Just Go

Amanda Lamb is a crime reporter for WRAL TV in Raleigh, North Carolina, who has been working in television for 26 years. She is also the author of eight books including true crimes and memoirs. To learn more about Amanda go to www.alambauthor.com or follow her on Twitter @alamb and Facebook, WRAL Amanda Lamb.

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I can’t tell you how many times I am in the newsroom and I see a reporter in his or her cubicle glued to the computer screen. Many times, he or she is trying to find someone connected to a story we are trying to air that day. I can tell by the frazzled look on the reporter’s face that the reporter has not gotten results.

Sure, the internet has great resources to find people. Not only can you simply look up a phone number and address, but the number of public records that exist online these days is amazing to a journalist who grew up scouring phone books and consulting map books. Today, in under five minutes, I can usually find out where you live, what the heated square footage is of your house, how you vote and whether or not you’re in a relationship if you happen to have a social media profile that’s not set to private.

Don’t’ get me wrong, the internet provides great tools to learn more about a person in your story, but they are not a replacement for face-to-face interaction. For example, most of the time when we call someone and ask him or her to do an on-camera interview about a controversial story we are risking getting turned down. I would estimate you have a greater than fifty percent chance of getting rejected. And once they turn you down over the phone, you’re toast. You can’t in good faith knock on their door.

But, if you don’t call, and you just go, I believe you have a much better chance of getting the interview. This technique has worked for me so well over the years that my managers allow me to take risks, to drive a long distance for an interview that may not pan out. But many times it does pan out—the reason, because people trust you more in person. Over the phone you are a faceless, disembodied voice that is very easy to say no to.

Years ago, we went to small towns without a clue of where to find someone and simply went to the local general store and asked around.

“You all know Joe? Anyone know where he stays?”

Today, we have the added advantage of knowing in many cases exactly where to go, in addition to having the person’s number at our fingertips. I would urge young reporters when you have time to resist the urge to drop a dime, and instead, pay your potential interviewee a visit. You might be surprised by the results.

Read more from Amanda here

Take the extra step

By: Mandy Mitchell

How many times have you been working on a story when you think you have enough?

You have some pretty decent soundbites and b-roll and it sure would be nice to be done and edited early for once. That’s when you have to ask yourself, is there an extra step you could be taking?
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Quick story: There was a kid I covered during my first job who had a mom who was in a car wreck. He gave unbelievable sound during a media event about her recovery and how much it was hurting him to be away. Great stuff!

I went back to the station super excited and wrote a pretty good story. I even got a pic of his mom- which was way harder to do at the time without twitter and facebook. The story was good. It just wasn’t nearly as good as what my competition managed to do.

The reporter from the other station took another step.

He called the affiliate from the kid’s hometown. Turns out, the station covered the car wreck because it was pretty serious. They sent him the clip from the newscast from when they reported on the wreck. They also went to the hospital and got a quick soundbite with the mom and a little video of her in her bed. The affiliate did this in exchange for the really good sound from the hometown boy.

(People from other stations tend to be extremely helpful when you can offer a great story in return.)

My competition did this all with the same amount of time I had. I just didn’t think to do it. It felt like a huge punch to the gut when I saw their version. I got my tail kicked.

This was a huge lesson to always be asking myself if there is another step.

Is there one more phone call I can make? Is there another angle? Is there a piece of video I should get before heading back to edit? Is there one more interview I can do? 

If I could have ANYTHING in the world to make this story better what would it be? If you can think of that, try to go get it.

 

 

 

Basics of public records

It is Sunshine Week and we are celebrating with some really great information about public records from WRAL investigative journalist Tyler Dukes. I sat down with him for about a half hour to talk about what young journalists should know about public records and how you can learn to use them.

You can follow Tyler at @MTDukes on twitter.

You can follow along with Sunshine Week at @Sunshineweek

sunshine week

Q: Why is Sunshine week important to journalists?

A: Sunshine week is our annual reminder about why we do this stuff. I think there is a greater awareness of the fact these records are accessible to the public than there was 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Sunshine week is our opportunity to educate the public and for us to reeducate ourselves, as journalists, government officials and citizens about what the laws are that govern transparency.

This doesn’t just apply to public records. This is also open meetings, which are extremely important. The decisions public officials are making on your county level, on your state level, on your city level…all of these things are done with this idea that open government is better government. That’s a value that journalists and citizens share and frankly a lot of people in government share too.

Q: For a lot of people who are getting into the business, this is a very intimidating subject. How do you even begin?

