Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Tonight On WMOM: The Similarities Between Parenting and TV News Reporting

Last week at my 3-year-old son's gymnastics class, in an effort to distract myself from the pervasive smell of feet which permeates every gym in the country, and in order to capitalize on one of those rare opportunities for adult interaction, I struck up a conversation with another parent that quickly traveled down familiar territory. It went something like this:

Me: So what do you do?
Her: I'm at home with the kids full-time right now. But I used to be an accountant with a small firm in Southfield. And you?
Me: I'm a freelance journalist and writer, I work from home. I used to be a TV news reporter with...

And before I can finish that sentence the questions and commentary inevitably begin. "REALLY?" "How exciting!" "How glamorous!" with an reflexively raised eyebrow and a questioning glance toward my sweatshirt and jeans.

The very next day, despite it being a weekend, I woke up at 5am to work on a news story before the usual craziness of kids, activities, church, grocery shopping, etc. hit, and while making the obligatory browse through Facebook, I was struck by the number of my friends, most of them parents, expressing their distaste, even hatred, for THE NEWS.

It always baffles me that people have such a fascination with the TV news world, and yet such a disdain for the information it yields. Being a news reporter is a part of who I am, and so is being a parent. And the more I think about it, the more I realize the two worlds have more in common that you might suspect.


As a news reporter, your live your life in ALL CAPS. This isn't because you're trying to sensationalize the events of the day, it's because when you're on a story, it really does become everything to you. It's not just an accident blocking the entrance ramp to the freeway, it's an OVERTURNED TANKER. It wasn't just a drug deal gone wrong, it was a DOWNTOWN SHOOTING SPREE.  Reporters develop a sort of tunnel vision that allows them to sort through and manage the many sides and moving pieces of a story, often in the midst of total chaos, while zeroing in on the essence in order to calmly present it all to you, the viewer.

Parents do the same every day. For example, last summer I was working up in my office when I heard a scream from the playroom. I darted down the stairs two at a time with headlines flashing through my brain: BROKEN ARM! CHILD VS. CHILD MASSACRE. 1ST GRADER IMPALED BY FORK. As it turned out, he had picked the dreaded "Draw Four" card in Uno and would live another day, but any parent will tell you- if you even suspect your kids are in trouble, the rest of the world falls away.

Not to mention the multi-tasking. A mom's brain is like a screenshot from a 24-hour cable news network during a prime-time squawk fest: multiple boxes with different speakers all yelling over each other ("What's for dinner?" "Where are my orange soccer socks?" "What am I doing with my life?") as the ticker endlessly scrolls through household headlines and the never-ending to-do list. TAKE DOG TO THE VET...SCHEDULE PIANO LESSONS...SUBTRACTION TEST TOMORROW ...WE'RE OUT OF ALMOND MILK....WHAT IS THAT FUNKY SMELL IN THE LIVING ROOM?... NEED CUPCAKES FOR BAKE SALE...IS MY KID BEING BULLIED?

3) You Develop A High Tolerance for Mess

My living room is not exactly spotless, nor is any newsroom I've ever worked in. And it's not that either group is, by nature, filthy, it's just that it takes so much STUFF to make both news and parenting all happen. In the TV world, cords and cables are like the Legos and Polly Pockets in your house- they multiply when you're not looking. Much like cleaning under your kitchen table is a scene straight out of CSI: Parenting Unit, archaeologists could study the layers of sediment in a newsroom and uncover great mysteries in buried in the layers of old scripts, shelves of archived newscasts, candy bar wrappers, and assorted pieces of clothing. Because when you put so much of yourself into your work, the rest just kind of gets strewn on the floor. That's also my story for the living room and I'm sticking with it.

It's also not unusual as a reporter that you come home covered in grime. Street reporting is messy work, exposing you to the elements, which may even include vomit should you be fortunate enough to work a shift in a college town during football season. You quickly learn to just brush it off, even if you're not entirely sure what it is. The newscast must go on, and swearing on air is frowned upon by the FCC. It's all good practice for parenthood, where soccer games, mountain bike races, and swim meets leave you at Mother Nature's mercy and the PTA has its own penalties for profanity. And those college campus stories prepare you well for the toddler years, when you will again find yourself covered in someone else's DNA.

