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CONQUERING THE CONSUMER BEAT

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 help.

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.

 

 

Page Last Updated
January 15, 2009
 

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