How one news director plans to cover the next local crisis
Bloodshed came to a San Diego high school in March. Police charged a 15-year-old with killing two kids and wounding 13. In this article, Michael V. Marcotte, news director of KPBS-FM/TV, describes journalistic issues raised by events and the crisis coverage plan that the station developed in response. Marcotte presented the plan at the Public Radio News Directors Conference in July. Before joining the San Diego station in 1995, Marcotte served eight years as news director and assistant p.d. at KPLU-FM in Seattle/Tacoma.
The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington jolted Americans awake to many new realities — plus one that should come as no surprise: that public radio plays a crucial role during times of crisis.
Not long ago, NPR News was ill equipped to do what it is doing now. But it is a testament to the vision, growth and maturity of the entire NPR system — and the abandonment of news by commercial radio — that NPR and its member stations now serve as a primary news source for America.
Local stations are following NPR’s lead, investing in news formats and local news departments. Increasingly, they see a vacuum in their markets and are emerging as primary news providers.
There is no more crucial time to have developed your local news muscles than at times of crisis. And if you haven’t started, you should get busy.
Take it from personal experience.
At KPBS-FM in San Diego, we got a surprise wake-up call earlier this year, when a 15-year old student took a rifle to school and blasted more than a dozen classmates, killing two of them. The Santana High School shootings didn’t compare to Columbine in terms of national impact, but you can imagine what a shock they were to local San Diegans, particularly to thousands of parents.
KPBS has a robust news department (even with several positions currently frozen) and practices a rather aggressive daily news regimen. On the morning of the shootings, we mobilized the entire newsroom to cover the story in news updates. But it became apparent that we hadn’t fully planned for something of this magnitude.
After each breaking news update, we returned to regular format only to hear talking heads going on about what now seemed totally irrelevant — the search for an AIDS vaccine and, later, foreign policy issues.
I remember the troubling conversation I had with managers that afternoon — me, defending our decision to go with breaking news updates rather than “wall-to-wall” coverage like the TV stations do. I explained that the news was fragmented, that we were being diligent in confirming facts, that we were being sensitive not to thrust shocked children onto the air live, and so on.
There were plenty of good reasons to justify our approach—but there was no good reason for this: when concerned listeners rushed to KPBS with high expectations of breaking news coverage — on a momentous local story — they got an NPR foreign policy discussion instead.
Many folks did compliment us for our coverage, that day and during the many days to follow, but we all knew we have to do better. From that mantra grew a task force on crisis coverage and the decision-making model that follows.
I share this plan by request, knowing it is only a framework, a beginning step, requiring adjustments and refinements. I’d be interested in your comments and suggestions at Mmarcotte@KPBS.org.
After I presented this working plan at the PRNDI conference some 25 news directors requested copies. Apparently, there are many stations taking up the challenge to become more than a pass-through for NPR programming — preparing for the day when they too must rise to the occasion as a primary source of information — and comfort — during times of crisis. Let’s hope none needs to use it.
KPBS Crisis Coverage Plan
- KPBS Radio is a primary news source in San Diego County.
- At all times, KPBS maintains its journalistic values of accuracy, fairness and independence.
- KPBS strives to imbue all coverage with context, civility and craftsmanship.
Four key functions in times of crisis
- Vital information resource: KPBS provides calm, factual accounts of what is happening, where it is happening, who is affected and how things are changing, and explains why.
- Communication lifeline: KPBS saves lives by relaying critical information to and from affected parties.
- Early warning beacon: KPBS saves lives and property by transmitting timely, reliable information that prevents harm.
- Community forum: KPBS connects citizens, giving them a way to come together, share concerns and support one another during difficult times.
Assess, mobilize, air
When a crisis breaks, there is a simple sequence for immediate decision-making: assess scope and gravity; mobilize the necessary staff; air appropriate information.
Assess: The first person aware of the news notifies news management. Management sets appropriate response level.
Mobilize: Studio staff is the first need — to feed air. Newsroom staff is the second need — to feed studio. Field staff is next — to feed newsroom and studio.
Air: Provide summaries promptly. Present facts calmly, carefully. Repeat as necessary. Adjust coverage proportionately to severity, interest and resources.
Five emergency response levels
- Low, normal format.
- Medium-low, updates in format.
- Medium-high, updates break format.
- High, limited extended coverage.
- Ultra high, unlimited extended coverage
Emergency Level One
Lowest response level.
Air can wait.
Assess: Situation qualifies if “yes” is the answer to these questions: Does the emergency directly affect few people (1-4)? Is it clear the emergency isn’t becoming worse? Can public curiosity wait until a scheduled newscast?
Mobilize: News Director assesses response. News Anchor feeds air in newscasts. News Reporter covers if assigned.
Air: Regularly scheduled newscasts.
Examples: fatal fires, severe accidents, some crimes, minor storms, minor flooding, remote quakes.
Emergency Level Two
Medium-low response level.
Stay in format, use special updates.
