By Jennifer Ditchburn
If you are, or ever have been, a journalist, you probably found the Academy Awards night fiasco absolutely thrilling. What reporter wouldn’t be delighted with something so utterly unpredictable and gobsmacking as a Best Picture envelope mix-up? Oh, the drama! The backstory! The days of follow-up pieces!
But the morning after, I also thought there were some interesting lessons for young journalists to draw from the schmozzle.
Acknowledge, don’t ignore, something strange that is happening when you’re on live TV.
I worked in TV for five years of my reporting career, and had some pretty awesome people at the CBC show me the ropes when I made the terrifying transfer from print. One rule that stuck with me is to always acknowledge something bizarre that might be happening to you while you are trying to report on live TV. If some random drunk person wanders into your shot, or something loud is going on that makes it difficult to hear you on the air, you should mention it. That way, you’re not keeping the audience wondering about something they can clearly see is wrong.
When Warren Beatty was desperately flailing around with the wrong envelope, that said “Emma Stone, La La Land” instead of the name of a gazillion producers from the winning “Best Movie,” he should have pulled an Adele, and said “Stop, everyone, really sorry. I know it’s late, but there is something not right with this envelope.” Instead, he looked for help from Faye Dunaway, and she just blurted out La La Land.
And rolling with life also applies when things aren’t live. My former CBC colleague Paul Hunter manages to get amazing, dramatic material for his edited pieces because he is open to what is happening around him—he doesn’t seem married to a vision of how his day in the field should unfold or every person he will talk to. His report on gun violence in Chicago a few years ago is a good example. Live TV is always more interesting than canned, so introducing something that seems like it was actually unfolding live into an item is gold.
You have one job to do.
It’s easy in journalism these days to get confused about your role when you are out reporting on an event. Should you be taking video, recording audio, tweeting, writing, doing live hits? There are so many competing tasks, the priority can get muddy.
It’s been reported that , one of the PwC accountants tasked with keeping the envelopes straight was tweeting just moments before he handed off the wrong one to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
I learned about distractions covering the 2010 Olympics. I was covering short-track speed skating.
It was my first real time writing about sports, and I was excited to start filing running updates on the races. The only problem is, if you’re writing updates every five minutes, or tweeting, you’re not focused on the very quick action on the ice. And with so many disqualifications, and wipeouts, if you’re looking at your screen, you’re missing what you came for. No editor worth their salt is going to reprimand you for focusing on the main job at hand. And, by the way, the same goes for court cases. If you get distracted, you could be missing some essential information (publication bans, anyone?).
Catching the news curveball.
It’s hard not to have sympathy for the reporters who were working the night of the Oscars, who had to pivot within a few minutes to rewrite their stories. Just picture having to trash the boilerplate article that you probably had pre-written about La La Land or whichever possible winner, and having to start from scratch after midnight following one of the biggest flubs in the event’s history?
On this score, wire reporters are probably the most adept at turning on a dime. I don’t admit to ever being a star at it, but what I learned from years at The Canadian Press is that you have to keep it simple. Don’t aim for Shakespeare when you need to get something out within minutes. Trying for the world’s best lead, I have found, just leads to wasted minutes staring at the screen as the panic rises and editors start hovering over your shoulder. The finessing comes later, when you can gather your wits and write a real story – one with a strong narrative, instead of just the nuts and bolts.
Check out one of the first Associated Press hits on the story:
LOS ANGELES (AP) – The coming-of-age drama "Moonlight" is the winner of the best picture Academy Award.
The film won after the end of the awards ceremony was plunged into chaos after "La La Land" was mistakenly announced as the best picture winner.
Presenter Warren Beatty says he paused so long before the name was read because the envelope read Emma Stone, "La La Land." Actress Faye Dunaway read the name "La La Land" after chiding Beatty for taking so long to read the winner.
The film tells the story of a boy's journey to adulthood through his rough upbringing in Miami. The film stars Naomie Harris as the boy's drug-addicted mother, and Mahershala Ali as a drug dealer-turned mentor for the boy.
"Moonlight" has provided some of the stiffest competition during Hollywood's awards season for the musical "La La Land," which was nominated for a history-tying 14 Academy Award
And then this one later by AP’s Jake Coyle:
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Oscar winner, take two.
Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" — not, as it turned out, "La La Land" — won best picture at the Academy Awards in a historic Oscar upset and an unprecedented fiasco that saw one winner swapped for another while the "La La Land" producers were in mid-speech.
Presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway apparently took the wrong envelope — the one for best actress winner Emma Stone — onto the stage for the final prize. When they read "La La Land" as the winner, representatives for ballot tabulators PwC — formerly Price Waterhouse Coopers — realized the mistake and raced onstage to try to stop the acceptance speeches. Host Jimmy Kimmel came forward to inform the cast that "Moonlight" had indeed won, showing the inside of the envelope as proof. "I knew I would screw this up," said Kimmel, a first-time host.
Gasps were heard around the auditorium. Presenters, winners and Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences huddled to discuss the debacle. Beatty refused to give up the envelopes until he could hand them first to Jenkins. Chazelle and Jenkins hugged amid the chaos.
Your story will sing – but maybe not right out of the gate.
Jennifer Ditchburn is the editor-in-chief of Policy Options magazine, the online forum of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.