Radio, TV Stations Show Unparalleled Commitment While Covering Ala. Tornadoes

May 25 2011

By Donna Francavilla, Frankly Speaking Communications

BIRMINGHAM, AL -  On April 27th, a series of violent storms tore through the Southeast much like a lawnmower cuts and flings grass. At least 350 were killed in the Southeast; 230 people in Alabama alone.

One victim described the miles of damage to me this way: “Imagine stuffing your house in a blender, turning it on high, then raising the lid.”

Tornado victim Lee Limbaugh emailed his friends as soon as power was restored to his Pleasant Grove, Alabama home.

“The tornado narrowly missed my house, but for so many here, it showed no mercy whatsoever. The destruction is unimaginable.”

For some of those victimized by violent tornadoes in Alabama and the tattered southeast, radio signals provided their only link to the outside world and life-saving information. 

One radio listener wrote the following to Citadel Broadcasting: “
Incredible coverage with Leland, Valerie and the gang yesterday.  We've been without power for two days and you were all we had to keep us informed of tornado tracking and storm info.  I'm sure you're exhausted, but we really appreciate your efforts.  Thanks for being there!” 

While other stations were broadcasting television audio, Citadel’s Birmingham talk show hosts described where the tornadoes touched down. Video references could not be discerned on radio very well. Birmingham Citadel stations were the only ones to originate live radio coverage although the tornado came within a mile of their large-windowed, mountaintop, 2nd and 3rd story building.

Radio and television stations were instrumental in saving lives. They provided a critical link between those in need and the needy.

Tornadoes whipped winds so close to of some of Birmingham’s major radio and television stations, many were ready to seek shelter themselves. Yet all entities remained on the air, and vigilant.

One meteorologist, at times exasperated and speechless at the immensity of storm, begged viewers to text to their loved ones to seek shelter immediately.

The broadcasters realized they faced a true emergency. All major broadcast outlets moved into commercial free mode or aired very few spots, provided warnings which saved lives, and after the storms hit, provided a lifeline for those stranded.
Talk show hosts connected the needy with the charitable, and gave a voice to obliterated communities that FEMA had not yet discovered.

In Alabama, three major broadcast groups—Clear Channel, Citadel, and Cox—implemented independent fund-raisers to help those in need.

The four television stations in town initially attempted a joint telethon, but in the end the collaboration attempt faltered.

The Clear Channel stations worked with the local Fox affiliate; Citadel with all stations, but mostly the CBS affiliate; Cox Radio with the ABC affiliate.

HERE’S WHO DID WHAT:

Cox Media Group

Vice-President-Market Manager at Cox Radio David DuBose said when the storms were predicted; his group activated their disaster plan.

One day after more than 40 tornados destroyed or damaged 14,000 homes, DuBose said, “All 7 Cox stations joined a relief effort collecting, loading 12 truckloads of bottled water and personal toiletry kits, diapers, etc. We continue now raising cash.”
DuBose continued, “The lesson here is to have a disaster plan, keep adequate local news staff so even music stations can provide critical info, stay with the story, keep going round the clock as we did for two days.

DuBose knew the time was not right to return to music formats until much later. “We continued with multiple reports all through the weekend carrying all press conferences live from the Governor, Birmingham Mayor Bell, FEMA, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and the President.” Birmingham Mayor William Bell publicly acknowledged Cox radio stations saved lives with their early warnings and extended coverage.  DuBose’s programming efforts were also noticed by listeners, who took the time to call the station, and gush with gratitude. Listeners thanked managers for their consistent tornado programming when competitors had already returned to music programming.

Cox continued coverage relentlessly despite two staffers who lost their homes and two staffers with homes that were heavily damaged.

Clear Channel Communications

“Having the largest radio news operation in the state paid off,” said Clear Channel Operations Director Tom Hanrahan. 
“The 5-station cluster utilized news-talk WERC, and veteran morning hosts from its FM music stations.” Our first concern was getting information on the air.” Music was not aired on the Clear Channel cluster, for 13 hours after the day after the storms passed through.

“Stations stayed in simulcast from 5 AM-6 AM across the cluster.  WERC stayed in long form coverage from 5 AM-9 PM Thursday-Sunday after storms, opening lines to callers to get info out, and included special guests in studio like FEMA reps to answer listener questions.”

Hanrahan said Clear Channel worked with Fox affiliate WBRC-TV and Raycom Media stations, raising significant amounts of money. Radio station WQEN staged a one-day telethon netting more than $55,000 for The Red Cross.

Clear Channel station WDXB aggressively promoted a County Music Television telethon called “Music Rebuilds” in an effort to donate their time to raise money for the rebuilding effort.

Said Hanrahan, “It’s the right thing to do.” 

The stations are now involved in promoting a June 14th  “Bama Rising,” country music benefit concert for Alabama tornado recovery.

Market Manager Ray Quinn felt the unsung heroes during the storms were the engineering teams, which managed to keep the stations on the air when power was going out, and towers were falling down. “It amazes me all this talk about satellite radio and Pandora encroaching on terrestrial radio. How helpful were they during all of this?  No wonder why over 95% of the Birmingham population still tunes in to radio for about 17 hours every week!”

Citadel Broadcasting

Citadel Broadcasting Market manager Bill Thomas in Birmingham,  knew the storm was going to be of historic proportions when a National Weather Service Meteorologist predicted “loss of life and one of the most disastrous storms we’d ever see,” on one of the news-talk stations he manages.

