Eight top tips to become a great TV reporter
It’s been exhausting: I have been watching seven hours, maybe 70 items, of television news pieces from last year, varying from half a minute to five. Not just for fun: I was doing some judging.
It led me to think about the qualities that make a great television reporter – and there were some in my seven-hour tellython.
My eight top tips …
- 1. Be a reporter. Observe, ask questions and tell a story or two. It helps if you have done ‘real’ journalism on a local or a national paper (where the subs will have hopefully taken the wrinkles out), but it is not a necessary condition.
You’ve gotta have curiosity and a tinge of mischief to make a good journalist – on any platform, in any field. Plus the usual qualities of respect for facts, truth and speed.
- 2. Use your journalistic skills to their fullest. Remember that television and TV news is Mickey Mouse – it looks, and should be, simple; but getting it to that state is a complicated process.
Do some research, even it is on the flight to the earthquake or flood. There is never an excuse for researching on air or on tape. There’s simply too much out there in the global library of the internet for you not to have sampled it. Plan your interviews and pieces as much as possible – but change that plan if the story does not fit your template.
- 3. Make sure you are in the right place at the right time. And with the right people. Much TV journalism involves ‘fixing’ – making sure the people are there and the story is too when you turn up. Beg, cajole or bribe your way to pole position, but avoid the herd instinct.
The great reporters are often mavericks who will plough a lonely furrow away from the pack. It often pays dividends. Look beyond the bar of the hacks’ hotel and the bleeding obvious.
But also remember that good journalism is not just about fixing. Too many times the reporter, having swum through treacle and months of negotiations to get to a story, forgets the basic story-telling skills. They think they’ve done it by getting there, and they tell you that. Wrong.
- 4. Remember that if you work in television the operative word is vision. Every picture is worth a thousand words, but some are worth ten thousand. You usually have two minutes tops to get the story across, mainly in sequences and sync. Stunning shots do so much of the heavy lifting for you. Your words are there to enhance the pictures, not to fight them or turn the piece into an illustrated essay. The great reporters use just the right phrase to lift the pictures: “Like the sun, the death toll rises every day” in one piece I watched.
- 5. Know when to talk and when to shut up. Economy of words is all. The great reporters allow the silences or the natural sync – real people talking – or, better, the pictures to do the talking/story-telling for them. Write a script but then see how you can cut it down. Wall-to-wall commentary ruins too many pieces.
- 6. Put the package together for maximum impact. Is the best stuff first? Have you got the running order right? Not true of some of the pieces I have been judging. If you have time before transmission, you can throw it all in the air and into a different order (thanks to non-linear editing).
- 7. The piece-to-camera shows you were there and have the cred to tell the story. Think carefully about where it goes in the piece, and what it will say to the viewer. Make it stand out as well as stand up.
I still remember, from two decades ago, Jeremy Paxman in the van of a Sandinista march in Nicaragua; and Charles Wheeler lending gravitas and quality to a so-so Newsnight story about police violence in Notting Hill with a piece-to-camera coming out of the public loo where it was alleged to have taken place. It made me pay attention.
- 8. Sell it within the news organisation to make sure your gem gets an audience. Sell it on the programme, trail it and give it a ’sexy’ studio intro. Entice people to watch it.
Otherwise all your thousands of miles in that uncomfortable military cargo plane, time on patrol dodging bullets, fixing, cajoling, shooting, writing and packaging will have come to nought. Your piece will drift past the audience … and past award judges like me.
Greatness needs both hard work and hype – but you know it when you see it.
Picture: BBC World Service reporter David Eades preparing for a satellite link-up in Paris.
John Mair is a senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University. In a previous life, he was a producer of factual programmes at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.
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