wxia-tv

Learning from the audience, and absorbing – not ignoring – criticism

My heart always jumps a bit when I see it in my Inbox.

As a television reporter, I attempt on a daily basis to condense hours’ worth of research, visuals, and interviews into a digestible 90-second story. I rarely put anything on the air until I am entirely confident in every fact and every word.

But, on rare occasions, I get feedback that says I might have missed one.

It arrives in the form of an e-mail or social media comment, and it always fills me with a distinct sense of dread. No matter my previous confidence, I always scramble to see if I have, in fact, made a mistake. For the most part, I find my original research to be correct, and I can then release a giant sigh and resume my day. If not, I feel terrible for the rest of the day.

But every now and then, such a comment leaves me thankful.

Two weeks ago we learned of a freshman at the University of Georgia who had taken part in a student-made music video for Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling”. The young man, we were told, was named Luke Bundrum and was deaf; the video featured a group of students performing the song using sign language. The group had already garnered attention on campus.

We loved the idea. I headed to Athens, Ga., met and interviewed Luke, spoke with his friends from the video, and returned to Atlanta with the makings of an enjoyable story. I wrote a script saying how this young man wanted to “raise awareness for the hearing-impaired”, and we aired the piece that night and posted it online to unanimous praise.

And then I saw a comment that said otherwise.

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Logan lives on: the triumph of a heart-warming story

I just spent most of August covering an event that captivates the world. I worked at the 2016 Summer Olympics for three weeks, produced 36 packages, made dozens of social media posts, and wrote 13 entries for this blog. Many of those packages, posts, and entries spread a great distance and performed very well both on-air and online.

But my most-read blog post from last month? It had nothing to do with the Olympics. It wasn’t in any way new; I had written it ten months earlier. And it was read nine times as much as the second-most popular post.

It was about a young man who has now touched hearts as worldwide as the Olympics.

It was about Logan.

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MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: Every entry from the Rio Summer Games

I’m back!

I’m back in Atlanta, I’m back to my normal routine, and I’m back to work at 11Alive.

The Olympics suddenly seem so long ago.

But the 2016 Summer Games remained a remarkable event, both for viewers at home and for those of us who got to experience it on the ground in Rio. I’m taking the week off from blogging, but in the meantime, here’s a look back at every entry of mine from these past Olympics:

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MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: I’m my own boss. And I’m working myself wild.

I have always fancied the life of an entrepreneur.

“I have good ideas,” I think to myself. “How romantic would it be to seize one of them, start my own business, and be my own boss? Wouldn’t it be nice to have all the control?”

Then I talk with friends of mine who run their own companies, and I immediately come back to reality.

The entrepreneur’s life is as daunting as it as rewarding. Such a person must serve as a company’s permanent last line of defense, working to exhaustion to push forward his or her product. One must possess an extraordinary drive and passion to do it well. When I remember that, I more greatly appreciate my non-entrepreneurial existence.

But at the Olympics, I get a taste of what such a life would be like.

And, it turns out, I’m a pretty demanding boss.

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REPOST: The lesson I learned telling a story about race

This past week I was assigned to do the lead piece for a half-hour special about race in America. I pitched an idea about the city I call home, Atlanta, and how it has seen massive race success yet continues to have a massive race problem. I intended to write a new post for this blog about the experience, but I found it mirrored my previous experience in this arena 18 months earlier.

I continue to be heartened with people’s willingness to talk about race. The topic seems taboo to discuss with friends and family, but it shouldn’t be. Experiences like mine prove it can be done, even with complete strangers in an on-camera setting.

My story from last week is embedded here; the post that follows refers to a story I did in January 2015 for an hour-long special called “A Conversation Across America”.

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Logan’s big play: Watching one story reach millions

One thousand people.

I could not believe it.

Twelve hours earlier I had posted a story I had just produced for the early evening newscast on Atlanta’s WXIA-TV. It surrounded a young man in northwest Georgia who, at age 5, had been diagnosed with autism. Since middle school he had served as the manager of the football team; now a high school senior, he had just done something on the field that had moved everyone in the stands.

That young man’s name is Logan, and he scored a touchdown.

And within half a day of my posting Logan’s story on Facebook, it had been liked by 1,000 people; it had reached 100,000. And it was just getting started.

Logan’s story was about to take off around the world.

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I have the good fortune, through my job as a reporter, of continually meeting fascinating people. Sometimes they are famous figures; sometimes they are citizens championing a cause. So often, though, they are people who never intended to feel the reflection of a TV camera lens; they just did something to become worthy of it.

That was the case with Logan.

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The balancing act: journalism and stress

My fiancé did not want to hear it.

I had just turned on an interview I had conducted with a coworker, Jeff Hullinger, that I would eventually post as a podcast. I left the interview running in the living room as my fiancé walked in, hung out for a minute, and walked back out.

Why? Because Hullinger had earlier that week witnessed an execution, and in the interview he described in powerful detail what he saw.

“I hope that interview wasn’t too much for you,” I said later to my fiancé.

Her response? “Yeah, I went into the other room and closed the door.”

The curtness in her voice made it clear how she felt.

This situation is not unique to me. Hullinger’s wife, he said, had given him a clear instruction when he accepted the execution assignment: “I don’t ever want to hear about it.”

This situation is also not unique to my life … and that concerns me.