Thomas said, “We took that seriously. We basically went to a full simulcast mode the day of the storm and that allowed us to use personnel across the stations but we were carrying the actual weather and storm coverage across four FMs and two AMs.”  The next day, stations were separate so that they could serve their particular coverage areas.”

Thomas manages WJOX AM/FM, WAPI AM/FM, WUHT-FM, WZRR-FM, and the Paul Finebaum Radio Network.

On the day the storm hit, Finebaum described the tornado as he watched it approach the big picture window in his studio. Since then, Finebaum hasn’t talked much about sports.

Finebaum said, “On the day the Bama Rising concert was announced, we had (Alabama native country music star) Randy Owen in studio for the entire show, four hours, promoting the event, taking phone calls about the tornado. He ended up giving a mini-concert. (Citadel manager) Bill Thomas told me afterwards that we broke every rule in sports radio history; however, it was by far, the most memorable and meaningful program we have ever done  - and the best. He sang many songs and naturally ended the show by singing an acoustic version of ``My Home’s In Alabama.’’ There wasn’t a dry eye in the house or in cars across the listening audience. We have stayed with the story non-stop with the support of our partners at Sirius-XM.”

The stations used their airwaves to mobilize listeners immediately in an emergency fund-raiser.  WAPI Talk show host and former news anchor/reporter Leland Whaley organized an emergency donation drive by utilizing empty parking lot space. Donations poured in rapidly. The obliterated towns of Concord and Hackleburg received their first relief supplies from the radio stations, not the Red Cross.

Thomas said, “Leland created the quick-turnaround fundraiser, but more than 50 staff members and over two hundred listeners were key to pulling it off within hours of the tornadoes....many working at the site despite damage and power outages at their own homes.   In fact, listeners to the stations online were responsible for seven additional semi-trucks coming from other states.  Our fund raising will go on for sometime to come.  (Recently, we collected thousands for the Salvation Army with Birmingham's Biggest Yard Sale and more than 300 listeners paid for the chance to dunk (Afternoon talk-show host) Richard Dixon in a dunking tank, with proceeds for tornado relief.)”

More than two million-dollars worth of donations filled 10 tractor-trailer trucks in Birmingham, bound for distantly affected towns. Callers passionately called news-talk WAPI, expressing gratefulness for the life-line, saying that they had no power, no supplies, but did have a radio. Radio station hosts informed storm victims. The airwaves were used as a critical public forum to broadcast needs and meet those needs.

The merits of acting quickly during a tragedy aided those without, but seemed chaotic as each station seemed to have its own project to promote.

Lessons Learned


Birmingham-based national sports radio host Paul Finebaum criticized Birmingham television stations for failing to fully cooperate.

“Everybody’s been calling attention to themselves,” Finebaum said. “I’m extremely bothered that the four TV stations did not work cooperatively.

I thought the ABC affiliate jumped the gun to get their telethon on two days after the storms hit.” Finebaum told his listeners he felt the stations blew a chance to cooperate more fully. 

“It was in poor taste for the station to have quickly shifted its focus from rescue and recovery to fund-raising,” he told me.

ABC affiliate: WBMA TV

WBMA, the ABC affiliate for Birmingham and central Alabama, also known as ABC 33/40, agrees that collaboration among the stations in the same market is a great idea, and something stations throughout the nation should ponder should tragedy strike their market in the future. 

WBMA General Manager Mike Murphy said, “The worst time to try learn to dance is in the middle of the song.” 

Murphy feels stations can benefit from working jointly should disaster strike. Less than a month after the disaster stuck, Murphy took action to plan for the future. He recommended a plan of action among stations to the Alabama Broadcasters Association.  “There’s no reason we can’t have a collaborative disaster plan.” 

Collaboration: NBC affiliate: WVTM TV

Murphy credits Birmingham’s NBC affiliate General Manager, WVTM’s Gene Kirkconnell with attempting to orchestrate a unique cooperation among media outlets.

Kirkconnell commends the ABC affiliate for moving fast and raising a good deal of money for the Red Cross quickly.
Kirkconnell said when so many repeatedly asked him, “How can we help?” he shot for the moon and doing so paid off as donors opened their wallets in an unprecedented way.

“This is a moment I’ll never forget.  The need was there. We put out the call. People answered. A lot of people are going to get help because of it.”

Kirkconnell seemed awed how the effort caught on like wildfire when the Alabama Broadcasters Association extended the details of the effort and spread the word.

WVTM-TV Alabama’s 13 United Way Tornado Relief Telethon was aired one week after the tornadoes hit, with participation by stations throughout the state and across the United States.

“The idea I had was to put together a method by which it would be really easy for newspapers, websites, radio stations, and television stations within the state of Alabama but also really anywhere in the United States and beyond to say “Yes” to putting an appeal out there for the donation of funds,” said Kirkconnell. 

Phone line and text numbers, web and postal addresses were established. Newspapers and websites advertised the telethon. CNN donated satellite time. NBC weatherman Al Roker was moved. He told his Today Show and Weather Channel audiences about the fund-raising efforts.

Kirkconnell said Crawford Broadcasting also participated in the effort, along with many, many media partners.  Birmingham natives and nationally syndicated morning show hosts, “Rick and Bubba” talked about the telethon on their radio show, which claims more than 50 affiliate stations.  Media General stations promoted the event and more than 200 markets carried the WVTM-TV Alabama’s 13 United Way Tornado Relief Telethon.

