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Beyond the Sound Bite:
Politics and Public Affairs for TV

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The stories behind the story

By Jasmin Persch and David LaFontaine

It’s an old journalistic truism that the story about how you got the story is often more interesting than the story itself.

So rather than the traditional journalism teaching method of putting a foot up on the bar rail and holding court, two seasoned political reporters explained how they laid groundwork far in advance that led to them producing strong, insightful segments.

Chris Heinbaugh of WFAA in Dallas related how his station was caught between a rock and a hard place because the Republicans and Democrats felt Texas was a foregone conclusion.  Thus, they got almost no national political advertising money, which meant there were scant funds to send crews to cover the campaigns.

However, Heinbaugh said that in the absence of obvious stories to cover, they had to get creative and dig until they uncovered the issues that his audience would care about.  One key innovation was to choose their own focus group and interview them throughout the campaign to track how the Democrats were choosing Kerry because they valued “electability,” while the Republicans questioned why we couldn’t all support our President in wartime.

While this segment was tremendously popular, some of the unforeseen challenges were that some of the people in the group moved away or got fed up with being on TV all the time, and once they thought they had shot the entire segment only to find that they had forgotten to roll tape.

Rosemary Lappin of WCVB in Boston said that her drive to educate the public about the candidates and issues grew out of a segment on the Jay Leno show that had her pulling her bedcovers over her head.  In it, random people stopped on the street knew who had come in second on “American Idol” but drew a blank when asked who was running for President.

Lappin said that it was crucial to get executive producers excited about political coverage so the stories will make it on the air.

"Some people just need a good field trip,” Lappin said. “When they have the chance to see the candidates in person, it changes the experience.”

She advises journalists to get their show producers in the field, make alliances in the newsroom, pitch ideas well, talk about potential stories rather than asking for them and “get the momentum going.”

Lappin said politics aren’t visual so stories have to be sold to show producers.

She also spoke about the 5 minutes candidates get to talk freely and how she was not a fan at first.


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