This is part one of a three part series on covering news in the face of crisis or tragedy. I wanted to highlight perspectives from three different positions; that of a reporter, a host and a program director. These conversations are all with people I’ve worked with over the years and highlight (in my view) the right way to deliver the news in difficult the face of difficult situations.
We start first, with the perspective of a reporter……
7/14/99- A TRAGIC DAY IN MILWAUKEE
Doug Russell is a veteran reporter and host who had two different stints at Milwaukee’s legendary news-talk station WTMJ. On July 14th, 1999, the city was shook when “Big Blue” a heavy lift crawler crane being used at the construction site of Miller Park, collapsed. Three workers were killed and significant damage was caused to the stadium. On this day, Russell, working in the sports department, had to “flip that switch” to hard news and cover what turned out to be a local tragedy. What resulted was a team effort by WTMJ that earned Russell and the station local and national accolades.
RM: Take us back to that day and set the scene. When did you first learn of this situation and what was your reaction?
DR: I was at my desk at WTMJ’s Radio City studios. There was an old television on wheels in the office that happened to be on the closed feed from the static camera our sister television station, WTMJ-TV had. I glanced at it as I went to my desk to prepare for that evening’s Sports Central show that I was producing at the time. The camera was trained on it because there was a scheduled roof “pick” that day involving the Big Blue crane and TMJ4 wanted it for their archives. These “picks” had become mini-events because they were the most visible signs the stadium was coming together.
Nothing was amiss and I didn’t think anything of it until about 60 seconds later when our airborne traffic reporter, Tom Carr, first reported on the accident (audio below). I turned around and on the screen was a crumpled blue crane draped over the first base side of the ballpark and dust was flying everywhere. My reaction was to find my news director, Dan Shelley and asked “what can I do?” He asked me if I had recording equipment. I told him I always keep a crash bag in my desk (a helpful hint for everyone involved in live news reporting). Dan immediately told me to take the cell phone (we only had one for the entire station; they weren’t commonplace yet) and get down there as fast as I could in afternoon drive time traffic.
RM: When you were on your way to the scene, what was going through your mind?
DR: On my way down from Milwaukee’s East Side to the stadium I was listening carefully to WTMJ for any information the guys in the studio were looking for as well as traffic reports. What I didn’t realize is that WTMJ morning anchor Cheri Preston (now at ABC Radio News) was on the Marquette University campus for a graduate level class when she heard the report as well. Marquette, only being a very short drive to the stadium, gave WTMJ the first reporter of any kind on the scene (audio below). Cheri was the first to report from an eyewitness that three iron workers died in the accident. She was unflappable. Just an incredible reporter…even borrowing a stranger’s cell phone to do her first report (attached). Through her early reporting, she gave me, a very young radio personality at the time, instructions through her example of what we were looking for as a station.
As a side note, as it turns out, I was also the last reporter to leave the scene, at 5am the next morning, as WTMJ rightfully made the decision to have a 24 hour presence at the sight of the biggest news story in America that day. From midnight-5am, I did live on-site reports during the top of the hour news.
RM: You arrived on the scene and I can only imagine it was chaotic. How were you able to get yourself balanced with what was going on and also with what your newsroom was asking of you at the time?
DR: When I was a news reporter, I covered the court case of David Spanbauer. David Spanbauer was a monster who terrorized Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley for years, sexually assaulting, torturing, and murdering young women and girls. The news training I had from that court case, talking to the families of Cora Jones, Ronelle Eichstead, and Trudi Jeschke steeled me for just about anything. You lose part of your humanity, but that’s the price most journalists have had to pay to varying degrees for dispassionately doing their jobs. Think about how 9-11 was reported on, for example. At some point you still have to just put your own human feelings aside and do the work your audience demands.
RM- You have lived in Milwaukee most of your adult life. How were you able to put your emotions aside and focus on what was such a tragic event for the city…in the days and weeks afterwards?
DR: The aftermath for the city was significant at the time, but as the saying goes, time really does heal all wounds. There is a generation of Brewers fans that never saw a game at Miller Park and will never know the names of the three men (Jeffrey Wischer, Jerome Starr, and William DeGrave) killed that day. At the time it was devastating. To the families of the men killed, even more so, obviously and still to this day. But the city has moved on. As for me, it gave me the opportunity to show that I could cover a major breaking news story live on the air. The audio eventually landed on One-On-One Sports VP of Programming Mark Gentzkow’s desk, and he hired me as an anchor/reporter a few months later. Cheri would end up in New York at ABC, so she did pretty well too. WTMJ’s coverage was recognized with several awards from the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the Milwaukee Press Club, the Associated Press, and the Radio-TV News Directors Association, bestowing us with the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for spot news coverage.
RM: If you could give advice to anyone who would have been in your shoes that day, what would it have been? For anyone that is rushing to the scene of a situation like this (especially where loss of life is involved) how do you best handle it?
