Years ago. I was given this simple formula for TV reporting:
1.) Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em (the intro ).
2.) Tell 'em (the body of your story).
3.) Tell 'em what you told 'em (the closing standup).
It's a bit over simplistic because gathering television news is a complicated team effort, but the formula works for many of the basic meat and potato news stories that reporters are sent to cover. Live coverage of breaking news stories is much more difficult. It may be the most difficult thing that a broadcast journalist can be asked to do.
Imagine that you are standing in front of a camera presenting details of a complicated story to millions via satellite. You may be asked to recount events that you cannot personally witness. You get help from technicians and producers and folks who talk to you through a little earpiece, but you alone are responsible for the words that come out of your mouth. The goal is to use your senses, your wits, your experience, and your team to bring an accurate sense of what is happening to those hungry for information. Then add this factor to the equation: sometimes you have to do it for hours on end... without a script. I call it television on a tightrope.
During the D.C. sniper story a few years back, I found myself covering events that affected an entire region. Separating fact from rumor was the most difficult task we faced each day. When all was said and done, I felt we got most of it right — and we seemed to be on the cutting edge of a complex and fast-breaking news story. I survived that by following another rather simple formula. Here it is:
Say only what you know absolutely to be true. Follow that up with everything that you do not yet know. Carefully add in what experience has taught you in similar circumstances. Do not speculate. Do not succumb to the pressure to do otherwise.
Sometimes it makes for somewhat repetitive reporting. I, for one, would rather be repetitive, than wrong.
One of my mentors here at FOX has a saying, "It's great to be first. It's great to have an exclusive story, but you don't want it to remain permanently exclusive." Put another way — you never want to be exclusively wrong.
Twenty-four hour live cable news is a hungry beast. It must be fed continuously. Competitive pressures to get it first are immense. As someone who has been in similar situations, I would not want to cast aspersions or offer criticism, but the situation in West Virginia serves to remind us that the primary goal should be to get it right.
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Brian Wilson is a congressional correspondent for FOX News and anchor of the Sunday edition of "Weekend Live."