Covering gun violence and national politics: Talking topic and tone with Channel 9 Denver’s Marshall Zelinger

Reinventing Local TV News
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There has been a lot of discussion in the journalism community over how we can use engaging graphics and techniques to grow our audience. One thing we can’t leave out, however, is the issue of subject.

It’s not just about how we tell stories, but why we tell them. This is something that audiences want to know and we as journalists need to justify.

Storybench sat down with Marshall Zelinger to explore how the Channel 9 Denver reporter recently approached a story that was near and dear – the debate over gun control in the wake of a shooting at a theater in his hometown of Aurora, Colorado.

I’d like to talk about the writing and reporting you did on the ‘Aurora’ piece. I thought it was really interesting that you chose to do this story about the town itself as opposed to typical event coverage on the rally. What led you to make that decision?

Well I’m a little different, I think, than anyone else who would do that story because I am from Aurora. My mind was already in a different place. I don’t like to cover the same thing the same way as everyone else, and we’ve covered rallies and events numerous times, so [only] covering the event doesn’t do ourselves or our viewers any justice. We can show them what’s happening and get the information to them that way, but why are they coming to us versus another TV station or another outlet for information? Part of my thinking that day was, and it was really personal, that when I was growing up, I used to tell people I didn’t know that I was from Aurora. They would joke with me, ‘Oh, you’re from Wayne’s World,’ because [party on] Wayne and [party on] Garth were from Aurora, Illinois. I’d have to correct them and say ‘no, I’m from Aurora, Colorado.’

Now, because of the Aurora Theater Shooting, for the last seven years, when I say Aurora, nobody needs to guess anymore because they know exactly what I’m talking about. This was the third event recently in Aurora about gun rights and gun control, so it just dawned on me, Aurora is no longer confused with Wayne’s World or any other city. It’s the place you go when you want to make a gun control statement. Is that it, or is it just my perception? And is it fair if that’s what Aurora has become?

Do you see conversational writing and on-camera reporting as more effective than other styles we see in local TV news?

I think I’m writing even more conversationally now than I ever did before! And you should do that anyway, but now it’s becoming second nature. At first I felt like I had to be ‘Mr. Fact Man’ only, and no personality. I would just be your traditional reporter, and then I learned along the way that I have life experience; After being in the profession for 16 years and being a native, I can add a little of what I know to the story without putting in any opinion. It helps guide the story in terms of making it understandable and entertaining to watch, while still getting the message across. So if I pass along that personal anecdote, I haven’t interjected an opinion one way or the other into what I’m presenting, I’m making people I’m making people feel something, perhaps, and people a better understanding of why we’re showing it to them. They don’t have the question of ‘why did I just watch that?’  Sometimes you’ll see a story and be like, ‘why did they just spend 60 seconds on that?’ With what we do on Next, it’s transparent and clear and obvious why we’re telling the stories we are.

So you’re trying to anticipate the questions that viewers might have?

This dates back long before I got to Channel 9. When I was growing up, I would watch Channel 9 and Ed Sardella was one of the main anchors, an iconic figure here. I never had a personal interaction with him, but what I learned about him when I was in school at CU Boulder, from professors, is that he would really pay attention to a story. Live on air, when you’re out in the field, if he has any questions about your story, he would ask you, whether you were prepared or not! If you know the answer, great, tell it, but you should’ve included it in your story so I didn’t have to ask it. If you didn’t know the answer, be honest; say ‘I don’t know the answer and I will get back to you.’

Whether that really happened or not, I don’t know, but it left the impression that I [should] try to do my stories as if I’m watching them, like what’s not going to bore me? What will keep me from turning the channel? And just curiosity, like what will someone want to know? Don’t avoid the obvious question, and maybe probe a little more so that someone sitting at home will have every question answered. Maybe someone is watching, and they’re thinking ‘you didn’t address this’ or ‘I’m still confused about this’ and they stop paying attention to the story, because they’re still trying to get an answer that we’re not going to provide. We’ve probably lost them for that moment, and maybe they won’t want to come back. It’s really just having that curiosity mindset to, not necessarily anticipate their questions, but [ask] the same questions they would. 

There’s this idea that people will be more likely to stick around for a longer story that they feel they can connect to, as opposed to a shorter story with those flashy graphics that’s been cut for time. What are your thoughts?

I still do some of that… I do use some of those flashy graphics. When I was a nightside reporter at a different station in Denver, at one time we were limited to 60 seconds. One-minute stories at ten o’clock. It was so strict that if I brought my story in at 1:02, my producer might say ‘this is really good, find me two seconds to kill.” Here I’m given around a minute and a half, and often go longer than that, like 1:40, 1:45.

So would you say it’s more flexible than other jobs you’ve had?

Oh, definitely! I’ve had an idea where I was covering a topic, and I realized I had to educate the people on that topic first before I could get into the meat of what I was covering that day. I came back to the newsroom and said ‘I’ve got an idea, but it’s really gonna be two stories in one, so I need about three and a half minutes of our time.’ And they were okay with that! In your traditional 8 p.m. newscast, that’s not necessarily going to be okay. 

