Dealing With the Stress of Breaking News — Blog

View inside the KGTV socially-distanced control room. Photo by Patrick Doyle.

The only thing scarier than sitting down on your first day of work is sitting down with no clue what you need to do and what people expect of you. Am I supposed to understand this all instantly? Is it normal to have a learning period where I make all kinds of mistakes? Do they expect me to know everything immediately since I went through training and am on their payroll?

Thankfully, I learned the assignment desk pretty quick. But damn, was it scary.

First Instances of Breaking News

It’s Sunday. I had just finished a disheartening first “official” day of work on Saturday, but that was effectively more training.

Saturday taught me a lot, I think. I had no idea what I was doing at first, but now I think I get it just enough for today to be a breeze.

Weekends are supposed to be easier in terms of breaking news. There are less governmental decisions, less people doing crazy things on their commute to work–it’s supposed to be more calm than your average weekday.

But not Sunday. The day starts with a structure fire near Chicano Park. I pick it up on PulsePoint and call the SD Fire dispatcher. He tells me it’s an abandoned building with a history of fires, but comments that it is raging and thinks we should send a news van. Curious, I ask around the newsroom to see if other people think it’s worth covering. We decide to send someone down to get footage and throw a VO in the broadcast.

Alright, that was easy. I think. It was a little stressful deciding to send cameras but it was worth it.

I’m tasked with monitoring the fire and checking in regularly to see if any injuries are reported.

Manageable, but I should write it down so I don’t forget. Thus begins my obsession with sticky notes, as I put them anywhere and everywhere with scribbling even I don’t recognize at times.

I spend a couple hours writing VOs and monitoring the scanners and Twitter for anything breaking. Bob Saget died which really lowered the morale in the room for a bit.

But then part one of the storm hits. A fatal crash on the I-15, all lanes are closed. I call CHP to get a sense of what’s going on and all they can say is they’re trying to open a couple lanes on the right side to let traffic through. They are assessing one other person for injuries. I continue to monitor this.

Part two of the storm comes soon after in the form of another fatal crash on the I-5 near Old Town. CHP says they are investigating the possibility of a wrong-way driver but cannot confirm. SD Fire says they cannot confirm the fatality but they did call an 11–44 (a coroner’s case). Several others with serious injuries needed ambulances and were on their way to a hospital.

Now to some, none of this is “real” breaking news. When a plane falls out of the sky like in Santee last year or El Cajon a couple weeks ago, that’s a real shitstorm. From what I’ve heard, the amount of chaos in the newsroom while dealing with an event like that is unbelievable.

But for me — a 20-year-old junior in college in his second full day at a newsroom — trying to manage and keep up with these few incidents along with all the other menial but time-sensitive tasks I’m expected to get done was a lot.

But then part three of the storm comes. A train crashes into a plane in Los Angeles. Now this story is just as crazy as it sounds, somehow a plane had landed on train tracks and was hit in spectacular fashion as the train wooshed by. Thankfully, LAPD officers had pulled the man in the plane out seconds before the train hit. In fact, they even captured incredible body cam footage! Before we knew about this footage, though, the only clip we had to work with was taken by a third party and was circulating on Tik Tok. It was my job to track down the original copyright owner and get permission to use the clip as quickly as possible.

Turns out, the original video actually came from YouTube, so once I figured that out I was able to contact the person who filmed it to ask for permission. But meanwhile, ABC 7 in Los Angeles published a package using that exact footage I’d been trying to obtain permission for. Desperate at this point, I tried calling them and then emailing them to see how they got permission so quickly. I ended up sending out a plethora of emails to a bunch of different people about this. Almost none of them got back to me — except ABC 7 who explained they couldn’t give us that specific footage but could provide other clips that they had captured.

In the midst of all this copyright chaos, I still had to keep up with the previous breaking events that were going on!

Just when I thought the shitstorm couldn’t get any worse, the final part of the storm hit. While I’m making yet another call to SD Fire for an update, I hear two words on the scanners that make my heart stop: “shots fired.”

I immediately drop everything and roll my chair over in front of the scanners, turning up the SDPD speaker which blurted those words.

I jot down what I could hear… 5’9’’ male… 200 pounds… gray sweats… two story apartment. After a few minutes of chilling radio silence, I come to find out it’s a likely domestic violence situation. The “shots fired” referred to a report by a neighbor that they heard gunshots. I come to learn that normally we try not to cover domestic violence situations unless something fatal happens. I’m sitting in front of the scanners praying it doesn’t get to that point. There is a woman with two children hiding in the bedroom. Apparently there was a fight and someone was punched in the back of the head. The man walked outside and popped two rounds into the air. Police units surrounded the apartment and had K-9s ready. The woman and children were able to successfully escape. It was now just the man and the firearm inside the house.

At this point I should be making calls. I should be confirming whether traffic lanes are opening up, or whether the seriously injured patients in the I-5 crash have “expired” (to use a term inexplicably utilized by many police departments).

But instead, I’ve broken into a cold sweat at the assignment desk waiting for an update on the domestic violence situation. Will it end peacefully, or will I have to write a VO in a few minutes about the crazy man with a gun who shot at police?

Thankfully, after a short while they announce on the scanners he’s coming out with his hands up. Thank God. It’s the first time in the news business so far I’ve actually let out a visceral sigh of relief that eased such a weight of concern off my shoulders. I think it’s important to keep that human element with everything I cover so I never find myself feeling nothing even when faced with the constant death and destruction I’ll see on the assignment desk daily. Had I not been relieved, that would have been a serious indication something is wrong.

Eventually I’m able to figure out the copyright situation with the train/plane crash, get updates on all the vehicle crashes, and help run a successful 11 p.m. broadcast. But the chaos of the day, as tame as it might be compared to “real” breaking news, I feel helped prepare me more than any training could. I feel much more confident in my abilities to run the assignment desk after juggling all of those tasks. I ended up having to stay at the station almost until midnight to sort everything out afterwards.

What the Experience Taught Me

Being given this much responsibility is stressful. The entire newsroom relies on me tracking these things so we can report them. If not for the people on the assignment desk, reporters wouldn’t know what breaking events in the community need covering.

But I like having that responsibility. There’s something very satisfying about being the central point of information for a newsroom filled with people more experienced than me. Even though I’m the “new kid on the block,” I feel my news judgment is respected and my colleagues trust what I decide to cover and how I cover it.

That’s one of the misconceptions I had going into this job that’s slowly starting to fade away. I didn’t think what I would be doing at the assignment desk was “real” journalism. To me, given my background in investigative journalism, reporting involved going out into the field and talking to people to get the most accurate scoop. But when I think about it, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing from the desk. I’m calling people. I’m gathering information. I’m using news judgment to figure out what events are most pressing. Then I’m using all that and writing the VO that the anchor will read on air.

Part of the responsibility of this job is that I am “the news.” When people complain about how “the news” isn’t covering this or that, they’re essentially talking about people like me. That’s why I feel so driven to run my assignment desk differently than the norm. Since I like talking to people, I’m going to take advantage of that. I’m going to make more calls and follow up with more tips that might not get the coverage they deserve normally. There are already a few stories I’ve covered so far that I’ve shifted the angle of coverage away from what we had normally been reporting to lend the other side of the issue more credence. (The trash strike is a good example; as much as it sucks to have trash piling up in Chula Vista, there is another side to the issue that I feel a lot of local news outlets have been ignoring.)

Even though my title is not a journalist, I am absolutely doing journalism. That’s what I’m loving about this job — even if the breaking news can be stressful!

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