I accepted long ago that I receive, as a journalist, an extraordinary amount of access unavailable to most. That access is often a treasure: I have traveled to the Olympics, interviewed countless celebrities and public figures, and enjoyed fascinating and probing conversations with people I otherwise never would have met.

In other cases, that access is a burden, a necessary evil in the journey to inform. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #35: Jeff Hullinger, WXIA-TV, on witnessing an execution

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This is one of the more difficult interviews I have ever conducted.

But for journalists — and, truly, anyone — it is an important interview to hear.

For three years I have come to know my co-worker Jeff Hullinger as verbose, eloquent, wry, and sardonic. Starting a conversation with Hullinger means beginning a singular journey of quips, observations, and insights that can only come from someone of his experience and expressiveness. He has spent three decades as a broadcaster in Atlanta; he has won 19 regional Emmys, interviewed everyone from John Elway to Mikhail Gorbachev, and called the play-by-play on the radio for a Super Bowl.

Last week Hullinger did something he — and 99.9% of journalists — had never done: he witnessed an execution.

The state of Georgia had scheduled the death of Kelly Gissendaner, who had been convicted of orchestrating the murder of her husband, Doug. About a week before the execution, Hullinger learned he had been named of five area journalists who would serve as witnesses.

He did not back away from the assignment.

“I think, sitting in an anchor chair, I have a responsibility to represent this station publicly,” Hullinger told me, “and I take that very seriously. You have a responsibility to both yourself and your co-workers. I think word in action becomes significant.”

He added, “This is something that no one wants to do, from an intellectual standpoint. [But] it’s something I have to do.”

Hullinger joins me on this episode of the Telling the Story podcast.

I honestly would not have normally felt comfortable asking someone in his situation to speak about what he experienced. I felt compelled here by two factors. First, Hullinger had already done a beautiful job of recounting the evening, through Twitter and then on the air. He seemed willing, in that window, to speak about it, although he later told me he would not do so after this podcast. He did not want, I think, to feel bound to the experience for the rest of his career, constantly asked to re-tell his story.

“I can’t tell you how many requests I’ve had to come speak, and I’m not doing any of that,” he said. “My responsibility was one night … and I am done.”

Secondly, I believed in our rapport. Hullinger and I have talked about so many subjects over the years, and I trusted that he would entrust me with conducting an interview in a sensitive, professional way — the same way he had handled his assignment.

This interview — and his perspective within it — is extremely worth your time.

Hullinger discusses how he balanced his objectivity as a journalist with his emotions during a horrific act. He describes the otherworldly experience of entering a world few will ever view.

“We had been told by the state that this is a rather bloodless, painless, clinical, procedural thing, where there isn’t really a lot of emotion,” said Hullinger. “It was none of that. It was unbelievable … all of the razor wire, all of the check-ins, all of the freedom that has been denied. Even our ability to go to the restroom was not allowed. We had to ask men who would not make eye contact with us. It was a horrifying, terrifying place to begin with.”

Then he made eye contact with Gissendaner, and he felt the need to compose himself.

“I closed my eyes for about 20 seconds, just to say, ‘Okay … Understand what this is, and what you’re about to see.'”

Perhaps the above quote is the best way to listen to this podcast: understand what it is, and what you are about to hear. Hullinger’s descriptions are sometimes extremely graphic; his emotions and perspective, though, are critical to absorb for any journalist and anyone seeking to get a better understanding of a profoundly difficult issue.

“I think sometimes we put the issue of death way behind us,” he told me. “The truth is, it is always near us.”

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Nik Wallenda, Boston, & an execution

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

The Wal-Mart of the high wire (10/2/15, BuzzFeed): I continue to be impressed by BuzzFeed’s legitimate credibility as a destination for longform journalism.

I have mentioned their work before, and this latest feature is a worthy addition to their canon.

Steve Kandell, BuzzFeed’s news features director, produces a profile of the high-flying wire-walker Nik Wallenda, whose notoriety has become a source of contention within both his industry and his family. Wallenda continues the tradition of performers who may not be the best at their jobs but are the best at self-promotion.

Kandell perfectly weaves these stories of conflict with under-the-tightrope visuals and descriptions. BuzzFeed’s web editors succeed here as well, filling the story with dazzling images and videos of Wallenda’s high-wire feats.

Call it another win for an unlikely web site.

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Two-hour turnaround: a storm story

Typically I use this space to showcase longer stories, in both time and preparation.

Not this story.

Here is an example of where good storytelling techniques can help produce a compelling report in a limited amount of time.

How limited? From start to finish, two hours.

Late last month, the Atlanta area got struck by heavy storms that brought rain, lightning, wind, and hail. Like many April showers, this one — to borrow a metaphor from a different month — came in like a lion, flying through the region and causing traffic back-ups on the highways. It also toppled several trees, and I was sent by my WXIA-TV producers to one such incident in Roswell, Ga., where a tree had fallen on a home.

That was all I knew as I arrived at the house at 3:30 PM, but I soon discovered the rest of the story.

And I learned it from the home’s owner: Yolanda Rossi, age 92.

Despite the fact that a tree had knocked out the corner of her dining room, Rossi seemed undaunted by the whole thing and welcomed me into her home with a smile. As she showed me the damage and provided her perspective on the event, I knew I could potentially put together a poignant piece about her experience that day.

I was supposed to be live at 5 PM, but I called the 11Alive assignment desk and asked if the 6 PM show producer would like this story.

That producer said no. The 5 PM producer said yes. (more…)