A: I think the attitude we try to approach public records with is that if it is created by the government, it belongs to us. It’s important to know public records law typically applies on a state by state basis, so unless you are asking for a federal record which is a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) issue, you’re typically going to be dealing with laws that are different state by state.

In North Carolina, what’s nice, is this idea that “records are default public” is sort of written into our law. Some states have lesser degrees of that.

There are many exceptions to this. There’s patient privacy, there’s academic privacy, there are issues surrounding criminal investigations, but at least in North Carolina those exceptions have to be explicitly laid out and the people who respond to our requests have to point to them.

Really this should make sense internally because our tax dollars have paid for the creation of these records. They’re ours. We are entitled as citizens to access them, to copy them and to use them to expose the inner workings of government good and bad.

So I think really the most important thing if you want to be a reporter who makes use of public records pretty often is you want to come at this with an attitude of “these already belong to me,” and it’s contingent upon the public official to convince you otherwise. That tends to help you in the negotiation.

Q: What should a reporter do if they have their public records request wrongly decline?

A: It is important to remember sometimes, depending on who you are dealing with, if you are dealing records on a city or county level you may have public officials who don’t really know public records law. This is an opportunity for you as a journalist to say “well no actually that is not how this works. There is a state records law.”

You don’t have to be a jerk about it. My default stance a lot of times is “polite insistence.” I try to make sure I am very polite, very straight forward about what I want. Sometimes it does require you to point to a specific law. I think in North Carolina specifically, the public records law is not terribly long and it’s not a bad read as general statutes go. So it helps to know the state law for your specific state with regard to public records. That’s a good starting point because you can literally point to those statutes.

The other thing is to sort of act in good faith. I have argued with many a public records officer about these issues, but one of the things I hope they understand from the very beginning is that I am not trying to make their job harder. I am trying to do my job. I also recognize sometimes accessing and copying or pulling down public records, be it emails or whatever it may be, it does take work on the part of public officials. One of the things I do try to do is make sure the request I am making is as narrowly tailored as I can make it. That doesn’t mean we are always making small requests. Sometimes we are making very large requests, but I typically want to communicate with that public records officer and say hey look, if you have suggestions on how to make this easier, I am all ears. I will consider those. I am not going to back down from what I want but I do want them to know I am arguing in good faith.

Q: Is it important for your station to have legal backing in case something does go wrong? What about smaller stations without access to lawyers?

 A: Having lawyers on your side is a hell of a thing. I think here at WRAL we are in an ideal place because we have sued over public records. In fact we are in the middle of a lawsuit right now. That is getting rarer and rarer so what you are seeing is we are entering into the lawsuit with a coalition of news organizations, but you don’t need lawyers. Things have to get pretty bad because a lot of times people will clam up when you start to think about lawyers.

 A lot of times you have the ability to go in and argue on the legality of public records without including legal counsel and that is just done by pointing to the law.

 Q: Where is the best place for a  young journalist to go to learn the law in his or her state?

 A: One good place is the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. They have a couple of really great resources including generators that allow you to type in some basic details and will generate a public records request for you or a FOIA request for you. They also have a detailed breakdown state by state of how the records laws work.

Another great resource you might think about is looking at what is typically called “open government coalition” or something along those lines. In North Carolina that’s what it is. It tends to be collection of news organizations and municipalities and counties and other government groups who are all interested in open government.

Q: How do you get to the point when using public records becomes second nature and almost fun?

A: I think probably the first document you get where you really see a story, a big story that no one else has, that you found and you are able to report that out and tell a great story…I think that becomes a real driver. Because it stops becoming a battle for pieces of paper and becomes a battle for true intelligence about government and the way government operates.

I would say on Sunshine week, take the opportunity to submit a public records request to your school or to your city or county or your state. It’s a really great learning experience.

 

Useful links:

Sunshine Week

Student Law Press Center

Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press

Be a Friend

Kelly Riner is an assignment editor at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC. Kelly’s experience ranges from producing to working on the assignment desk. She also field produces and plans special projects. Kelly graduated University Valedictorian from North Carolina State University with a degree in Communication Media, and she has a Masters of Humanities from Duke University. She’s worked at WRAL for 14 years, and prior to that, she wrote for the Fayetteville Observer. Kelly also oversees the News Production Assistants at the station.

