Bear with me. I’m going to start this article a bit differently than previous posts. I want to tell you a story. It was early one morning, way before sunrise. Spring break had just begun, and students everywhere were eager to get their vacations started. It included sorority sisters packed into a car, heading out for some fun in the sun on the beach. They never made it. A wrong way driver slammed head on into them, killing three of the students in the car instantly. I was leading the morning show team at the time this tragedy happened. Initially, we didn’t know who was in the car. We just knew there were deaths in a wrong way crash. Soon as we learned there was a loss of life, that’s the moment I should have ensured we displayed the emotions we were all feeling and added more context into our delivery and writing. But momentum had taken over. We were breaking the news on the air and online, getting a team to the scene, and confirming facts.
A short time later, we started hearing it might be students in one car, and we confirmed it right away — getting a statement from the president of the university the victims attended. That’s when I really should have stopped everything for a moment and talked to the team about handling this heart-wrenching situation with great care, sensitivity, and compassion in our delivery and writing. What do I mean by that? It’s a style of writing and delivery that we should be practicing at all times. It shows that we as broadcasters are human beings, and we know some families just got the worst possible news – not even within their realm of comprehension. It conveys that we understand the magnitude of what we’re reporting, and we recognize the difficult news we are sharing with the audience. On top of that, we realize this is a morning audience just waking up to this horrifying situation, and some of them may know the people about whom we are talking. Basically, it’s an empathetic style. If someone just lost their home in a fire or natural disaster like the recent hurricanes, recognize they just lost everything they own and likely can’t see their way right now. If someone witnesses a deadly crime, it’s probably the worst thing they’ll see in their lifetime.
I won’t ever forget the day of that crash or the lesson I learned—never get so caught up in the processes behind the scenes – moving crews, handling technical issues, gathering information. Stop, think about what you’re reporting, what it means and the people who are affected. Now, let me stop for a moment. I don’t want you to think we did not treat the situation with care and sensitivity. We did. We just could have displayed a more empathetic approach and showed the viewers the heartache we were all feeling.
This principle can be applied to many facets of life and a host of different careers. I’m using it to talk about journalism, but public relations or public information officers can also utilize it. Let me give you an example. My station was carrying a news conference live. It was about a 13-year-old who had been murdered. The speaker referred to this horrible thing as a “case” and when someone found the girl’s remains, the speaker said, “We could not positively identify the subject at the time.” I couldn’t stop thinking about the victim’s family members. Were they watching? Are they in the anger stage of grief, screaming at the television, “She’s not a case or a subject! She was my BABY!”
When I’m teaching this to others, I use Peter Jennings as an example. As you know, he was in the anchor chair when 9-11 happened. I’ll never forget how I was feeling that day. This was unprecedented. There wasn’t a dry eye in the newsroom. It was eerie. The newsroom never stops or slows down, but this day it did. We stared at our televisions in disbelief, shock, extreme sadness, and despair. Our business is words, but on this day, we had none. We had various news channels on in our station, but just one voice drowned out the noise in my head and calmed the chaos. It was the voice of Peter Jennings. But why? Before I give the answer — I want you to stop for a moment and think about how you watch television. It doesn’t have to be news – just one of your favorite programs. Why do you watch it? What about it appeals to you? Do you like the main character? Can you relate to his/her plight? Is there something about the personality of one of the characters that speaks to you? Have you been through a similar situation in your life? Does the program or protagonist evoke some sort of emotion within you? Somehow, you have made a connection with this program. Odds are it’s because of something you can relate to or maybe the show makes you feel good or makes you laugh. Perhaps it makes you think or appreciate what you have. Whatever it is, it made you feel something. You connected with it. That’s what we should strive for with our broadcast television writing. Still not convinced? Okay, that’s fine. Let me do my classic thing of giving you some examples. Consider the following passages:
Police are investigating a shooting that left a 5-year-old girl in critical condition. Officers believe an older sibling somehow got a hold of the family’s gun and was playing with it when it went off. The bullet hit the younger girl in the chest. She underwent emergency surgery. Doctors say, if she pulls through these next 48 hours, she’ll have a long recovery ahead.
This example is accurate, easy to understand, and let’s be real – the subject matter is heartbreaking and evokes certain emotions on its own. However, the writing is clinical, matter of fact, and flat. It starts with the police investigation, rather than the child who is in the fight of her life. This story is cold and unfeeling. It misses the mark in considering how this family must feel – extreme worry, sadness, hope, guilt, anger, disbelief, despair, helplessness. Let’s re-write it.
