Justin McLeod's Blog

Get it first or get it right?

I spent a lot of my weekend watching the coverage of the shootings in Tuscon Arizona.  Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Congresswoman who was shot in the head, really is lucky to be alive.  That's because several news organizations reported she was dead.  She wasn't.  They were wrong and that's a problem.
Breaking news situations like this one can be chaotic for tv news, especially in the first couple of hours.  There is very little information and there is no script.  Anchors have to fill time and often repeat themselves because there is nothing new to report.  You could make the argument that they should just report what they know, and then come back later when they have new information.  I agree with this point to a certain degree.  As a viewer, I've often said during a breaking news situation I should turn back in a few hours or a day later to get the full story because often what is reported in the beginning is wrong.  But as a practical matter, I don't believe a news organization can do this.  The Tuscon shootings were such a big story that I think most viewers would have turned to another channel if say CNN only reported on the story when there was new information.  It is kinda like watching hurricane coverage.  A lot of it is silly and dangerous but you can't take your eyes off it.  

But all reporters, including myself, need to be reminded during breaking news that it is important to get the story right.  As a reporter, I am not perfect.  I've made my mistakes.  But one thing I wouldn't want to get wrong is whether someone is dead or alive.  That is something I would check with several sources.  If I only had one source, I would be very reluctant to report that.  After reporting for more than a hour Rep. Giffords had died, one cable news network had to retract the story.  Then to make matters worse, the anchors tried to make excuses!!!!  

I've been in many breaking news situations throughout my career.  It can be hectic but there's a huge adrenaline rush.  It is hard to explain it if you are not a reporter.  Unfortunately, sometimes we get caught up in the moment of trying to beat the competition.  We want to be first.  But let's not forget first and foremost we need to be right.  I hope the Tuscon shootings remind us of that.


January 6

Controversial Classic Changes

The changes to Mark Twain's classic "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" created an intense debate in our newsroom.  Not in the way you may think.  Let me explain.

First of all.  Some background.  A Twain scholar is coming out with a new version to replace the N-word with "slave" in an effort to not to offender readers.  We shot video of the N-word from the book.  When we put it on the air, we showed the letter "n" and then blurred out the rest of the word.

Some of my colleagues felt we shouldn't have done that.  One of my co-workers sent me a short reply saying "that's irony."  Another wrote to me "that makes no sense at all, even in the age of advanced political correctness.  Even if we can't say the word- -and I'll concede we ought not to speak it on the air ourselves- -the book is what it is.  How do we justify obliterating the word from the original publication?  Samuel Clemens is shocked, I am sure."

I appreciate the opinions of my colleagues.  I can see why they feel that way.  I don't necessarily disagree with them.  But I wonder what kind of response we would have received by our viewers if we showed that word on the air without any editing?  I am curious, what do you think?  Should we have shown the word unedited or did we do the right thing by editing the word?  Sometimes, there are no easy or crystal clear answers.


December 17

San Francisco

The higher ups at WDBJ decided early on when Brittany Smith and Jeffrey Easley were found, we would be going.   We had a chartered plane on standby ready to take us anywhere on the east coast.  No one ever thought it would be San Francisco.

On Friday December 17th, I had just went live at six o'clock.  Brittany Smith hadn't been seen for a week and investigators were getting more concerned by the day.  I got back to my desk and I had just filled out my time card when an urgent e-mail arrived.  It said she and Easley had been located in San Francisco.  Natasha Ryan literally ran to the anchor desk because we were less than a minute from ending the newscast.  Natasha handed Keith and Jean a note and they read it on the air.  I quickly got back into reporter mode and rushed over to the Roanoke County Police Department.  I covered the live news conference at eight o'clock and then went live at News 7 at 10 and News 7 at 11.

While I was working, the bosses were making travel arrangements.  The chartered plane was out.  We would fly commercial.   I got home around midnight.  I had just enough time to throw stuff in a suitcase because I had to be up at 3 in the morning to catch a 6 A.M. flight out west.  We arrived at the airport around four in the morning.  We got there early because we had to ship a camera and a tripod and several computers.  We were afraid we would have trouble getting through security.  Within two minutes, a woman came up to me and said "you are going to San Francisco aren't you?"  While waiting at the gate, the agent for Delta airlines came up to me and said thank you for going to San Francisco and she wished us safe travels.  I was so tired but it was nice to hear those kind words before we boarded the plane.