First, always have a “crash bag” at arms length with everything you need to report a breaking story. It’s a terribly overused term nowadays, but they call it “breaking news” for a reason. You never know what is going to happen when. So have a bag with a recorder, a mic, mic flag, paper, pens, extra batteries, a computer if you can. Whatever you would normally take to a news situation, have in your crash bag. If it’s your first time on the scene of a tragedy where loss of life is involved, take a moment to realize that you probably will be speaking with someone who just lost a family member – how would YOU like to be treated if the shoe was on your foot? Know to not ask a question like “how does it feel” to lose a loved one (how do you THINK it feels, jackass?). Empathy goes a long way in those situations. On the flip side, you still have a job to do. You can be empathetic while still calmly reporting the facts. But I think it’s important for every reporter to just take a breath and recognize the gravity of what they are reporting on before going on the air and just blurting out the first thing that comes out of their mouth.
That’s a wrap on part one. Next week, we’ll take a look at this topic, but from a host’s perspective.
Viewership Not as Strong For Biden-Trump II
The second and final U.S. presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden took place on Thursday, Oct. 22 and across 15 outlets, it drew 62.95 million viewers. While the first Biden-Trump debate from Sep. 29 (73.13 million) ranked as the second most-watched debate in TV history, Biden-Trump II failed to crack the top 15 most-watched debates (placing 17th).
Once more, Fox News Channel — expected to top cable in total viewers for the week ending Oct. 25 — was the top outlet for a debate; Biden-Trump II drew 15.41 million viewers. CNN drew less than half of FNC’s audience figures with 7.51 million viewers but still ranked as runner-up on cable; MSNBC (6.93 million) close behind.
ABC led the broadcast networks in debate coverage with 11.23 million viewers. The debate’s moderator was NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker which may have led NBC to be the lone network to increase its viewership from the first debate; it drew 10.63 million, up 9 percent from Sep. 29. CBS attracted an audience of 5.72 million.
Here were the half-hour total viewer breakdowns of Biden-Trump II on the broadcast networks:
9:00-9:30 p.m. ET
ABC — 10.881 million
CBS — 5.319 million
NBC — 10.249 million
Univision — 1.288 million
Telemundo— 1.397 million
9:30-10:00 p.m. ET
ABC — 11.648 million
CBS — 6.000 million
NBC — 11.017 million
Univision — 1.506 million
Telemundo— 1.479 million
10:00-10:30 p.m. ET
ABC — 11.248 million
CBS — 5.858 million
NBC — 10.683 million
Univision — 1.501 million
Telemundo— 1.489 million
Unlike Biden-Trump from Sep. 29 and Harris-Pence from Oct. 7, Univision (1.43 million) was Biden-Trump II’s top Spanish-language outlet. Telemundo delivered 1.27 million viewers.
The debate affected the crowd for Fox and NFL Network’s “Thursday Night Football”. Giants-Eagles drew 10.61 million viewers, the smallest audience for TNF in two years.
For the week ending Oct. 18, 2020 in total day data (from 6 a.m. to 5:59 a.m. each day), Fox News Channel led the cable news networks in both viewers (2.38 million) and adults 25-54 (418,000). MSNBC (1.32 million) bested CNN (1.16 million) in total viewers while it was vice versa in the key demo (CNN’s 287,000 adults 25-54 vs. MSNBC’s 207,000 adults 25-54).
Top 10 most-watched cable news programs (and the top MSNBC and CNN programs with associated ranks) in total viewers:
1. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Wed. 10/14/2020 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 5.854 million viewers
2. Hannity (FOXNC, Thu. 10/15/2020 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 5.843 million viewers
3. Hannity (FOXNC, Wed. 10/14/2020 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 5.427 million viewers
4. Hannity (FOXNC, Tue. 10/13/2020 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 5.326 million viewers
5. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Tue. 10/13/2020 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 5.159 million viewers
6. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Mon. 10/12/2020 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 5.129 million viewers
7. The Five (FOXNC, Wed. 10/14/2020 5:00 PM, 60 min.) 5.035 million viewers
8. The Ingraham Angle (FOXNC, Thu. 10/15/2020 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 4.994 million viewers
9. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Fri. 10/16/2020 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 4.956 million viewers
10. Hannity (FOXNC, Fri. 10/16/2020 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 4.710 million viewers
23. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Fri. 10/16/2020 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 3.872 million viewers
66. CNN Tonight (CNN, Thu. 10/15/2020 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 2.905 million viewers
Top 10 cable news programs (and the top MSNBC program with associated rank) among adults 25-54:
1. Hannity (FOXNC, Thu. 10/15/2020 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 1.158 million adults 25-54
2. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Wed. 10/14/2020 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 1.076 million adults 25-54
3. The Ingraham Angle (FOXNC, Thu. 10/15/2020 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 1.051 million adults 25-54
4. Hannity (FOXNC, Wed. 10/14/2020 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.999 million adults 25-54
5. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Tue. 10/13/2020 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.988 million adults 25-54
6. CNN Tonight (CNN, Thu. 10/15/2020 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.916 million adults 25-54
7. Hannity (FOXNC, Tue. 10/13/2020 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.890 million adults 25-54
8. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Mon. 10/12/2020 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.883 million adults 25-54
9. The Ingraham Angle (FOXNC, Wed. 10/14/2020 10:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.853 million adults 25-54
10. Tucker Carlson Tonight (FOXNC, Fri. 10/16/2020 8:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.843 million adults 25-54
22. Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC, Thu. 10/15/2020 9:00 PM, 60 min.) 0.674 million adults 25-54
DEBATE PREVIEW: It’s a Thankless Job, and Unfortunately She Has to Do It
The stakes are even more complicated now that the Commission on Presidential Debates has changed the rules.
