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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California

Thinking Big

On a typical news day, we all pile into the 8:15am editorial meeting, pitch our ideas, and assign a couple packages to our reporters. But, when a big story, such as the Oregon college shooting or the firing of the USC head football coach hits, we as producers must treat it differently. 

“Say What?!” 

That’s the normal response to big stories. And, that's not a question you get to answer everyday. When it comes to covering these types of stories, you need to do your best to expel as many questions as possible and explain what happened as fully as you can. This requires thinking outside of the box and taking a look at what elements you can add to the plain telling of the story. This Monday, I thought the producers did a great job in covering Sarkisian’s leave. They addressed what happened, when it happened, and the even bigger question of why it happened. This story directly affected our community and took place right in our own backyard. From exclusive student reactions to a live interview on the effects of alcoholism, I thought it was a job well done.

In the case of the shooting at Umpqua Community College, the story was breaking news that took place beyond our local reach. With news coming in from Oregon as we’re putting our show together, we are having to determine how we want to cover it and work with the slow gathering of information. Since, this wasn’t a story we were able to flesh out in the morning meeting, minute by minute, we are needing to answer key questions for our show. For instance, do we want a cold open? What SOTs (sound on tape) can we get? What CNN video is available now? To execute what you want on a tight deadline, it requires all hands on deck. And, I thought that was something we did well.

Now, hypothetically, let’s think of what is needed to fully cover a big story. And, let’s also pretend that the Thursday team and I have our 1pm show on the same day as our 6pm. Here’s what I would want to see:

- 1pm Show: Since the 1pm show is short, we want to inform the viewers of what we know about the big story in a small amount of time. This means pulling together our most compelling footage. I would also want the reporter who is covering the lead story to be on camera to tell everyone the latest information. Depending upon how much information is out will determine what all we show. If this is a story not local to USC, I would include a map detailing where the incident took place. 

- Social Media/Web: Seeing that social media is something that can be continuously updated, that’s exactly what I would do - continuously update it. Twitter is especially great for breaking news, so I would encourage the social media/web producer to update our tweets hourly, as the story continues to unfold and to become an active participant in the conversations online. With Facebook, I would update a little more sparingly. Facebook is better for including multimedia elements like video. So, let’s put together a video or have our lead reporter/anchor share that information online.

- 6pm Show: For the main show, let’s not bury the lead. I think big/breaking stories are a great opportunity to have a cold open. Like I mentioned above, big stories don’t happen everyday. Let’s take the liberty in our 30 minute newscast to move beyond the facts. By 6pm, I’m sure this isn’t the first time viewers are hearing the information. I would want for us to have more visuals, more interviews, take a look at social media reaction, and maybe even include a live guest. 

Theses are elements to consider when covering a big story, but the thing about news is that each story is a little bit different and you don't always have the same amount of time to execute it. Regardless of what the day holds, we as journalists are storytellers. And to tell a big story, it often requires that we look at the big picture.

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