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How to Cover Breaking News at the Worst Possible Time

| May 13, 2015

By Howard B. Price
ABC Television Network
Director, Business Continuity


pricehowardbwriterNEW YORK — Last night’s horrific derailment of an Amtrak Northeast Regional train just north of Philadelphia was an object lesson in why broadcasters MUST be prepared to spring into action at any moment.

The crash happened just before 9:30 pm – at a time when today, many radio stations simply have no news coverage or staffing.

Think about the length of the Northeast Corridor – nearly 500 miles, along which there are any number of communities large and small that might be impacted by this event.  Perhaps there was a resident of their town on board the train.  Perhaps service between their community and others was disrupted because of the accident. Perhaps they were not directly impacted, but other rail services pass through their boundaries, and now people are worried about the safety of those trains and their neighborhoods.

This is the kind of story that resonates with just about everyone.  And regardless of the size of your station, or its resources, you simply have to be ready to cover it in a timely, comprehensive and authoritative way.  It’s why you have a license.

If you were watching cable news last night, you saw waaaay too much speculation as to cause…and more than anything else, you saw talent talking more than they were listening.  You also saw stunning displays of what happens when you thrust ill-prepared anchors into continuous coverage and not give them much substance to work with.

After Mayor Michael Nutter’s news conference – a very good news conference, by the way – several cable news anchors completely misreported what the mayor and other officials had just said.  There was reporting that “the entire Northeast Corridor” had been shut down by Amtrak (not true; service was cut just between NYC and Philly). Another account stated that “133 agencies” were responding (not true; the mayor said more than 100 firefighters and 33 pieces of apparatus had responded). The locomotive was identified as a passenger car.  People identified as experts were put on the air live, with long intervals passing before the nature of their expertise was fully explained to the audience.  And there were many other missteps.

The point is that your overnight jock may have to become a newscaster in the blink of an eye.  He or she really needs to be a Jack or Jill of all trades…and needs to know a little about a lot of things that could become breaking news in their station’s coverage area.  And they need to be able to vet information BEFORE it goes on the air.

So here are some instant tips you can implement at your station right now:

  • Robust monitoring of social media.  If you are not using services like TweetDeck and HootSuite, which allow you to monitor a whole bunch of social media streams simultaneously, you need to install a monitor dedicated to them full time in your news and air studios – today.
  • Building good Twitter lists.  You should be monitoring the social media feeds of ALL your local officials, ALL of the emergency services agencies in your coverage area, ALL of your key institutions, ALL of your area’s largest employers – ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that could be a source of breaking news in your area.
  • Key contact lists. You need to be able to reach officials and authoritative experts INSTANTLY…at home, on their cellphones, via e-mail and text. This is a great job for an intern…to call around to your local government agencies and leaders and get their reach information. Keep this list on line, in your smartphone address books, and in hard copy in your news and air studios.
  • Verifying phoners.  The surest way NOT to be the victims of phony phoners is to ask a check question only a legitimate caller would know.  For example, if someone calls claiming to be a police official, ask a question that only someone on that force would know.  Simply asking for and dialing a callback #, is not enough…after all, they know you’ll be calling and will simply answer the phone in a way that will sustain the ruse.
  • Listen! When doing an interview, listen closely to what the person at the other end of the phone is telling you. Write it down.  During breaks, organize the information – then “reset” the audience in and out of every break to make sure you are bringing the audience with you as the story develops.
  • Can the clichés. “We understand” is one of those grating phrases that needs to be banished from the airwaves. If someone told you something, report who told you – or attribute the source in some other way if confidentiality has been promised.  Better to introduce new or existing facts like this: “Here’s what we know right now.” Or, “in a just concluded news conference, the mayor said that…”
  • If live coverage is extended, consider going on delay.  This is the ultimate backstop to an embarrassing moment.
  • Fact sheets. These should be kept online, searchable by topic, as well as in hard copy in a binder in the studio. Keep some thumbnail information on the biggest companies and most prominent people in town; local utilities; local weather records; community emergency response plans and transportation systems.  They will give authority and credibility to your reporting…until more hard facts are reported from the scene of the event or from official sources.
  • Call in the cavalry. When there are just one or two people at the station, and a big story breaks, it’s all hands on deck.  Make sure your station has an emergency notification plan – and explore a subscription to an emergency notification system which can dispatch simultaneous text, e-mail and phone alerts to everyone on your staff within a matter of minutes – anywhere they happen to be.  These systems are web-based…you can even dispatch ENS messages from a smartphone.
  • It is more important to be RIGHT than be FIRST.

When things are at their worst, broadcasters must be at their best. Assuring you have the protocols and resources to initiate and sustain credible breaking news coverage – any hour, any day – will give you a competitive edge, burnish your brand – and be a critical part of your emergency preparedness strategy.


Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is director, business continuity for the ABC Television Network. He can be emailed at or phoned at 212-456-1073.  Howard B. Price is the recipient of the 2015 TALKERS Freedom of Speech Award.  Meet Howard B. price at Talkers New York 2015.

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Category: Advice