As I spoke to Kirkconnell about what seemed like the momentous wave of goodwill, a donor walked in, and hand-delivered a check for $10,000 dollars.

CBS Affiliate: WIAT TV

The telethon was also carried by the Birmingham CBS TV affiliate, WIAT, on its main channel in a fully collaborative effort. The CBS affiliate went a step further: It also lent a satellite truck and operator for custom live shots. Its anchors and personalities made appearances. The station pulled out all the stops to help with competitor, WVTM’s efforts.

WIAT Vice-President of Marketing/Programming, Alex Morrow, said,” During a time of disaster there should only be one priority and that is the welfare of our viewers. This means all viewers, not just those loyal to WIAT. Because of this, WIAT was willing to partner with any station or allow any other station to partner with us in the recovery efforts.”  

Morrow said the station linked with community partners. “WIAT formed a unique partnership with five credit unions throughout our DMA  (Designated Market Area) and each credit union established a ‘CBS42 Disaster Relief Fund.’ During our extended news coverage and through the heavy rotation of promos, the station encouraged viewers to visit any of those credit union locations to make a donation. The collection sites are still on-going and 100% of the proceeds will be given to the Red Cross.”

Also:  We got excellent support from other New Vision Television stations…three of them sent us people to help out, several others sent equipment.  We literally could not have kept the wheels on without that assistance.

Plus, on CBS42.com, WIAT established a "Neighbors Disaster Relief" tab, which serves as a one-stop resource for those in need of help and those who would like to help.

“By creating and in-depth resource we've been able to provide valuable information to everyone, and it is available day and night,” Morrow said.

There were no tallies available on how much was raised at the time this article was written.

Morrow continued, “In addition, WIAT partnered with Country Music Television to simulcast the ‘CMT Disaster Relief Telethon’ on 42.2 on May 6, 2011 with those dollars also being donated to the American Red Cross.”

Unparalleled News Commitment


To me, it seemed every working journalist for every radio and television station in the Birmingham area operated on adrenaline. That feeling was echoed by all news directors in town.

“I have been doing this a long time and have never encountered a total team commitment like this coverage required.  We did massive amounts of special programming and the only griping I got was from people who wanted to be even more involved.  Everyone stepped up.  Everyone did above and beyond.  It was a week before anyone got a day off."

Veteran WIAT-TV News Director Bill Payer said, “I’ve obviously been proud of other accomplishments over the years, but I’ve never been involved in something that combined excellent television, excellent journalism and genuine service to the community the way this coverage did.  Everyone involved should be both proud and humbled by this.”

I asked Payer: As a news manager, did you do anything differently than when covering past storms? 

Payer said, “The main difference was the realization that literally nothing else mattered.  We scrapped carefully crafted plans and schedules for the May book to devote our full attention to storm and aftermath coverage.  Storm related coverage and recovery coverage was our total focus.”

WBRC FOX6

Vice-President and General Manager of Birmingham’s FOX affiliate, Lou Kirchen felt her experienced staff knew what to do when word of the approaching storms first became known.  “If you have a strong meteorologist and very strong news director then to some degree, we follow their lead. When we saw the size of this event, we went wall to wall. We did 72.5 hours of news,” between April 27th at 2 p.m. and the evening of April 29th.  With Fox’s blessing, “we delayed the showing of Idol. We didn’t show the Royal Wedding festivities. We stuck purely with news. We knew the most important thing in the DMA was this story.”

Our staff worked around the clock, said Kirchen. In addition, personnel flowed in from Raycom stations in other markets around the country supplying the station with additional personnel and equipment, such as microwave trucks for live shots. “These units are called, ‘Go Teams’…ready to help supplement coverage during times of disaster.”

Lou Kirchen said she would be willing to discuss the merits of a multi-station collaborative disaster plan especially, one involving stations throughout the state.

Fox 6’s Red Cross fundraising effort was state wide, in that Raycom stations in Huntsville, Montgomery and Dothan, as well the Clear Channel Radio stations in the market participated in that effort.  “That’s why we felt it would have been confusing to change directions mid-stream,” said Kirchen.

Kirchen said her station partnered with the Red Cross, using social media and the web. During the news coverage, reporters and anchors conducted informational interviews to raise money.

“On Your Side” and “Call for Action” personnel were activated to provide additional help for those in need.  Viewer advocacy shows, such as “Law Call” helped viewers get their legal questions answered. Feedback from viewers indicated those services were appreciated, said Kirchen.

“We told people where to go to donate their money. We directed them to the Red Cross website.” The Red Cross is trying to determine the value of items donated.

Kirchen also enjoyed combining forces with Clear Channel stations. “They were a tremendous partner. Their stations did a very fine job helping us cover this.”

Utilizing Social Media

A tool kit utilizing social media was created to make donating easy said Alabama 13’s Kirkconnell.  “The text-to-donate stats came back. And we had donations from all 50 states, from Singapore, Japan, Italy and Puerto Rico.”

In the end, Alabama’s 13 United Way Tornado Relief Effort generated more than $804,000.
 
More Lessons Learned

WBMA’s Murphy said his station moved quickly into telethon mode because the Red Cross advised donors would be more generous if the station acted quickly. ABC 33/40 was able to mobilize fast. In a little more than 36 hours and with the help of a few major donors, the station created a telethon that raised $575,000 for the American Red Cross. Murphy did not collaborate with any radio stations but did broadcast NBC affiliate WVTM’s telethon on their second channel, and promoted their United Way effort. 

