I’m teaching my Media Writing class about event coverage today. So here are some tips on event coverage:
Before the event, learn what you can about what’s going to happen. A sporting event might have a program or roster with the players’ numbers and names. A public meeting might have an agenda. A conference program will list the speakers. A more informal program will have an organizer who can provide an overview and some background.
But sometimes you need to go beyond the handouts and the organizers. Find some contrarians who can let you know about interesting turns the event might take.
Cover events live
I’ve written about live coverage multiple times, so I’ll just link to it here, rather than repeating:
Take good notes
The handout from my old note-taking workshop is included in my post Shut up and listen. Just search for “taking notes” and the second hit will take you to that section.
A helpful note-taking technique for events is to use initials or other abbreviations for people. For instance, if I’m going to be a speaker at the event, you might identify me as “SB.” But look the program over and be sure I’m the only person with those initials who’s speaking. If another SB is on the program, you might use “But” for me.
If you’re livetweeting or liveblogging, your tweets or blog can become your notes, for the most part. But keep a notebook handy (or perhaps a Word doc on your laptop or tablet) for actual notes: facts you want to check before publishing, items to pursue in interviews during a break or after the event, possible follow-up ideas.
Take a 360-degree view
At any event, the audience might provide some potential stories, sometimes a better story than the speaker or other focal point of the event. The great Canadian writing coach Don Gibb encourages what he calls a 360-degree view, looking around and behind you during an event, rather than just being riveted on the speaker.
After I passed Don’s advice on at a writing workshop years ago, I heard from a reporter of a great example: In covering a speech by a former Vietnam prisoner of war, the reporter did the 360-degree look and noticed someone in the crowd who seemed more engaged and interested than the others. The reporter watched after the speech and the woman went forward to give the POW the copper bracelet with his name on it that she had worn during the Vietnam War. By noticing the woman rather than focusing solely on the speech, the reporter got a better story than simply by taking notes on the speech. Alas, I’ve forgotten the reporter’s name. If this is your story, please email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll credit you appropriately.
Watch for the surprise
Most events unfold as planned. But sometimes a surprise happens. A player gets injured. A coach gets fired. Protesters disrupt a meeting. A defendant disrupts a trial. I once stumbled onto a police brutality story while covering a “Do the Right Thing Youth Rally.”
You can’t plan for the surprise, but you must remain alert and adjust your plans when surprises happen.
Event coverage needs to include visual content. Unless you’re working with a visual journalist, you need to plan to provide the photos and/or videos needed as part of your coverage. Shoot photos of the speaker(s) and crowd. Don’t shoot from the back of the room (unless trying to depict a packed room). Get close enough to provide a clear shot of the speaker.
Video coverage can be a live stream using Periscope, Facebook Live, Livestream or another live video service, a video story summarizing the event or video highlight(s) to run with a text story.
The sooner you can write after an event, the fresher and more accurate your story will be, even if you don’t have an immediate deadline. If you can write a few paragraphs during a break, before you know what your final story or your lead will be, you will help yourself write more quickly and accurately after the event.
Answer the question: “What’s this story about?” and that should give you the focus of your story, as well as helping with your lead.
Many times a meeting story isn’t as important as the enterprise story that follows as you explain the impact of an action taken by a board or council. If an event is important to your community, follow up by gathering reaction.
If politicians are speaking or debating, follow up by fact-checking their statements. (I was pleased last night to see several news organizations fact-checking the presidential debate as it was going on.)
Beat reporters particularly might get good enterprise stories from the reports and other documents that are distributed, approved or handled routinely in meetings. Sports enterprise and feature stories often grow from what happens in the games: A feature on an emerging star or analysis of a struggling offense or defense.
Keep an eye on social media during or after an event. You might gather some reaction quotes or a few embeds for your story or curate reaction for a sidebar. Social media might raise questions for you to pursue in your reporting.
Types of events
The type of event will sometimes present different twists and challenges in how you cover it:
Meetings. Most public bodies’ meetings are open, governed by state or federal laws. Know the appropriate laws, so that if a body votes to close a meeting, you can ask for the reason and cite a legal reason or note that the reason did not meet your laws. Work sources to learn what happens at secret meetings.
Trials. Know whether your jurisdiction allows computers and/or phones to provide live coverage. If that decision is left to the judge, ask a judge early enough that you can plan your coverage (or challenge a ruling).
Press conferences. Journalists generally prefer their own interviews to press conferences, but newsmakers sometimes prefer them as efficient ways to deal with the press. If you can get a private interview, don’t ask questions at a press conference if you’d prefer to have the answers exclusively. But if the press conference is your only shot to get a question answered, take it.
Sporting events. The “game story” is undergoing some evolution as live coverage and post-game enterprise grow in importance. In a game story, outcome and importance are more important than play-by-play, even if notes or live coverage unfold in play-by-play style. What’s the big thing that happened in this game? That should be the focus of your coverage.
Concerts or festivals. If you’re covering a concert or festival, be clear with your editor or news director whether you’re covering a news event or providing an entertainment review. In either case, consider the relative importance of the performance and audience reaction. If the audience loved something that you thought was lacking, you should at least consider mentioning the audience reaction along with your criticism.
Debates. Don’t let post-debate “spin” override your reporting of what actually happened. No one knows immediately after a debate who “won,” but everyone claims victory, so the spin should be secondary to reporting what the candidates actually did and said.
Conferences, etc. In covering events such as speeches, conferences, conventions and symposia, you need to consider your audience and the relative newsworthiness of different mini-events within bigger events. Should you cover the whole event or are you just covering one speaker or panel? If you can’t attend simultaneous events, you can catch up with one you miss by following social media, interviewing a speaker or interviewing people who did attend.
Funerals. As I’ve noted before, journalists covering funerals need to show sensitivity to the mourners.