NBC News White House correspondent Kristin Welker has the job nobody wants tonight.
Welker will try to reign in President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday night in the second and final debate of the 2020 election.
The president attacked Welker on Twitter and in rallies this week, calling her terrible and unfair, setting up a debate showdown with both his opponent and the moderator.
It’s a thankless job for Welker, who will have to corral a president who needs to do well in the debate to shore up what appears to be a several-point disadvantage with less than two weeks of voting left in the election.
Several colleagues and other news personalities came to Welker’s defense this week, but the true grit will come on Thursday night when she will have to tightrope between keeping personalities in check and not becoming part of the story of the night.
The stakes are even more complicated now that the Commission on Presidential Debates has changed the rules.
Just as in the first debate, the debate will be 90-minutes long divided into six 15-minute segments. Each candidate will deliver uninterrupted remarks in response to a question from the moderator at the beginning of each segment. Then the debate will move to an ‘open discussion’ period for the remainder of the 15 minutes.
What’s different this time is that the mics will be muted during the 2-minute answer period for each candidate. They will not be muted during open discussion.
This is where things will get tricky for Welker.
The president, anxious to make his points and make up ground on Biden, will likely be even more aggressive during the open discussion. Their personalities are starkly different without the pressure of playing catch-up.
How will Welker react if Trump simply talks over Biden and dominates his time during the open discussion?
Interruptions will “count toward their time,” but again, that puts the pressure back on Welker. She becomes the center of the evening at a time when public trust of the media is at or near all-time lows, and one candidate is actively undermining trust in the media at-large and this moderator specifically.
It’s a job nobody would want, but Welker is a seasoned professional.
Here’s wishing her luck.
Capitalizing on Debate Season
Your station carrying not only the presidential debate, but also carrying debates in statewide races, can grow and keep your audience tuned in.
The election season always brings opportunities for news talk stations to shine. The audience knows they can go to you for the latest information, news and events. I’d imagine there won’t be a news talk station (that isn’t fully syndicated) that won’t carry this week’s second and final Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
It’s relatively easy to do, it’s great for branding and it hopefully draws you some cume during a time of day when your station might not typically get it.
But what about carrying debates from some of your local races?
It seems like debates at the state level are happening less and less each election cycle. Political consultants are convincing campaigns that it’s only the blunders that get remembered and the campaigns flush with cash are better off letting their TV and radio ads do the storytelling for them. Whether you are Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, that’s a disservice to the voter. But it’s the way things are trending, unfortunately. Incumbent favorites usually find every reason to not debate their opponents.
So when a debate does occur, how can your radio station capitalize on it? And should you carry it?
Here in Kansas City on KCMO Talk Radio, we will be airing a congressional debate on Thursday, October 22nd, between incumbent Democrat Sharice Davids and Republican challenger Amanda Adkins. The seat that was Republican for nearly a decade until 2018, when the House of Representative’s “Blue Wave” hit Kansas’ third district. As a news talk station, our conservative audience would love nothing more than to flip the seat back into Republican hands.
Also, the seat covers essentially the entire side of the KC Metro in Kansas. Unlike in Top 5 or Top 10 markets, where congressional districts, for example in the Dallas-Fort Worth market can include up to, or more than, 10 congressional seats, the Third District of Kansas is the bulk of the Kansas side of the KC Metro and is a relevant race to a huge part of the listening audience.
With that being said, we elected to carry the Third District debate this week which is set to begin at 5:30 p.m. There was some hesitancy as it is in the middle of Ben Shapiro’s afternoon drive show, and Ben is performing well on the station, but considering the percentage of the audience that lives in this district, combined with the fact that it’s the only debate between the two candidates, we decided to move forward.
Also, it gives us a great branding opportunity as Thursday being “Debate Day” and a “Two-Fer”, as listeners will get our local, Third District debate at 5:30 p.m. and then later that evening the Presidential Debate at 8:00 p.m. We’ve used that branding on our website and social media.
The lead up to the event will be just as important, if not arguably more important, than the debate itself. All week long, we’ve been able to push on the station via promos, liners, imaging, etc. our ability to cover the local and national races better than any station in the Metro, while branding ourselves as the station, politically, where “if it’s happening in KCMO, it’s on KCMO”. Thursday’s debate will be another example of coming through on that promise in a way no other station in the market will be.
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