Murphy recalled how Poynter broadcast consultant and RTDNA contributor Al Tompkins taught him long ago, that his real  job was to make a difference. 

The TV station coordinates clean up efforts, which will continue every Saturday as long as there is a need.

Many nationally syndicated radio and television morning show hosts flew to Alabama to raise awareness and be at the heart of activity here. This article addresses only a few who came to this state, but each one contributed significantly to the ultimate outpouring of generosity which will be critical to this area’s eventual recovery and rebuilding.

How’d They Do?

In the end, radio and television stations managed to align themselves with a broad array of broadcast faculties and charitable organizations.  Those partnerships resulted in saved lives, awareness and significant fund-raising. The station managers each felt they provided the kind of service broadcasters can be proud of.

Holding Public Officials Accountable

In the wake of the disaster, news operations at local radio and TV stations are holding public officials accountable to maximize recovery efforts.  Some municipalities acted quickly to remove piles of debris. Yet the city of Birmingham was slow to remove debris in Pratt City. The news-talk station’s audience, the eyes and ears of the community, questioned the pace of the clean up, triggering Alabama’s governor to question Birmingham's mayor.

Why Do It?

How do you measure success? Donated dollar amounts tell some of the story. Testimonials tell the rest of the story.

Listeners Express Appreciation

Listener Shelisa took the time to write to Cox Radio’s David DuBose:

"Just wanted to write and to thank the 'Radio Angels' that have been covering the tragedy that occurred on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 within the state of Alabama.  The staff at your station has done a marvelous job in the coverage that you're providing to the public as well as the donation drive that you have put together.  I appreciate the way the Cox Family has allowed your 'air-wave angels' to deviate from the normal scheduled program and allow the people to express themselves."

"Some of the listeners that have been affected by this tragedy and just listeners in general are allowing petty things to get the best of them."

"You know, government officials may or may not get around to visiting to every affected area, but thanks be to God that money has been allocated to everyone that has been affected in the state. Again, I would like to thank you and your angels for ALWAYS being there for the listening audience whenever there is a threat of severe weather or when something like this happens.  It is my prayer that God will bless each of you and your efforts and know that some people are very, very appreciative."

"Yours in Christ,
Shelisa"

And this note, sent to the Paul Finebaum Radio Show from listener Malcolm Howard:

"I can't begin to tell you how much I appreciate what The Paul Finebaum show has done to help ease the pain of this horrible event. Yesterday was the most inspiring piece of radio I’ve heard.  My daughter lost everything, but she is alive, her neighbors were all killed and it was a miracle that my family is intact.  I've been a fan for over 20 years, and I gotta say I'm so proud of you, your staff and everyone involved with the show.   I mean that with all my heart. Some may think radio is a dinosaur, I say you guys are making it stronger.   The show is National, and I know its growing leaps and bounds. Again, please echo my grateful appreciation to everyone involved with show, we love y’all, and you make us proud everyday!"

Malcolm Howard

Station personnel put in long hours without sleep; they sacrificed time with their families; put themselves at personal risk, gave up income and dedicated unprecedented resources to save lives and rebuild lives.

Why?

It’s what we do as journalists.

Donna Francavilla is a media consultant for Frankly Speaking Communications, a freelance reporter for CBS Radio News and a field producer for CBS The Early Show.

Covering the Gulf Oil Spill, One Story at a Time

By Donna Francavilla, Owner, Frankly Speaking Communications

Donna Francavilla, CBS Radio News Reporter, Oil Spil StoryAs sticky, thick, black oil washed ashore the Gulf of Mexico’s pristine powdery, white beaches, ruining livelihoods, killing sea life and becoming the worst environmental disaster the U.S. has faced, reporters were dispatched to cover the story. Most reporters operated as one-man bands, a trend in the industry. They dealt with emotional victims and faced technological challenges.

CBS Radio News Correspondent Peter King was on the scene early on, returning multiple times to Louisiana and once to the Panhandle, where he spoke to the people in the fishing and tourism industry.

In one report, one he termed a “picture-postcard,", King wove audio seamlessly into his story.  King referred to grating sounds of angry seagulls as they flew overhead. The veteran journalist indicated the birds weren’t the only ones who were angry about the oil spill. The owner of a fishing lodge and marina told King about how cancellations were pouring in. The exasperated man said he had just finished rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. King captured frustration in the man’s voice. The emotion was amplified by the agitating sound of screeching seagulls. The listener could feel this man’s unfolding tragedy. In 30 seconds, the piece packed a powerful punch.

What is this veteran radio reporter’s secret? King said he spoke to “real people,” and focused how the spill was negatively affecting “their lives, their livelihoods, their way of life and how they feel like they are loosing everything.”

This award-winning journalist’s greatest challenge in covering this story was the depth and breath he provided.

“The area is across such a wide field, there is so much to cover; yet you want to find other stories other reporters haven’t done," he said. "And as this story goes on for weeks and months, that’s becoming more and more of a challenge.”

King’s advice? “Go out there with an open mind. Don’t go out there with pre-conceived notions. Always listen. Always know where food is and where the bathroom is because you’ll never know when you’ll eat again and when you’ll go to the bathroom again. Expect to get by on very little sleep when doing a story like this.”

Fox Radio News Senior National Correspondent Rich Johnson didn’t file television reports but sometimes fed material from a television satellite truck. He said his dilemma at the satellite truck wasn’t getting a signal out, but rather getting a connection so that he could hear his cue from anchors who were introducing him. They could hear him just fine, but he couldn’t hear them.