The Aurora story does appear to have portions of it that remind me of an ‘explainer’ piece. Are there any situations where you do like to use data visualizations? 

I use that all the time, putting graphics in my story to make it more understandable. It’s just that I don’t have a system for data visualization where I can input numbers or information into a map to make it ‘click.’

When I’m talking about election data or national data compared to other states, I like to highlight and color them in for comparison. If you’re going to use a number, reinforce it with a visual, because someone won’t be paying attention that closely or taking notes at home. I’ll shoot my video with ‘lookspace,’ so there’s going to be extra sky, or maybe the building has a square or brick that I can put some numbers on when I get back to edit, so I can have a subject on the left side of the screen in the foreground and then a number I can put on the right. That’s one of the benefits of shooting my own stuff, it helps me storytell through the video. 

What do you feel like the interviews with Sullivan and the mayor added to the story that you wouldn’t get from just talking from the rally?

Tom Sullivan is the person who’s been introducing all of the political figures who’ve been coming in. Gabby Giffords had come here months before for a town hall, and he was the one who introduced her. Now Beto O’Rourke shows up and he’s introducing him. So really it’s a question of, are you being used as the person to push the gun control issue? Are they only coming to you because that’s what you’re known for? What I learned from the interview was that he’s just the conduit; he’s the person who knows that you if need a 30-person space, I’ve done this so I know where you can go. You need a 100-person space, this is where I’ve been told it’s okay to use their space for this. That’s something I wouldn’t know without interviewing him. I found that he wasn’t being used, and he was purposeful about why people come to him. He is a conduit to a space and time. The Mayor is conservative, so I was just curious to what his thought process was. He isn’t in control of whether these things happen, but he has an opinion as the leader of the city and I thought it was important to find out what it was. 

I noticed you didn’t spend a ton of time actually with Beto. What do you see the role of local TV as in election coverage pieces that touch on national issues?

Personally, I’m torn on this, because I think it’s way too early…but I can’t control that. When a candidate shows up, I think it deserves coverage. Whether it deserves a full reporter and a package or just a photographer who maybe gets an interview, it’s case by case. With Beto we were told ‘no one-on-one’ interviews, but he would probably do a gaggle afterwards. Thankfully, so that I don’t have to do double shifts, we have Ryan Haarer, who works the nightside shift. Very capable, asks the same questions I would, and did a great job interviewing him afterwards…so I wouldn’t have to be working from 9 in the morning to 10 at night! Now if Beto shows up again, does that mean a reporter has to show up again? Perhaps, because I think there are unanswered questions based on what he said here.

If it’s the candidates coming back repeatedly then I still think we need to cover it, but if it starts to become the surrogates who represent the candidates themselves, that’s when I start to have issues. There are other things I could be educating viewers about than a person who’s not from Colorado coming to Colorado to vote for this other person who’s not from Colorado who’s too busy to come here themselves.

Do you think there’s a way to cover not just visits but the national issues themselves? What part can local news play?

We need to be smart and educated in our decision making. We need to be thinking about why we’re covering the event. Are we covering it because it’s happening at a time that we happen to have someone available? Are we covering the event because it’s something the public needs to know about? Can we cover the event without going there ourselves? Can we source from a Twitter feed that’s an official source for the campaign, and just show them what happened. What we did with Aurora and Beto is [to ask] ‘what can we do to advance the story beyond just the visit? Why are they coming and what’s the topic of the visit?’ Then we can think of a better way to educate our viewers on something they may not have thought about or help construct a better thought process for their own decisions. I think it’s a challenge on us to figure out what we can do.

Story 1, I call the ‘nuts and bolts.’ This person showed up here, this is what they said. This breaking news event is happening, here’s what has happened so far. Story 1a is almost the investigative take: how did this happen, what clued us off, what could change, and who was impacted that we haven’t heard from yet. If you take that approach with something like a visit, Aurora is definitely story 1a. Everybody was covering Beto’s visit, but we gave you story 1a. 

What advice would you give to a young journalist who wants to get into local TV news?

I’d find the one thing that makes you passionate and focus on honing in on that one thing that will make you stand out compared to everyone else. Just like I say, ‘what makes our story different from the competitors’ story,’ what makes you different than the other people who want the same job?

I had a job interview in Las Vegas once, when I just wanted to get out of where I was. I knew nothing of the station, or the kind of work they were doing, I just knew they were #1 and it seemed like a neat place to be. At the end of my interview, the news director said to me ‘you sat in that chair and said nothing that anyone else sitting in that chair would tell me.’ That’s when I realized I was toast for that job! But I was really just kissing up the whole time. I needed to interview them; I needed to show them why I was someone who could do something different.

There are two things I’ll leave you with. My previous boss taught me about open records requests (FOIA). He asks everyone ‘when was the last time you filed an open records request?’ Because then you’re generating stories, you’re finding a story where nobody else has found it yet. Sometimes you find a story and sometimes you don’t, but at least it shows you know how to find a story instead of waiting for one to come to you.

The second thing is on live reporting; I love being out in the field. I am not a stand-still reporter, I show and tell, and I find a way to make it fun and interesting like a school teacher would. 

Cole Albert
Cole is a journalism student at Northeastern University.

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