We flew from Roanoke to Atlanta, from there to San Francisco.  I couldn't sleep on the plane.  I am 6'2 and barely fit in those cramped seats.  We arrived in California around noon pacific time, three o'clock east coast time.  Time wasn't on our side.  We had less than three hours to feed something in for the six o'clock news.  Keep in mind my photographer Lynn Eller and me didn't know how to get around the city at all.

We quickly learned GPS and McDonalds were our best friends.  GPS helped us find the Safeway, the grocery store Brittany and Easley were found.  Typically when News 7 heads out on a trip we bring a satellite truck with us.  It allows us to feed pieces and go live anywhere in the country.  Unfortunately, it would have taken our sat truck operator probably at least three days to get out to California.  So we had to feed from the internet.  That's not as easy as it sounds.  The technology of sending broadcast quality video over the internet is still in its infancy.  It typically takes a hour to feed a two minute piece. To make it a reality, we needed a wifi.  That is where McDonalds comes in.  We would edit our pieces in the rental car and then feed using the wifi at McDonalds.  Basically our San Francisco bureau was at a hamburger joint.

People think when we go on trips it's lot of fun and games.  Hardly.  It was all work, very little play.  In fact, Lynn and I didn't see Alcatraz or the Golden Gate Bridge until the last day, and just our luck it was pouring down rain.  We saw AT&T Park (where the Giants play) literally by accident.  We drove by on our way to the CBS station in San Fran.  Didn't even have time to stop.  We were on deadline.

San Francisco is a beautiful city.  I was struck how diverse the population is, something I think is lacking in Roanoke.  Everyone was very nice.  We didn't meet one rude person.  When people found out we were from Virginia, they would welcome us.  It is a very healthy city.  Lots of joggers.  It was also fairly warm out west.  Temps were in the 50's everyday but also very foggy.  If there is a bad side to the city, it's the homelessness.  It is striking and disturbing.  It's everywhere.  I lived in Boston during my college years so I've seen homelessness but never on this scale.  They literally had tent cities in Golden Gate Park.  We would be in McDonalds and people were going through the trash looking for extra food.  It was really sad.

We went to California really with no expectations.  We had no idea if we would get anything or if we would hit a gold mine. I think we hit a gold mine.  We were able to find the campsite Brittany and Easley were staying.  We interviewed a Wells Fargo employee who saw Brittany panhandling outside the Safeway.  The best interview we got was with Theresa Shanley.  She is the woman who spotted Brittany outside the Safeway and called police.  I've interviewed a lot of people over the years and I could tell this woman was genuine.  She literally saved Brittany's life.  Shanley was crying while being interviewed.  They weren't fake tears.  What you didn't see in our story were the people stopping in the parking lot to thank her for calling police.  One guy even volunteered to buy her a round of beers.  Shanley also wants Brittany to come back to San Francisco one day and stay with her.  She feels Brittany probably has a bad impression of the city and she hopes to change that one day.  What a classy woman.

The Brittany Smith case was big news in San Francisco.  All the tv stations were following it for several days.  On Tuesday, Jeff Easley made his first court appearance.  Cameras in the court in San Fran are much different than cameras in the court in Virginia.  We all set up in the back of the courtroom and waited for the judge to make a decision.  The judge was a hour late because she was stuck in traffic.  The judge ruled we could photograph the court proceedings but couldn't show Easley's face.  We could only photograph him from the back of his head.  I had never encountered that before.  We had to fill out a request form to videotape the court proceedings.  WDBJ sent a request the day before but for whatever reason the bailiff didn't have our request.  He was ready to kick us out.  He went back to the judge's chambers.  When he came back, he told us the judge said the station from Virginia could stay.  I was so relieved.  I have no idea why the judge gave us a break but I am appreciative.

While out west, we were reminded how much of a small world we live in.  While on the air tran at the San Francisco Airport, a woman saw our equipment and asked if we were from WDBJ-TV in Roanoke.  She then proceeded to tell us how her father worked at WDBJ when it was a radio station.  Wow.  One night while in the elevator at the hotel, a woman asked where we were from.  She then told us how her mother graduated from Randolph Macon.  Speaking of our hotel, while we were eating breakfast Sunday morning we noticed a lot of security and quite a few 49ers fans.  We finally asked the waitress and she told us the football team was in the next room eating breakfast.  Too funny.