Often cell signals were non-existent, landlines were too far away from beaches and Internet signals were low. Johnson said he remained versatile. The news veteran filed anyway he could. Sometimes he used a landline, other times a cell phone, satellite phone or skype.

Johnson said what he found most compelling was how this story unfolded. First came the cancellations, followed by scarce business at the height of tourist season. When the oil arrived, so did the tears as residents wondered how they going to feed their families.

“I went into a low-budget Italian pasta-pizza joint like you’d see all over New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and I was the only customer,” he said.

Colleagues Peter King and Rich Johnson both agreed that when they are covering stories in which people are distraught, they feel honor-bound to watch, listen, report accurately, while capturing the emotions they observe.

Many reporters say they set aside their intense feelings while the story is unfolding, only to decompress when back home.  Said Johnson, “I’m thinking about more now that I left and am back here.”

King says, “If you are not feeling the emotion, you must be some kind of idiot. As a reporter, I feel maybe telling the story is going to help (victims) in someway. But you absolutely have to stay focused on doing the story justice, rather than getting caught up in your own emotion.”

King admits, “How has this story affected me? It’s heartbreaking. In many cases, the people we’re covering are the ‘have-nots’. They don’t have a lot to begin with, and now are losing everything.”

ABC News Radio dispatched Matt Gutman to the scene. According to Steve Jones, Vice-President of ABC Radio, Gutman demonstrated versatility when he fed reports back to the news bureaus for broadcast on radio and television. Jones said Gutman is a rising-star in part, because he can shoot, produce, and edit for radio and television audiences.

ABC is proactive in preparing journalists to work on a number of platforms.  Journalists undergo one week of training in a new program called, “The Digital Bullpen.” 

Said Jones, “People who are expected to provide content for multiple platforms go through this one week of training. There is a radio component to it for ABC News Radio so that folks who don’t have radio training understand what it is we need. Conversely, we have trained all our radio reporters in how to shoot video; they do  very little editing. We are not throwing anyone into a situation where they will not be confident in their abilities.”

Kim Rankin seems confident in her abilities to do it all when out in the field. Rankin, a reporter for CBS affiliate WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, shot, produced, voiced and edited reports for 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts. She even has learned how to operate the satellite truck, if needed. Rankin loads her video into her laptop and uses FTP to feed it back to the news station in Birmingham.

I caught up with her as she was wiping taffy-like thick ooze off of her shoes and clothes in Orange Beach, Alabama. Rankin said, “You want to capture the best video, the best sound and the best story, and our best story is in the middle of the oil." 

Unlike volunteers who were wearing HAZMAT protective clothing, she was feeling vulnerable to the elements. Her biggest challenge was trying to keep the nasty, sticky oil off her skin and her gear.

Her advice for journalists? Hand-out business cards, ask for tips, ask people to call if they see news, and write down contact information of everyone you meet, then call them and ask what they know and if an interview can be scheduled. She also advises reporters to call contacts in the city you are driving to set up stories.

Frankly Speaking Communications owner Donna Francavilla is a media consultant in Birmingham, a former RTDNA Director-at-Large, and a freelance journalist for CBS-TV, CBS News Radio, America in the Morning and Agence France-Presse.                         ###

Charlie Rose accepts RTDNA’s Paul White Award

By Donna Francavilla, RTDNA News

Charlie Rose, co-host of CBS This Morning and host of the PBS interview show Charlie Rose, said of the profession, “It’s a noble calling.“
 
In a one-on-one interview RTDNA, Rose was asked what he considered to be his best interview. He said the question was impossible to answer because, “What’s been great about my journey is that it’s about news. It’s about science. It’s about culture. It’s about sports and entertainment. It’s a range of human endeavor.”

Rose was chosen to receive RTDNA’s prestigious Paul White Award at EIJ16 in New Orleans for his significant contributions to broadcast journalism. He told the audience, “I know of no better place to seek the truth.”

Fortune Magazine said Charlie Rose has the most earnest, essential public-affairs show on the air right now. Of his show, Rose said, “What really makes a difference? Is there real engagement? Does someone look within themselves to tell you something you haven’t heard before.”
 
Rose summarized his 40-year career in journalism by saying it’s been “an amazing road for me. And he advised young journalists to pursue their chosen profession with great energy and hard work. He admitted that anyone who has been successful receives accolades because they work harder than anyone else. He offered this advice about the power of good writing, which impressed the crowd in the ballroom at the Sheraton New Orelans:  “One word can sum up a thousand pictures; one word can turn a good sentence into a great sentence.”

The Paul White Award is RTDNA’s highest honor and recognizes an individual’s lifetime contributions to electronic journalism.

Amy Tardif, RTDNF Foundation Chair told the collection of journalists present that in the world of broadcast news Charlie Rose is unique.  “At PBS, he raises all of his own underwriting. (That’s public TV lingo for advertising.) Tardif said that although he told Fortune magazine he relishes what this means for his independence, especially when it comes to choosing guests, Charlie Rose says it can be a source of frustration.” Tardif noted that when Charlie Rose gave the commencement speech at the University of the South in Tennessee this spring, the told graduates to “be crazy, be humble and dream big.”
 
Time magazine named him among the 100 most influential people in the world. He was named the recipient of the Walter Cronkite Excellence in Journalism Award last year. Charlie Rose told the group, “I believe in the power of questions.”

