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Saturday, August 11, 2007


Today's episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: You know my editor's forcing me to ask this, right?

A few days ago, I had a truly awful conversation with a reporter.

REPORTER: We heard that the jail was hit by lightning.

ME: No, a transformer was knocked out very briefly. The back-up generator kicked in right away.

REPORTER: So the power didn't go out?

ME: No.

REPORTER: Not even for a little while?

ME: There might have been a flicker as the lights came back on.

REPORTER: What do you mean?

ME: Have you ever been in a building when a generator kicks in? There's a flicker as the power goes out, then everything comes back on right away.

REPORTER: So I guess the power was only out for a few seconds.

ME: Less than that. Half a second, maybe, if that. It wouldn't even have been noticeable. We have a pretty amazing generator.

REPORTER: My editor says I have to do a story about this. Why do you have such a powerful generator?

ME: (I started to laugh openly at this point.) Because it's a jail.

REPORTER: How long have you had it? When did you realise that you needed it?

ME: (I continued to laugh.) Are you serious? Is it that slow of a news day? Really, it wasn't noticeable.

Naturally, I was quoted in the next day's paper, 1) saying that the jail had indeed been hit by lightning, and 2) bragging about the amazing generator. Fortunately, I still have a sense of humour about all of this. Before I get started, I will confirm that jails do indeed have back-up generators, as do hospitals, large stores, and many other buildings that need to keep the power on for any number of reasons. In this new-media world, it's important to break this kind of exciting news on the Internet.

In the world of journalism, reporters are at the bottom of the heap. The editor has total control, and in a small media organization there is nobody to appeal to. A reporter who's been around for a while can work his way up through the pile, but new guys don't even have a chance. They are ordered to do certain stories, and they must deliver. They usually don't dare to tell the editor that his great ideas are not really any good.

Think how exciting it would be if the jail really HAD been hit by lightning! That would be a great cover photo -- naturally, it would have to be a photo illustration created on a computer, but I can totally see it already. It's pitch black outside, but the scene is starkly illuminated by the single bolt of lightning that is running straight from the sky into the jail. The building has been electrified and is literally glowing. Inside, all of the inmates look up in shock and horror as the lights go down. Then their faces light up as the electric locks pop open. The inmates run off into the night, leaving the guards to chase them on foot over the tundra.

What a GREAT story! Thwarted only by the amazing back-up generator and the fact that the jail was not actually hit by lightning!

Reporters are paid to find great stories. They DREAM of finding great stories. Unfortunately, life is not usually quite so interesting. Life is full of intricacies and yes-buts and it's-a-bit-more-complicated-than-thats. These do not play so well on the evening news. The editor needs to deliver a certain number of eyeballs to advertisers, so he's always looking for something to draw people in. Reporters with a few years of experience are usually allowed to find their own stories, but a newbie can be forced to "chase" whatever the editor thinks might have happened. These reporters are usually embarrassed when they call: they know their questions are amazingly stupid and they can't believe they are being forced to ask them. Often, they will make it very clear that they do not want to ask these questions.

Some of my recent favourites from the last few years (covering several employers/clients):

  • Is my employer splitting in half? Someone thinks we're getting rid of furniture, so obviously we're splitting. (Answer: No. And we're not getting rid of furniture.)
  • If it's smoky outside, what should people do if the smoke bothers them? (Answer: Stay inside with the windows closed.)
  • Have we made a deal with a multi-national corporation that will affect everyone in Canada either directly or indirectly? (Answer: No. If we make that sort of deal, we'll be excited enough to let you know.)
My dear readers, I'm curious: Do you get similar questions? Do reporters ever call you, mutter an apology, and ask if your CEO is an alien who's trying to take over the province through a combination of gum disease and plantar warts?


Anonymous said...

When in high school I worked for a bookstore in Augusta. Apparently Michelle Pfeiffer showed up on vacation looking for (that's right) books. In a matter of hours we had the tabloids calling. The insisted in talking to the bookseller who had processed her order and demanded to know what she had purchased. My boss firmly told them that any questions needed to go through our promotions manager, who wasn't available at the time.

I could have answered their question: She bought books.