There are so many people to thank.  I appreciate all the texts from my colleagues here at the station.  I am not a huge fan of pats on the back but in this case it was the fuel I needed to keep going.  Thanks also to the Roanoke County detectives who made the trip to San Fran.  They were able to help us in many ways.  Finally I want to thank Lynn Eller.  He shot some great video, edited quickly under intense deadlines, and he put up with me!

December 2

Movie Mania

This is my favorite time of year.  No, it's not because of the holidays.  I am a huge movie buff and this is Oscar season.  I've been a huge fan since I was a teenager.  A friend and I used to bet on who would win.  I am actually pretty good at predicting the winners, not perfect.  For the last few years, I've watched all the nominated films in the major categories.  That isn't easy when you consider there are now ten nominees for Best Picture.  The Grandin Theater in Roanoke and a trip home to Boston at Christmas makes it easy.  Last year when I was home, I saw five movies during one week.  Yeah, I know I need to get a life.

I strongly believe the best person should win the award.  I am not big on campaigns or popularity contests.  I hate when people say "it's their time" or "they're young, they'll win someday."  We saw some of this last year.  Jeff Bridges is a great actor but I am not sure his performance in Crazy Heart was Oscar worthy.  But you kept hearing over and over the Academy wanted to award him for his work over the years.  A few years ago Sean Penn won for Milk over Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler.  Rourke isn't exactly mr. warm and fuzzy which I think turned off many Academy voters.  In my opinion, he gave the best performance and deserved to win Best Actor.

Sometimes Oscar gets it right.  Hardly anyone had seen Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose but she ended up winning Best Actress.  Her performance blew me away.  It is still one of the best performances I've seen in years.  Which brings me to my next point.  Some believe the Academy needs to nominate more Blockbuster type movies because ratings continue to fall for the Oscar telecast.  I strongly disagree with this.  It sounds to me like some want to dumb down the Oscars.  Did anyone really think Avatar was a better movie than the Hurt Locker?  May the best man, women, or movie win.  See ya at the movies.


November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Thoughts

I grew up near Plymouth Massachusetts, the site of the first Thanksgiving feast.  I will tell you Plymouth Rock is very overrated, a big disappointment actually.  However, the town gets you in the spirit for Thanksgiving, a holiday I have fond memories.  Watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is one of my favorites.  Kermit is still my favorite balloon.  Up north, we tend to play high school football games on Thanksgiving.  I was in the marching band and one year we performed in a full blown snowstorm.  Brrrr.

I don't have any recent Thanksgiving memories.  It is hard to celebrate when you are in the news business.  We don't have time to go home because many of us have to work the next day.  I feel the bigger problem is the fact Thanksgiving seems to get lost in the shuffle.  Christmas has overtaken Thanksgiving.  Stores have already decorated, some people have already put up their trees, and don't get me started on the Christmas music format on the radio.

I say the solution is to move Thanksgiving.  Maybe back a few weeks.  I don't think it would hurt.  According to some website, the first Thanksgiving happened someone in the fall so we wouldn't be insulting the Pilgrims by moving it.  It never made sense to me that we have to see our inlaws on Thanksgiving and then again a few weeks later for Christmas.  Also it sucks to be a college student.  You have to buy a plane ticket home for just a few days (waste of money) and then have to fly home again a few weeks later for winter break.  That is a lot of money.  Ok, there are my arguments for moving Thanksgiving.  Anyone agree?


November 17, 2010

There's a lot people don't understand about the news business.  That is partly our fault.  We don't do a good enough job of explaining what we do or why.  So I've come up with a list of media myths.  Hopefully this will clarify some of the things we do.  These are in no particular order.

Media Myth #1-we can't say Merry Christmas on the air

Every year I have somebody ask me whether there is a rule at channel 7 that says we can't say Merry Christmas.  I have the same response.  I am not aware of any such rule.  I've never had anyone here at WDBJ-TV tell me I can't say Merry Christmas on the air.  Yes, our holiday promos tend to say Happy Holidays but on Christmas Day, we say Merry Christmas.  