We asked Rose to name the biggest or best interview of his career, and he said it was an impossible question to answer:

By Donna Francavilla, RTDNA Contributor
 
You may recall a recent story where a judge determined whether one of Donald Trump’s tweets was considered defamatory. In this article, I reexamine defamation principles originally enacted before the Internet Revolution and ask if they still apply today. Don’t think this was my brilliant idea. I was inspired by a law student’s presentation on the matter at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama. I will share some of her findings along with the observations of her law professor.

It might be worthwhile for journalists to review free speech and defamation principles within the current legal norms in the age of rapid communication. Let’s also take a look at what changes might Donald Trump bring following his campaign promises to change libel laws to make it easier for public figures to sue news organizations.

How it used to be:
When comments of a defamatory nature were published in a newspaper or broadcast on radio or television, the person being defamed had little direct, immediate recourse. Today, with social media, that’s all changed.

What is defamation?
Let’s take look at what defamation is. It arises when a communication harms a person’s reputation, lowering the person’s estimation in the community and involves a “false and derogatory statement that was published to a third person, and the statement causes actual damage.” The two traditional forms of defamation are libel and slander. Libel is a written defamatory statement and slander is a spoken or oral defamatory statement.

Defamation and The Media
Where the defamatory comments are made by the media or where they are directed towards a public figure, the First Amendment requires that the defamed person must prove the offender published a defamatory statement with knowledge that the statement was false or with a reckless disregard of its falsity.

According to a law professor at Cumberland, social media presents additional challenges in determining what is or is not defamatory. “That is especially true when attempting to distinguish between speech that is defamatory and speech that is merely opinion,” says Professor Jill Evans, who teaches the upper level course, Selected Topics in Torts.

A New York judge’s January ruling that Donald Trump's Twitter assault on a television commentator during the presidential campaign was NOT defamatory is a recent example of how courts are struggling with applying traditional defamation rules to social media. The lawsuit was brought by Cheryl Jacobus, a Republican commentator and political strategist whom Trump branded on Twitter as "a real dummy."  A judge wrote that Trump’s tweets did not qualify as defamatory, even though they were "clearly intended to belittle and demean."

Sticks and Stones
In Jacobus v. Trump, the political strategist filed a libel lawsuit after Mr. Trump on Twitter called Jacobus a “major loser” with “zero credibility” and insisted that she had “begged” him for a job. Here’s a copy of the Trump post:

The Law
The First Amendment requires libel plaintiffs who are public figures, a status Ms. Jacobus certainly held by virtue of her activities during the campaign, to prove actual malice on the part of the defendant. It is unclear how the courts are supposed to determine whether a tweet or Facebook comment is made with actual malice.  Professor Evans says that it is the interactive nature of social media that creates some of the difficulty in determining when a statement might meet the actual malice standard. “That is not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “In some cases the exchange on social media may make it easier to categorize a statement as either non-defamatory or opinion. That is especially so when the statements are directed towards public figures or officials.” That certainly seems to have been the case with Trump’s tweets.  

The Ruling
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe asserted that Trump’s speech fell into the category of “hyperbolic” comment in the heat of a political campaign. Jaffe said, “Professional misconduct, incompetence or a lack of integrity may not be reasonably inferred from being turned down from a job.” The court further considered the word “begged” in context with the other negative tweets exchanged between President Trump and Jacobus to establish that the defensive tone of the tweet signaled readers that the two were engaged in a quarrel. President Trump’s characterization that Jacobus “begged” for her job is figurative and loose. Those types of statements, according to the judge, are almost always considered opinions, not facts.
 

Can the laws be changed?
Law student Taylor Akers is studying defamation and the rise of social media as part of a class looking at trends in tort law. She points out that President Trump has stated a desire to tighten the defamatory libel laws in favor of public figure plaintiffs, although that clearly could have hurt him in the claim by Jacobus. Akers is looking closely at this issue as part of her research. Akers believes that President Trump is facing an uphill battle because libel is a matter of state law and Presidents cannot directly change state laws. According to an article in the New York Times, President Trump would have to either change the First Amendment principles that constrain the country’s libel laws or amend the Constitution itself, neither of which is within the executive powers. Unfortunately for President Trump, until the Supreme Court overrules its landmark decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, public figures still must prove that false statements were made with “actual malice” – a higher bar than that applied to defamation of private citizens.

Akers believes that as the use of social media platforms increase, the lawsuits alleging defamation via social media platforms will continue to increase. She thinks applying existing defamation law to cases involving social media is complicated by the fact that social media differs markedly from traditional forms of media. Social media allows communication about thoughts, emotions and ideas to be delivered to mass audiences instantaneously and without reflection. In fact, the whole purpose of social media is to freely exchange thoughts and ideas but to do so in snippets. Consider Twitter’s 140 character limit on all posts, for example. A speaker has little opportunity to provide context or make it known that his/her post is strictly opinion or hyperbole. Therefore, a court is almost forced to examine the Defendant’s string of tweets and responses to tweets.
 
Fair Play
According to Professor Evans, social media is also likely to muddy the water with respect to traditional notions of who is considered a public figure for purposes of defamation law. One of the reasons for the higher standard of “actual malice” or reckless disregard when the defamed is a public figure is that they generally had greater access to media and other outlets to respond to any defamatory statements. Akers presentation pointed out that with traditional forms of media, a private individual was less likely to have the resources to combat the defamatory material, hence they must only prove the defendant acted with negligence rather than the higher burden of “actual malice.”  Social media gives everyone access to the public.  
 