Assess: Situation qualifies if “yes” is the answer to these questions: Does the emergency directly affect relatively few people (5-20)? Are the effects severe or potentially severe? Is it clear the emergency won’t become worse anytime soon)? Does public interest/curiosity warrant timely updates? Can the facts be summed up in brief?
Mobilize: News Director assesses response, makes assignments. Program Director is advised. Air Host or Metro Traffic may provide information in breaks. News Anchor may provide added newscasts. News Reporters cover as assigned.
Air: Use regularly scheduled breaks. Use scheduled newscasts or unscheduled newscasts (in format).
Examples: Major storm watches, major highway tie-ups, large fires (smoke visible, no imminent threat), major crimes or events of public interest (no imminent threat).
Emergency Level Three
Medium-high response level.
Break format for special updates.
High urgency/wide interest.
Serious situation/potential for escalation.
Assess: Situation qualifies if “yes” is the answer to these questions: Does the emergency directly affect or potentially affect many people (more than 20)? Are the effects severe or potentially severe? Is it possible the emergency will become worse? Does public concern or curiosity warrant immediate updates? Can the facts be summed up in brief?
Mobilize: News Director assesses response/makes assignments. Program Director is advised. News Anchor provides special updates as soon as possible. Air Host and/or Metro Traffic and/or Talk Host may also provide info in breaks. Available News Reporters check-in for duty. Talk Staff on Stand-By for Level Four.
Air: Break in with special updates. Return to regular programming after updates.
Examples: Severe storm warnings, extreme highway closures with casualties or risks, large fires with smoke and potential threat, major crimes with potential threat, isolated civil disturbance, local but minor earthquakes.
Emergency Level Four
High response level.
Break format, use extra staff.
High urgency, wide impact or concern.
Serious situation requiring extensive but not ongoing coverage.
Assess: Situation qualifies if “yes” is the answer to these questions: Does the emergency directly affect many people (more than 100)? Are the effects severe? Does public interest or curiosity override most other programming options? Is the emergency or its aftermath continuing? Can you sustain extended coverage?
Mobilize: News Director assesses response. Program Director is advised. News Director makes assignments. News Anchor provides special updates as soon as possible. Talk Producer mobilizes team. Talk Host helps anchor extended coverage. All News Reporters check in for duty.
Air: Break in with special updates. Mount extended coverage regardless of format.
Examples: Significant natural disasters, singular events with widespread casualties, riots, war or military attack or major event with widespread implications or overriding public concern.
Emergency Level Five
Highest response level.
Break format, use all staff.
Extreme urgency, disastrous situation with widespread impact.
Events require ongoing coverage.
Assess: Situation qualifies if “yes” is the answer to these questions: Does the emergency directly affect most or all people in San Diego? Are the effects severe or momentous? Is the emergency or its aftermath continuing? Does public interest or curiosity override all other programming options? Can we deploy all available resources to support coverage? Can you sustain nonstop coverage?
Mobilize: News Director assesses response. Program Director is advised. News Director makes assignments. Talk Producer mobilizes team. Talk Host helps anchor extended coverage. News Anchor provides special updates. All News Reporters check-in for duty. Extra station staff may be necessary.
Air: Go to nonstop coverage
Examples: Catastrophic local natural disaster, unfolding event with major casualties or potential for casualties, widespread civil disturbance, war or attack or events of universal public concern.
Staff roles and responsibilities
News Director (all levels): Lead authority on key decisions. Coordinate reporters in the newsroom and in the field. Run update of what we know/need to find out. On-site monitoring of standards and practices. Contact with Programming, Operations and other station departments.
News Anchor (all levels): Regular updates on what we know. Gives the hosts a break. Writes. Tapes. May also serve as co-host.
Reporter (all levels): Does Q&As with anchor. Contributes to frequent updates. Does 45-second voicers or wraps from field. Provides tape from field. Provides phone tape from newsroom. Produces packaged spots from newsroom. Does quick-turnaround features.
Program Director (levels 3-5): Controls access to air time. Brings knowledge of programming. Supervises key staff: announcers, operations, technical directors. Serves as liaison to NPR programming. Serves as liaison to Radio Engineering.
Senior Producer (levels 3-5): Coordinates talk show team. Produces call-in programming. Helps gather actualities and information for news reports.
Technical Director (levels 3-5): Helps take feeds in the studio. Helps direct talk show team. Provides assistance in making and screening calls in studio. Provides production support as requested.
Researcher/Booker/Screener (levels 3-5): Researches context for hosts and reporters. Makes contacts for talk shows and newsroom. Arranges guests for talk shows. Provides contacts for newsroom. Gives additional help as needed.
Host (levels 4-5): Reads news. Provides air presence. Provides continuity. Handles conversations with reporters, experts and callers.
Other staff: Provides logistical support, including food, money and tasks fulfilling personal needs of staff involved in coverage.
Look at ways to incorporate NPR and other network needs into plan. Assume all networks want news in Levels Four and Five. Look at role of KPBS-TV and kpbs.org in coverage plan. Establish multiple-scenario staff training program. Review and address field equipment needs. Review backup power and communications needs. Plan to address food, water, cash and personal safety concerns during catastrophic crises.
Web page posted June 30, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC