Some people know me for my all-inclusive description of what makes a compelling television news story:
WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU SAY,
AND THE GOOD STUFF GOES UP TOP.
A dear friend even had it framed for me; it was on the wall of several of my offices over the years.
It’s really self-explanatory. The stories that reach out and grab you are the ones that contain action, reaction, motion and emotion. TV doesn’t do a very good job of showing what people are thinking. That’s why the city council meeting probably doesn’t produce interesting TV unless someone is ranting and raving: action, reaction, emotion. Space shuttle takes off: action, reaction, motion and (possibly) emotion. Think of any story that ever made you lean forward in your La-Z-Boy and my guess is the more of those four elements it contained the more caught up you became.
“What you see is what you say” means that the words and pictures better match—exactly. When I was in Miami anchor J.D. Roberts (now “John” Roberts of CNN) and I had a running disagreement over having the words and pictures coincide. My contention was that if you were saying “The cow jumped over the moon” you’d better see the cow…jumping…over the moon. His idea was that the “MTV Generation” could process audio and video separately and simultaneously. He contended that complementary information could be conveyed at the same time; that the whole could be the sum of the two parts.We went ‘round and ‘round. Finally, when one of our news consultants came to town, I asked his opinion. He told me he didn’t have an opinion, he had fact: that several research studies had been done and that all showed it was cleaner and clearer to present information if both audio and video matched. He said it demands too much attention to ask people to weave two separate strands into a whole—better to do it for them. So what you see had better match what you say.
“The good stuff goes up top” means that you put your most compelling story at the top of the broadcast and your most compelling video at the top of each story. Put the hook into your viewers and don’t let them go.
Bad news for telegenic reporters: no matter how attractive you are, the best video is probably not your face! So no stand-ups at the top of the story. No talking heads, either, unless the sound itself is the most compelling part of the story: the mother of the kidnapped child asking for help, Vice President Cheney glaring and denouncing detractors.
Yup, that’s everything you need to know about putting together a compelling news story.
And I said it.
I just didn’t say it first.
And I don’t know who did! I got it (a gift, as it were) from a photographer named Tom Lehnen at the old WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids more than 35 years ago. Tom may have been the best photographer I ever worked with: he had an uncanny eye, a great sense for what was going on around him, a terrific rapport with the common man. That’s because he was an “Average Joe.” I don’t think he graduated from high school. He was not a lettered man. The only time I ever saw him read anything it was a newspaper—or some publication that would make him a better photographer. I visited him at home: not a book or a magazine in the place. So while he was a brilliant man, I don’t think I’m doing him a disservice by saying that I’m sure the “Action, Reaction” mantra wasn’t his. He never told me where it came from.
A quick sidebar. Tom got his first job in TV while working in the camera department at a local K-Mart. A reporter and photographer from WZZM-TV were filming in the store when the shooter fainted. After an ambulance hauled him away, the reporter asked if any bystander could finish shooting the story. Tom Lehnen, who had never held a 16mm camera in his life stepped up—and stepped into his new career.
As good as he was (and as I said, I think he was the best I’ve ever seen) he was frustrated because he couldn’t get better, faster. His drive was always pushing him for more, more, more. Sometime in the late 70s he got frustrated enough, I’m told, that he got out of the business. I don’t know where Tom Lehnen is today. If anyone out there does, let me know.
And I don’t know the origin of the phrase I sort of co-opted. If you do, let me know and I will gladly give credit where credit is due.