The First Amendment
While the First Amendment protects the right to anonymous speech, this right is not absolute. Aker says that “where an anonymous speech is thought to be defamatory, the court must balance the speaker’s right to remain anonymous and the Plaintiff’s need to discover the speaker’s identity to establish a claim.” In other words, the court must see evidence that the person being defamed was harmed before it will address the question of whether the speaker will lose his or her anonymity. Akers suspects that the question of what a plaintiff must prove to overcome the right to anonymous speech will play a central role in future cases involving defamation and social media.
 
What does it all mean?
Listening to this topical presentation as a journalist helped me re-examine the issue. I am convinced that the risk of defamation becomes more prevalent as internet use expands. For now at least, the burden of proof continues to be rather high. One must prove intentional harm and actual malice before a lawsuit can be won. Unlike past United States presidents, Donald Trump says he hates the media, and is threatening to change laws that don’t favor public figures. And THAT could affect the nature of what is said and how it is said.

Possible Easing of the Law toward Public Figures?
Donald Trump pledged to “open up our libel laws” if he became president to make it easier to sue news organizations for unfavorable coverage. Can he actually do it? According to a November 2016 article to the New York Times, the simple answer is yes, but it would be complicated and extremely difficult. Times journalist Sydney Ember said since libel is a matter of state law limited by the principles of the First Amendment, presidents cannot directly change state laws, so Mr. Trump would effectively have to seek to change the First Amendment principles that constrain the country’s libel laws. “There are two potential ways he could do this, according to legal experts. One route is through the Supreme Court. The other is through the Constitution itself.” 

Donna Francavilla is an award-winning news reporter in Birmingham, Alabama and owner of Frankly Speaking Communications.

Q & A with Lesley Stahl and Pierre Thomas

By Donna Francavilla, RTDNA News

In a packed, standing room only session in Orlando, two veteran nationally-known journalists from competing networks were brought together. Shortly before receiving the top honors available from their peers, the pair sat side by side, taking turns answering impromptu questions before attendees at the Excellence for Journalism conference.

Lesley Stahl, the long-time 60 Minutes correspondent, was asked about which story she considered to be her biggest scoop. Stahl referred to her years at the White House. She said on the night of the 1980 convention, at a time when entire CBS team was mobilized on a story, she learned George Bush was chosen to as the Republican nominee for President, a surprise to everyone, including legendary anchor Walter Cronkite, who at first doubted her word.

But Stahl’s sources were correct and she broke the story.  Breaking that pivotal story launched Stahl’s career forward. It what a career it has been! Stahl is one of America’s most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists.  Lesley Stahl’s career has been marked by political scoops, surprising features and award-winning foreign reporting.  She has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since March 1991; the 2014-15 season marks her 24th on the broadcast.

ABC correspondent Pierre Thomas is this year’s 2015 John F. Hogan Distinguished Service Award winner. Pierre Thomas is the Senior Justice Correspondent for ABC News. He joined the network in November 2000 and reports for “World News Tonight with David Muir,” “Good Morning America,” “Nightline” and other ABC News programs.  Thomas was a key member of ABC’s team of correspondents covering the terrorist attacks of September 11, which earned the network a Peabody, DuPont-Columbia and Emmy Award. Thomas also participated in a “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings” broadcast which won the Edward R. Murrow Award for best newscast in 2005, and was a key part of the ABC News team honored with two additional Murrow Awards in 2012 for the network’s coverage of the tragic Tucson shooting and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and in 2014 for ABC’s coverage that included the Boston marathon terrorist attacks. He received an Emmy Award as part of team coverage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama and, in 2011, the Houston Association of Black Journalists honored him with its Pinnacle Award. He was recently featured in the American Journalism Review, and in 2011 was the focus of an hour-long C-SPAN broadcast about his career and thoughts on journalism. In 2012, the National Association of Black Journalists named Thomas Journalist of the Year.

ABC correspondent Pierre Thomas is this year’s 2015 John F. Hogan Distinguished Service Award winner. Pierre Thomas is the Senior Justice Correspondent for ABC News. He joined the network in November 2000 and reports for “World News Tonight with David Muir,” “Good Morning America,” “Nightline” and other ABC News programs.  Thomas was a key member of ABC’s team of correspondents covering the terrorist attacks of September 11, which earned the network a Peabody, DuPont-Columbia and Emmy Award. Thomas also participated in a “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings” broadcast which won the Edward R. Murrow Award for best newscast in 2005, and was a key part of the ABC News team honored with two additional Murrow Awards in 2012 for the network’s coverage of the tragic Tucson shooting and the killing of Osama Bin Laden, and in 2014 for ABC’s coverage that included the Boston marathon terrorist attacks. He received an Emmy Award as part of team coverage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama and, in 2011, the Houston Association of Black Journalists honored him with its Pinnacle Award. He was recently featured in the American Journalism Review, and in 2011 was the focus of an hour-long C-SPAN broadcast about his career and thoughts on journalism. In 2012, the National Association of Black Journalists named Thomas Journalist of the Year.

 In the Q & A featuring both famous journalists, the audience wanted to know how long it took to get a 60 Minutes piece on the air.  Lesley Stahl said it could take a little as one day.  “I’ve done one live interview. I may be the only correspondent who did that. But it can take a year or more.”
 
Stahl pulled the curtain back on 60 Minutes a bit to let the EIJ15 attendees see behind the scenes.  “We’re supposed to come up with our own stories. If you come up with the story, you show you care about it, and show the bosses you were right. You show you are committed to it, “ she said.  Then she paused and explained, “We work as a team. Each correspondent has a team. Whoever has the best ideas; we go out and produce the piece. Afterwards, we write a note to the boss—a paragraph or two.”
 
