Stations share lessons learned from 9/11
By JENNIE L. PHIPPS
Special to Electronic Media
For stations coast to coast part of the aftermath of Sept. 11 has been to figure out how to change their news coverage to better serve viewers. For some that has meant increasing their international news coverage, while for others it has meant increasing efforts to cover local ethnic communities.
These stations, all winners of the Radio-Television News Directors Association Edward R. Murrow awards for their Sept. 11 coverage, continue to evaluate and learn from the experience. Here are some of the things they identify as critical to successfully reporting a news event of this magnitude.
It's a small world, and viewers expect stations to cover it all.
"Before 9/11, we were hyper-local, but we've added more national and international, because when terrorists strike America, world events become events with local significance," said Keith Connors, executive news director of WCNC-TV, the NBC affiliate in Charlotte, N.C. The station's reward has been steadily increased ratings in virtually every daypart, with May the best book in the station's history.
Viewers really do want hard-hitting, sophisticated coverage, not sensationalism.
"The events of 9/11 have proven that people are looking for depth, perspective and context instead of flashy and sensational," said Forrest Carr, news director of WFLA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Tampa, Fla.
Mr. Carr said that conviction was driven home for him while he was visiting Northern Europe and heard coverage there of a Tampa-based organization that was suspected of raising money to support terrorism. The station had been covering the story, which was complex and not easy to report. But when it turned up on a newscast thousands of miles away, Mr. Carr knew that in covering that story thoroughly, his station was doing the right thing.
Reporting on diverse corners of the market makes for good television and doesn't have to be costly.
WOWK-TV, the CBS affiliate in Charleston, W.Va., has won dozens of awards and enthusiastic viewer praise for getting to know the local Pakistani community and for sending a reporter to Pakistan. The reporter, Kane Farabaugh -- who while in Pakistan stayed with relatives of Charleston-area residents -- brought a perspective on terrorism and the U.S. role in the Middle East that probably couldn't be gleaned as effectively any other way, said WOWK News Director Dennis Fisher.
Mr. Fisher said the whole effort cost less than $5,000 because of the enthusiastic hospitality the families offered Mr. Farabaugh. Mr. Farabaugh carried a $2,500 video camera -- good enough to do the job, but not so expensive that losing it would have been a disaster.
"I can't point to a ratings increase, but I do feel that it was the right thing to do -- that's why we did it," Mr. Fisher said.
Some of the most successful coverage by local stations explained how the story affected people outside of New York City and Washington. In Green Bay, Wis., the stories that won awards and viewer praise weren't those about people on the East Coast, even if they had close Green Bay ties. The winning stories focused on farmers, mill workers, parents and students viewing the tragedy from afar.
Said Tom McCarey, news director at ABC affiliate, WBAY-TV, "We consciously stayed away from national -- we wanted to be hyper-local. We saw it as a big part of our job to be continuously reassuring that life is going on, and we know people appreciated that."
Having a plan for breaking news is essential. "People were horrified [on Sept. 11], and it was very hard for them to work, but we had a breaking news plan, and that's what allowed us to do what we did," said Katherine Green, VP and news director for WTTG-TV, the Fox affiliate in Washington.
WTTG remained on the air with uninterrupted local coverage, 24 hours a day, from Tuesday, Sept. 11, through the following Saturday -- a grueling achievement. Under the station's breaking news plan everyone was assigned a job.
It included such details as who would answer phones and who would communicate with the control room. One person per shift monitored the feeds and relayed what was available. Another person logged tape so it was apparent what was available and where to find it. The station's general manager took responsibility for making sure that people had water, and the sales department fielded calls from the general public.
"You just have to get ahead of the curve," Ms. Green said. "Somewhere in the course of the year you have to pull out a plan and say, 'What are we going to do if the worst thing in the world happens?'"
Hire well and routinely delegate responsibility and trust.
"Our success was due to our extraordinary reporters and anchors," said Diane Doctor, VP and news director at WNBC-TV in New York City. "We have great storytellers with terrific sources and an unrivaled depth of knowledge of their communities. A story like this is when an investment in people really pays off."
John Tracy, news director for KTUU-TV, the NBC affiliate in Anchorage, Alaska, said the importance of delegating responsibility was driven home to him last September. He was traveling to the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in Nashville on the morning of Sept. 11 and he had no hope of flying home to direct coverage. Not only did his staff show up without prodding -- at 6 a.m. Anchorage time -- but they put out an award-winning report that encompassed the national issues and the shutdown of the Port of Anchorage and the threatened evacuation of the city because a Korean airliner was accidentally sending out a hijack code. "I didn't have to worry," Mr. Tracy said, "They did a terrific job without me."
Groupwide resources count for a lot too.
NBC affiliates in particular credit their group's news organization for providing leadership and resources so that every station -- no matter the size of its market -- could do a respectable job.
In New York City, "About a dozen reporters came here from our sister stations," said Ms. Doctor. "That enabled us to replenish our own people and gave us the depths of ranks that is so important in a story like this that goes on and on."