We begin tonight with a heartbreaking story out of Hillsborough County. A five-year-old girl is in the fight of her life. Police say her older sibling was playing with a gun when it went off, hitting the girl in the chest. She underwent emergency surgery. Doctors say if she pulls through these next 48 hours, she will have a long recovery ahead. A family spokesperson says the girl’s parents are overcome with worry, and they’ve asked for their privacy in this very difficult time. A police spokesperson tells us officers are still investigating the tragedy.
I hope you can see the difference between these two examples. This last one puts the focus where it should be – on the child. It puts things into perspective considering what this family is going through in this tumultuous time. One may blame the other. They likely still can’t believe this is happening, all the while trying to be strong for their little girl, who they can’t even stand to see motionless and all hooked up to monitors and tubes, hanging on to life by the tiniest and most fragile of threads.
Knowing what we know now, let’s go back to our Peter Jennings example and the question I asked. Why did his delivery resonate with me and so many others during the 9/11 terror attacks? He realized what the nation needed—a calm, honest, empathetic presenter to guide us through the worst thing many of us had ever seen, a collective tragedy that left us reeling, looking for something to hold onto, some reassurance in a world we used to know — one that now seemed foreign. Our hearts were shattered, our sense of security … non-existent. Our whole world as we knew it forever changed that day. Our resolve not to let terrorists win – stronger than ever before. Jennings spoke to us—just talked. His sleeves were rolled up, his jacket was off, and he just spoke. He was calm and gave us the information we needed as he received it. He walked us through it, and we listened like children and slowly begin to learn what the next minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years would be like. Jennings showed us he was a human first and was experiencing all of the emotions we were experiencing. He was empathetic and kind and let us experience all of the stages of grief we were going through and told us that somehow it would be okay, that we would all be okay, that the nation would be okay.
I have written a lot so far in this article about the horrible things we have to report. However, this concept applies to the memorable and fun things that balance out our newscasts. It applies to things like soldier surprises, the first new years baby born to local hospitals, people doing great things in their communities. The list is endless.
How do we do it?
Making a connection by being empathetic does not come naturally to some people. I have worked with producers who have told me we complement each other nicely because they write the story, and I come back behind them and add the emotion. Then I teach them how to do it themselves. Now, I’ll pass along the tips to you.
- Stop and think: Avoid the mistake I made so many years ago. Give yourself a few minutes to think about what you are about to report. Imagine yourself delivering this news to the people who are affected or their loved-ones. How would you tell them the news? Use that as your guide. You should also consider the daypart you are addressing. A morning audience will need the news delivered to them in a different manner than the evening audience. Think about it. It’s the morning. You just woke up—haven’t even had your coffee yet, and now some newscaster is in your face with devastating information, and they just put it bluntly in your face. When you are empathetic to the story and to the audience’s needs, it makes an impact and creates a connection. The audience knows that you understand what they need and how they feel.
- Insert yourself into the story: If you’re still having trouble figuring out the appropriate delivery for a story, here’s what I do. Brace yourself. It’s very painful, and sometimes I pay the price in the form of floodgates opening that I can’t close. I put myself into the story. What emotions would I be feeling right now? What would I be thinking? What would I be doing? I allowed all of those emotions to consume me once when a child had been killed. His baby blue eyes haunted me and continue to do so. I left work one day after covering the story and cried all the way home. It didn’t help that I had to cross a bridge where another child had been thrown to her death. The thought of those children’s horrific lives and deaths weighed heavily on my heart and mind, and I couldn’t shake it. That’s the danger of doing this. It’s the reason some of us have to keep a separation between what we cover and what we allow into our hearts. For some, it’s all just too much to bear. They get out of the news industry, or seek professional help. (Baby Chance, I didn’t know you, but I would have taken you into my home and loved you endlessly. Rest in Heaven, sweet child.)
- Don’t go too far: We’re not actors here. I’m not asking you to put on some mask and feel things that are false or to blow things out of proportion. I’m just simply saying, there is a natural vibe, emotion, feel to a story. You already know what it is. It’s the emotion you felt when you first heard the story. Bring it out in your crafting of that story, and you’ll form a natural connection with your viewer, who believe me, is feeling all of those things when he/she sees the story.
If you practice these techniques, pretty soon you won’t even have to go through these steps. When you sit down to write, it eventually will be second nature to craft your stories in this manner, putting people first. That’s not just a motto for great leaders. It applies to your writing as well.