CONQUERING THE CONSUMER
From all indications, one of the fastest growing beats in local
TV news these days is consumer reporting. It's also one of the broadest.
Consumer reporters can be investigators, uncovering scams or scandals.
They can be viewer advocates, responding to specific complaints.
Or they can focus on product comparisons or other "news you
can use." The first task for any newsroom planning a consumer
beat is to define the franchise. Then comes the challenge of telling
stories day in and day out without relying on formulas that quickly
become stale. So how do you keep a consumer beat from consuming
you, while still providing viewers with the information they need?
This tip sheet offers some suggestions, plus a guide
to Internet resources on consumer issues. Read the anatomy of
one consumer story, and view it online.
Define the Franchise
- Decide what types of stories your station will pursue under
the "Consumer News" umbrella. What role do you intend
to play? Create a mission statement for the beat, then come up
with a name that captures the essence of that mission.
- Develop a source list and check in often. Include local and
state consumer agencies, watchdog groups, academic researchers.
Then develop a list of local experts on topics you might cover,
so you'll have bench strength on tap. Some of these experts may
become featured regulars in your consumer stories.
- However you define the beat, reach out to viewers and respond
to them. Establish a dedicated consumer "hotline" and
solicit calls. Recruit interns or senior volunteers to respond
to every caller with advice on where that person can turn for
Tell the Story
- Vary the way you feature consumers in your reports. Avoid starting
every story with one person's complaint. Alternatives? Bring consumers
together to discuss an issue that affects them all, and have an
expert on hand to respond. Create a quiz to establish what most
people know (or think they know) about the issue of the day. Turn
an expert into a consumer, or have the reporter play the consumer's
role. Look for diverse characters--including old people and children--to
help tell these stories.
- Use surprise in consumer stories. Rather than just announcing
problems and solutions, let the viewer discover them by structuring
some stories chronologically. This is particularly effective when
a consumer's efforts to resolve a problem simply led to more problems.
- Include tips for consumers, enabling them to take action should
they face a similar situation, or to avoid the problem in the
first place. Survey research indicates that people are hungry
for information that will help them gain control over their lives.
Provide it, both on the air and on the Web.
- Keep graphics simple. Avoid screens full of text or numbers.
Stick to one central idea per screen. Use graphics to establish
relationships (such as a bar graph to illustrate a price comparison)
instead of listing each product with a dollar amount.
- Provide context for stories, in lead-in, close or Q&A tag.
Avoid raising needless fears. Be clear about how many people are
affected, whether your local case fits a national trend, what
law enforcement actions are considered or pending. Explain your
reporting process, and qualify your sources.
Use the Web
- Use your station's Web site to supplement your consumer stories.
For example, if you investigate the condition of rental properties
in your area, post your state's laws on renter's rights. Refer
people to the Web site for more information at the end of your
story, and be sure there really is more on the site, not just
a copy of your script. Provide links to local consumer agencies,
and background information on stories you have covered.
- Solicit story ideas and feedback through the Web site, in addition
to having a dedicated phone line. All viewers are consumers--your
audience is bound to have good suggestions.
- Answer questions from viewers on the Web site. This is a great
way to be responsive to story suggestions and complaints that
you know will never make it on the air.
- Make your consumer information easy to find and navigate. Create
a link to the consumer section on the station's home page. Create
a searchable archive of past stories or arrange them by subject.