Tricks of the trade

TV stations sometimes use props and other devices to bring a sense of immediacy to news reports. But do these techniques illuminate or mislead?

May 15, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

On a recent newscast, WBAL-TV anchor Donna Hamilton introduced a story about moves by the Federal Reserve Board by saying: "Eleven News reporter Alex Lee takes a look."

Lee, clutching a microphone adorned with a WBAL 11 emblem as she stood before the steps of the U.S. Capitol, picked up the story's thread conversationally: "Well, Donna ..."

Two minutes later, Lee concluded her story with these words: "In Washington, I'm Alex Lee, WBAL 11 news. Donna?" In the studio, Hamilton replied, "All right. Thanks, Alex."

But Lee, though a frequent face on the station, isn't a WBAL reporter, not exactly. And she wasn't hanging around to be thanked. Instead, she had taped her piece earlier that afternoon with a customized introduction and ending for WBAL - just as she had for seven other stations that day.

TV news professionals call this customized ending a "sig out." The kind of taped segment Lee did, which seems to be unfolding onscreen as it happens, is called a "look-live." Both are among the devices many local and network news crews have come to rely on to convey the meaning of a story and to foster a sense of urgency.

As widespread as their use has become, the devices can trigger strong differences of opinion within the trade about what separates acceptable narrative devices from manipulative gimmicks. In recent weeks, area viewers have been treated to a variety of such storytelling techniques:

A news report about a man who shot intruders at his Baltimore County store ran a clip from a film about vigilante justice, followed by footage of the reporter pointing a gun at the camera.

During a story about a teen-ager's surreptitious taping of sexual activity, a local reporter walked through a bedroom while holding a video camera - although neither the camera nor the room was the one involved.

Several pieces, like Lee's, presented cheerful banter between people who couldn't possibly be speaking to one another.

News teams adopt these and other devices - artifices, really - to try to ensure that pivotal points will stick in viewers' minds. Some of these tools, often encouraged by consultants, also establish the pace of the newscast itself. They can involve setting stories to music, speeding up or slowing down videotape, or using computerized graphics to illustrate how an incident is believed to have taken place.

"If you really do a good job of telling your story, if the audio were down really low but viewers were still watching, they'd have a pretty good idea of what the story is about," says Gail Bending, news director for WJZ (Channel 13).

Television is a visual medium. It thrives on images, motion and immediacy. But not all news stories are easy to render on the screen. Sometimes, that's because cameras aren't there when events take place. Sometimes, that's because the stories can't be captured readily on videotape.

When a news event has already happened, Bending says, "then you have to use techniques to tell the story. The goal is to make people understand it quickly. There's really not a second chance to get the story across."

Down in Washington, Lee works in a news bureau owned by Hearst-Argyle, WBAL's parent company, which has 24 U.S. television stations that broadcast news shows. She taped customized versions of Friday's story for seven different Hearst stations, each with different call letters and microphone emblems pulled from a duffel bag. To do that, she had to create different introductions and endings - the "sig outs" - in advance. As a result, Lee wasn't live when she appeared on WBAL that Friday.

This practice surfaces regularly on WBAL, which promotes its "Live, Local, Late-breaking" approach. It's common in many regions among local stations; even some network newsmagazines employ "look lives." A general rule of thumb with local TV news: If the word "live" didn't appear on screen or wasn't uttered by an anchor, the report probably was taped.

Truly live shots give stations a chance to add fresh information to taped reports. But they have often been used gratuitously since technology made them widely available in the mid-1980s, veteran reporters and producers say. A "look-live" may be a smarter way to deploy reporters. "It's ridiculous to do a live shot outside a darkened city council office if there's nothing going on there," says Herb Brubaker, who worked for NBC News from 1966 to 1987.

And, as WBAL news director Princell Hair says, the device allows for a conversational manner that helps stories flow smoothly. "It just maintains that rapport, that connection between the anchor and the reporter," Hair says.

Yet some of the taped banter that often accompanies the "look-lives" on WBAL and elsewhere causes concern among some industry professionals, including Brubaker. They say it is often used as a way to present a news segment as "live," even when it's not.

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