My first news director gave me this advice on my first day on the job as a television reporter: "The thing you have to remember, Smitty, is to keep it simple for the audience to understand."
I asked, "How simple does it have to be?"
He rolled back in his chair and said, "Well, look at it like you're talking to Joe and Josephine Six-Pack, who have come home from work. They don't want to hear from local people using big words telling them about the news of the day. You leave that to Walter Cronkite. All you have to do is tell them a simple story about what happened in our neck of the woods."
Forty years later I can tell you: His advice then went in one ear and out the other.
But now, as I've come to the end of my broadcast journalism career, I can appreciate the basic wisdom of his cautionary words. Every electronic news organization these days touts being fast and first in reporting the daily headlines. Notice I didn't include being "accurate" as part of that mantra. Because of the insurgence of social media into the journalistic mix, too much rumor, innuendo, and downright lies are being peddled as truths to the general public. As was once written, "The fault lies not in our stars, but in us."
So on the way out the door, I have a few words of advice to give to young reporters looking to make a respectable impression in Memphis broadcasting.
It helps to have a dictionary. A computer's spell-check system can give you the correct letters, but it doesn't help you learn the true meaning of what you're trying to convey. Armed with the knowledge of what you're talking about, it is possible to confidently use words that empower, enlighten, and inform the viewers, perhaps enough so that they'll go looking for a dictionary. That's viewer engagement, exactly what you want to achieve. If they learn something from a story they might not have known before, chances are they will listen to you the next time they see you. That's why it's imperative that you learn as much about this city as possible. Learn its history. Learn the street names and areas of town. Find out who the movers and shakers are. Incorporate that knowledge into your reports. Do your own legwork, and don't rely on Twitter or Facebook to do it for you.
Strive for objectivity. It is the crux of journalism. I'll be the first to tell you, I've probably crossed that line more than I'd like to admit. But I did so, because I've always had a desire to improve the human condition. When lives are lost for no reason, when governmental decisions are made with no apparent thoughts of the consequences or the people they will affect, when racial and sexual prejudices and injustice go unchecked, then it became my obligation to alert the public to what I knew was happening. I've taken the heat for what I reported over the years, but I always tried to be fair. I never burned any bridges, because, in a business where communication is key, I learned those bridges are interconnected among all races, ideologies, faiths, and political persuasions.
I've often said that being on television is not a right, it is a privilege. I've always been amazed by the number of people who were willing to open up their hearts and trust me to tell their stories. This is the gauntlet I throw down to our local journalists: Tell stories from a human perspective. Every story has an emotion. Find it, feel it, and report it. Every story comes with facts. Dig down to find out what they are before you go on air. The worst mistake you can make is to not be prepared to speak logically and concisely about the story you're covering. If you have questions before you go out the door, ask veteran reporters what they know.
Our industry has gone far beyond Joe and Josephine Six-Pack, but the basic principles remain the same: Try to report the news first, fast — and most important — accurately.
Les Smith is a former reporter for WHBQ Fox-13.