Whatever age you are when you step into your first TV newsroom, it’s a scary experience. For me, I had just turned 19, and was a sophomore in college. It was a newsroom filled with people who had worked in the business anywhere from 2 months to nearly 50 years. Now, more than 14 years later, I still remember each name of each person who welcomed me into the newsroom. I remember who talked to me, who reached out to me, and who was open to making a new friend.

No matter how great you are at your job, how much viewers may love you, or how much the bosses may be proud of your work performance, if you don’t have good relationships with your co-workers, you’re going to have a hard time in this business.  No matter how much you love your job, how driven you are, how passionate you are, and how much you want to succeed, just like in any career, there are going to be bad days, days you’re going to need someone who understands, days where you’re going to want someone to listen, days where you’re just going to need a friend.

The simplest way to ensure you’ll have a friend is by being a good friend. I cringe when I hear someone say, “I’m not here to make to make friends.” That’s fine, but I think one of the most incredible perks of a job where you meet so many people from all different places with different sets of life experiences is the friendships you’re afforded. My advice: Don’t miss that opportunity.

When you’re working with someone, really talk to them, get to know them. Say hello, ask people how their day is going and listen to their answers. Invite someone to walk to the breakroom with you. If you get a chance to grab a bite to eat, find someone who can go with you. When someone does a good job with a story, produces a great newscast, finds breaking news first, etc, take the time to tell them you noticed. Tell them in person, or if you don’t see them, shoot them an email. It doesn’t have to be fancy or long, but a few words can go a long way toward making someone’s day. If you see a person having a bad day, put a piece of candy on their desk.

When someone new starts, whether they’re your age or not, whether they’re in your same division or not, welcome them. And I’m not just talking about sending them a message on twitter. Introduce yourself. Offer to help them out in the newsroom. Offer to make suggestions on things to do or places to eat if they’re new to town. Tell them they can call or text you if they have any questions. Invite them to functions you’re doing with other work people. Help them get to know people. You never know, that person could quickly become an amazing friend, your mentor, your best confidant, or all of the above. And you, in turn, could make all the difference for them as well. All you have to do is reach out. Be the person you remember making a difference for you when you first walked through the newsroom doors. Be a friend.

Read more posts from Kelly here

Learn to Listen

By: Mandy Mitchell

How many times have you been interviewing someone when you have no earthly idea what the person just said?

You are busy thinking of your next question. Or maybe there are complicated facts you are going over in your head to make sure you don’t look silly. Maybe you are one-man-banding and the cloud just covered up the sun AGAIN and you have to adjust the iris AGAIN and you didn’t hear what the person you are interviewing just said.

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That is stuff we all do and it’s stuff that gets in the way of truly listening. It’s the kind of stuff that can not only make you less effective as an interviewer, but can also cause you to miss out on something really great.

Quick story…

I was covering the College World Series at my last job and the coach surprised us all by naming a relief pitcher the starter for the next game. It may not sound like a big deal, but trust me, this was BIG news in Columbia, SC. It would be of great interest to our viewers and it was cause for many questions from the assembled press.

As we threw question after question at the coach, Ray Tanner, he mentioned the team’s trip to the local children’s hospital and casually noted that it was great to see an “old friend” who just happened to be a young man with cancer. No one was listening when he said that. Everyone was busy with this big story.

Luckily, I was listening.

I hung around after the other reporters had left and asked coach Tanner about the boy. He smiled and told me all about how Charlie was a bat boy for the team years earlier and how they had kept in touch. “Charlie will be at the game tomorrow,” he said. “You should meet him!”

Long story short, this ended up being an incredible story.

When the story aired another reporter came to me and said “how the heck did you find out about that?”

I told him how he had been there when Tanner mentioned it. “Oh…I didn’t hear that.”

This isn’t the only time this has happened. I have found many a story by simply listening during the interview process. I am also certain I have missed out on stories by not truly listening. It is very easy to focus on the 97 other things in your brain and that looming deadline.

Next time you are doing an interview, make a real effort to listen. Don’t worry about your next question. If you are listening, you will know what to ask. This practice will not only lead to great stories, it can also lead to better questions.

 

 

 

 

The Best of The “A” Block

NEWS (Not “breaking” because that’s overused):  The “A”Block will be adding a podcast element in the next few weeks. You will be able to hear extended interviews with industry leaders as well as some fun stuff along the way. The podcasts will be posted here just like a regular blog post.

While we work on that, here’s a look back at some of the more popular posts you may have missed back in the fall.

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Team Panic

Top Ten Words and Phrases to Avoid

Five Small Ways

Don’t do this you won’t make any money!

You will never see me on TV