ... but not only
can CBS News not confirm that, CBS News has sources that say it’s
just not true.”
adds, “Nobody wants to hear it first if it’s wrong.”
this reason, News Director Mike McMearty at Washington’s WTOP(FM)
says their newsroom philosophy is to “First get it right, then get
it first,” which he credits to the station’s Vice President of
News and Programming Jim Farley.
almost sounds like a contradiction,” McMearty says. “You don’t
get to the second part unless you get it right.”
media users came under criticism during the Boston manhunt, too —
for posting and tweeting raw, uncorroborated information from police
scanners. Casey points out scanners have been in newsrooms for
decades. “It provides you with that good base of information of
where there’s activity that might be worth investigating.”
However, he strongly cautions that the scanner only tells you what
police are going to investigate, not what has actually happened.
“It’s not a source by itself.”
the Beltway sniper attacks in the Washington area in 2002, county
police asked the press not to report where they had set up
roadblocks. “We had to think about another way to do this,” says
McMearty. “We could report that there are delays on I-95 where the
police are looking for suspects, without tipping off exactly where
the blockades are.” Public safety comes first.
important breaking story can last hours, days or, as in the case of
the Beltway sniper, even weeks. When a news team is in it for the
long haul, it becomes a priority to keep the staff going strong.
might seem obvious, but Casey advises to “keep (reporters) fed,”
then to “think about who’s been on the air how long. What shift
is coming next?”
the manhunt for the second suspect closed in on Watertown, Mass.,
four days after the marathon bombing, WBZ had reporters inside the
police perimeter. “They were either going to be sleeping in their
cars, or not sleeping all night long,” Casey says. “We could not
get relief staff inside that perimeter.”
1 a.m., the station finally was able to bring in relief, but the
situation reinforced the need for basic preparedness. “Every
reporter should always pack a bag of clothes. You’re going to need
something to eat, and something to drink,” says Casey. “They
should have an emergency bag in the car, [because] you never know
where you’re going to be.”
the sniper attack happened, it was a hellish three weeks,” McMearty
recalls. “We did stories we never thought we’d do, such as about
how to avoid the sniper.”
Sept. 11, 2001, the station made a psychologist available to the
staff. WTOP also brought in a voice coach to help on-air staff learn
how to care for and control their voices, and to recognize how they
recommends paying attention to how reporters sound on air, especially
the tone: “Bring it down a notch.”
all, during emergencies, “people are hanging on the words we’re
saying. How we say it is important.”
very seat-of-the-pants in our business. There is no manual that you
sit and open up and say how you do this,” says Scheld. At WCBS, “We
do know every day that we can do things better than we did today.”
emphasizes that reporting breaking news is a team effort, which is
why it’s extra important to trust your staff.
news director, according to McMearty, has to be all things — “a
go-between, hand-holder, cheerleader and constructive critic all on
to Casey, during any crisis, a station’s role is to be a “utility,”
so that the listener “can turn on that flow of information and not
have it stop.”
Riismandel is a 20-year veteran of community and college radio. He is
co-founder and technology editor of RadioSurvivor.com.