4) You Develop A Low Tolerance for BS

Sitting through seemingly endless City Council meetings, interviewing political candidates and elected officials, and spending weeks watching courtroom drama unfold, news reporters develop a knack for sniffing out crap. This of course comes in handy when, as a parent, you must sniff out either literal crap (the dreaded but often necessary diaper whiff maneuver) or the figurative variety ("So you say your teacher told you all homework in 3rd grade is OPTIONAL?"). Reporters and parents both need to be able to ask the tough questions, listen to both sides, and present the facts as objectively as possible.

In both worlds, you choose your words wisely, understanding that each syllable you utter carries great weight. At the end of the day, your brain hurts because you've heard so much, processed so much, and put yourself out there for all to see.

4) Horrific Working Conditions Are Nothing New

My first on-air reporting job paid $8.25/hour, and I commuted 80 miles each way, often leaving my home at 3am on weekend mornings to trudge through unplowed roads in the dark. Not only is there rarely the opportunity to consume an actual meal during a reporting day, I know several colleagues who developed chronic bladder infections because there is simply no time to pee.

Yes, you get to put on gobs of makeup (usually while speeding to the scene of your live shot), and yes, you try hard in winter to find a cute hat to match your parka, but anyone who thinks it's a glamorous gig needs to spend a day outside a meth lab, or sift through the rubble after a tornado levels a neighborhood.

More often than they'd like, reporters spend their days wrapped up in other people's tragedies. Murders, natural gas explosions, bank robberies- nearly every neighborhood on a reporter's beat likely brings to mind some kind of calamity. All while putting in very long hours, often for very little money. Why would anyone put themselves through this kind of torture? Because reporters, the good ones, anyway, have a fundamental and unshakable belief that the work they are doing makes the world a better place.

Parents know exactly what that's like. Let's face it- life with a toddler can sometimes feel like soul-sucking work. The emotional and physical demands can break the best of us, and yet there are no sick days or workman's comp claims I'm aware of. You work 24-hour shifts and are "paid" in hugs, kisses, and various bodily fluids.

5) Timing Is Everything

One of the first lessons every broadcast journalism student learns is that the 6pm news doesn't start at 6:04. In television news, there are a million moving pieces, and everyone is ALWAYS on a very tight deadline. The only way to fit everything in is to work backwards from the desired end result. Say, for example, the news starts at 6:00 pm on the nose and ends at 6:29:30 on the nose. At the beginning of the day no one knows exactly which stories, how many stories and how long the stories will be that can fit into the space. Too much and your anchor is cut off in mid-word. Too little and you will end up with awkward silence at the end of the show. As the live newscast is on the air – producers must hit specific time marks, or else make adjustments on the fly, like telling a reporter to wrap it up, taking some time back from sports, or nixing the story about the fluffy duckling who was rescued from a storm drain. Flexibility and planning are both essential.

It's the same mental gymnastics parents perform to keep their show on the air. Say for dinner you're planning to prepare a roast and some potatoes. You need to have dinner ready at 6:00pm in order to get your daughter to gymnastics 15 minutes away and then drop off your son at the soccer field 10 minutes from there, and still have time to run to the store to get Pull-ups for the baby before returning to pick everyone up. It takes 3 hours to cook the roast. It takes 15 minutes to heat up the oven. The potatoes take 20 minutes to cook and it takes 10 minutes to bring the water to a boil. You need 6 minutes to locate everyone's gear, 8 minutes to play the car seat version of Whack-a-Mole as you attempt to strap in a recalcitrant toddler, and 3 minutes for the inevitable running back into the house to retrieve a forgotten water bottle, binky, or child. At what times do you start each cooking process so everything will be ready and hot for the family to eat at 6:00pm, assuming you somehow remembered to purchase the roast in the first place, and your daughter hasn't decided that today she is a vegan?

6) It's Not a Job

You can take the girl out of the newsroom, but you will never take the passion for news out of this girl. Likewise, just because your kids are grown, are you any less of a parent? Neither one of these are "jobs"- they are part of your identity and that doesn't change though circumstances may.

In both cases, no matter what else is happening in your life, you get out there and give it everything you've got. Sure there are bad days- you mess up your live shot, you miss your deadline, you yell at the toddler until his little lip starts to quiver when you find he made his latest marker masterpiece on the wall.

Because the thing is, you can't always control the outcome. Sometimes, you're given really difficult material to work with. Sometimes things just don't go your way, despite your very best efforts. Sometimes you just can't control your emotions.

But the next day you get right back out there and start all over again, because deep down you know that what you're doing has value.

You hope that you can cultivate understanding, empathy, and change.

You believe that you can shine a light where there is darkness.

And each and every day, you pray that your work leaves the world just a little bit better than how you found it.

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