Media Myth #2-we hate the competition

I recently had two people say to me "I know you don't get along with the newspaper."  They were referring to the Roanoke Times.  My reaction both times was, "huh?"  We are not at war with the Roanoke Times.  For that matter, I don't hate the people over WSLS.  Yes, they are competitors and it is always nice to scoop them but it's a business, it's not personal.  At times, both do things that I don't agree with and I don't respect but I wouldn't say we hate each other.  When we see reporters from our competition out in the field, we often say hello, sometimes even tell a few jokes--usually at my expense.

Media Myth #3-all we cover is bad news  

This one annoys me the most.  We hear it all the time, "you only cover bad or negative news."  My response?  Are you actually watching our news?  We hear this especially when it comes to education.  This one dumbfounds me because we cover plenty of good news at our area schools.  I think people just choose to remember the bad ones.  For every so called negative news story, I could find in our archives a positive story from that school or that school system.  I realize educators have a tough and sometimes  thankless job but our job is not to be cheerleaders for a particular school system.  We are going to cover the good, bad, and the ugly.  If a teacher or student gets into trouble, we are going to cover it.  With that being said, could we do a better job of covering positive education stories?  Absolutely.  If you know of a good story at your school, let me know.  Just keep in mind there has to be a hook.  We are not going to cover the bake sale for the cheerleaders.  I know the bake sale means a lot to the cheerleaders, but it is not news.

Media Myth #4-conservatives can't get hired in this business

I watch FOX News a lot.  Their hosts often complain about the liberal news media.  I think they are right to a degree, there are a lot of liberals in the news business.  In my opinion, it is more prevalent on the national level than the local one.  I've never had anyone tell me to cover or slant a story a certain way.  Here's a simple solution.  Encourage more conservatives to get into the news business.  Wait, I know what you are going to say.  They will never be hired.  I am going to let you in on a secret.  I've interviewed at several stations and I've never been asked about my political beliefs.  There is no limitus test.  I have friends who work at other stations in other parts of the country and they too have never been asked about their politics. So to say a conservative can't get hired is just ridiculous.  

Media Myth #5-we favor Virginia Tech over UVA

This one is probably going to get me nowhere but I will try anyway.  We get calls and e-mails all the time from people complaining that we favor Virginia Tech over UVA.  This is so untrue (pause to let you roll your eyes).  The reason we cover Virginia Tech more than UVA is because Virginia Tech is actually located in our viewing area.  Charlottesville is a separate media market.  Our news isn't even shown in Charlottesville.  With that being said, we cover most, if not all of UVA's homegames.  We don't have the money to cover all their away games.  By the way, this is true of Virginia Tech's away games.  We will cover some of them if they are within a day's drive.  I didn't go to VT, or UVA.  My college didn't even have a football team.  I am a Virginian so I cheer when Virginia Tech wins and I cheer when UVA wins.  I have no favorites.  I realize this won't end the argument but I wanted to give you my two cents anyway.


November 8, 2010

Keith Olbermann

A lot of people are talking about Keith Olbermann's suspension from MSNBC so I've decided to weigh in.  Olbermann, the host of Countdown, was suspended for making political donations to three Democratic candidates without permission from the head of the news division.

My opinion is Olbermann broke the rules and should be punished.  The left is complaining because Sean Hannity, a host for FOX News, has apparently donated thousands to Republican candidates and hasn't gotten into trouble.  FOX News does not discourage such donations.  MSNBC does and so it's clear Olbermann broke the rules.  Even if he didn't violate any policy, Olbermann should have disclosed on the air that he made those donations, especially because he interviewed some of the recipients on his show.  I feel Sean Hannity should also be made to disclose his contributions if he interviews his recipients on his show.

As journalists, it's a big no no to get involved in politics whatsoever.  I don't donate to political campaigns.  I don't go to political rally's, unless I am working.  You will never find a political sign outside my home.  You could make an argument that Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity are not journalists.  They are talk show hosts/commentators.  I don't think anyone is surprised that Olbermann is a liberal, or Hannity is a conservative.  The problem is Olbermann has anchored MSNBC's election-night newscasts so it wouldn't surprise me if people confuse Olbermann as a journalist.  To FOX's credit, the network does not allow commentators like Hannity or Bill O"Reilly anchor on election night.  The lines are so blurred these days.  That is why I think Olbermann's punishment was appropriate.  He should have known better.


October 25, 2010