Why don’t some story ideas make it to air?  “Some decisions are based on cost, if it costs too much to produce or if similar stories have been done,” those stories won’t make air, explained the news veteran.  But, she added, “We can fight for stories.”
 
After getting the nod, the producers really “get to work.” Lesley said, “I work on 4-5 stories at the same time. I am called in to the do the interviews. I don’t screen the videotape, they do. I have to rely on my memory. We write the story on paper. We think it’s brilliant. We put it on videotape and sometimes it falls completely flat—it has to do with a lack of energy or inflection. It’s like an oral exam. We go before the boss. Usually they tear it shreds.” Stahl told the audience that often she is given an opportunity to “fix it” before the story is reviewed once more.
 Pierre Thomas was asked about his workflow at ABC Television.  “I have responsibility for daily beat coverage and breaking news coverage.”  Sometimes breaking news dictates that Pierre is given just a couple of hours to get the job done.  Woken up in the middle of the night, “I dictated the story as I was driving in, by Bluetooth,” he revealed. Then he laughed, “I wasn’t breaking any laws.” Pierre was live on television just three hours later at 7 A.M.

Each correspondent humbly talked about his or her most embarrassing moment in the industry. Lesley Stahl admitted she wanted to resign after her live interview with Former United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  Stahl asked Thatcher multiple times why she stood by President Ronald Reagan knowing full well that Reagan had lied to her. The first couple of times the question was asked Thatcher got twitchy. Then, according to Stahl, Thatcher snapped, and turned the tables on Stahl. Thatcher shot back, saying, “Why do I seem to love your country more than you do?” Stahl recalled, “I was a puddle of a blob on the floor. That was my worst time ever, and it was live.

Pierre Thomas reflected a moment before revealing his most humbling moment on national television. He said it happened while a new employee at ABC News. He didn’t think he ought to do a live shot during a terrible storm, but the producers disagreed and put him in danger. “The heavens opened up,” said Pierre. Said an eyewitness in the newsroom, “What are you doing to Pierre?” 
 
There was another embarrassing moment that came to mind for Pierre. It happened during the harrowing, stressful marathon broadcasts during 9-11. Pierre had spent hours responding to ABC News anchor Peter Jennings’s questions. When news anchor Ted Koppel took over for Jennings, the obviously exhausted Thomas answer Koppel’s question saying, ”Well, Peter….” If that error wasn’t bad enough, Thomas confessed, he did it again until a producer whispered in his ear, “Ah, Pierre, ah, you’re talking to Ted.
 
Both journalists were asked what advice they’d offer to young journalists. Lesley Stahl replied quickly as it’s a question often asked.  
 
“I was actually young once, so I should be able to answer that one,” she said with a broad smile, alluding to her long career in the industry. “Read everything.”  Stahl indicated that if you present your idea with confidence, your career would benefit from the effort. “Secondly,” she said, “Work harder than you ever think you’re going to work.”
 
How do you become good at the craft of journalism? “The secret is doing it over and over again. You will learn to be a journalistic writer. Get a job where you can go out and get a job where you can be a journalist,” said Stahl.  Pierre Thomas concurred saying, “Go somewhere you can learn. Put yourself in different situations.”
 
Lesley Stahl, now a proud grandmother who is starting her 25th year at 60 Minutes, described that essentially what she does has NOT changed over the years. Stahl indicated that unlike younger journalists, she has time to think, develop sources and follow through with the story.
 
Pierre Thomas reflected on his use of social media, saying, “I don’t tweet crap unless I know it’s a good story! You need to be careful, the best you can, with what you are publishing.”
 
The pair was asked about their start in a business that didn’t easily promote minorities or women.  Pierre Thomas said, “I believe diversity is extremely important in the newsroom.”
 
Lesley admitted that she was hired under affirmative action.
 
“I was lucky because my boss really wanted us to succeed. I don’t believe one story can kill you. I don’t mean that you won’t be fired from that organization. I believe that anyone can stand up and fight back. “  You just stay with it. You just don’t give up. Get yourself up and go back to the beginning.
 
Lesley Stahl indicated that each journalist should discover what skills they have which work for them individually. “You just have to do it over and over again.”  “Since I got my first job, I loved every day. I’m not kidding. I loved it every day.”
 
Pierre Thomas chimed in about his love for his job. “The great thing about this job is what Lesley just said. Every day is new and every subject is new. That’s the great thing about this job is to not have a cookie-cutter approach necessarily. “
 
Pierre Thomas believes some reporters could improve by just listening more carefully and more intently.  “Listen.” It drives Thomas “crazy” when a question is asked, but the reporter doesn’t follow up because they weren’t listening.
 
Thomas indicated that if he had to name most of his sources, he couldn’t effectively do his job. “Without that cloak, if you will, I would not be able to do what I do.” 
 
Thomas and Stahl were asked about how they viewed colleague former NBC anchor Brian Williams’ fall from grace. Stahl believes Williams “will and can bounce back.” Pierre said he agreed.
 
During a tender, humble moment between the two veteran journalists, Pierre turned to Lesley and said simply, “She is such a master journalist and I’m taking notes on everything she’s said.”
 

Terms & Conditions | Privacy Policy

© 2001 - 2017. All Rights Reserved by Donna Francavilla | Designed by Frankly Speaking Communications, LLC