See related materials
Visit ABC news
Read some of Cohenís favorite books
The Man Who Tried to Save the World Scott Anderson
King Leopoldís Ghost Adam Hochschild
Eleni Nicholas Gage
Angelaís Ashes Frank McCourt
Song of Solomon Toni Morrison
The Quincunx Charles Palliser
Visit some of her favorite websites
Remember what Cohen said about information overload? She doesnít spend more time online than she has to! She does, however, buy a lot of books and CDs online, and use LonelyPlanet.com for researching travel.
In 1980, Paula Cohen and I admitted to one another we were interested in the same man: Walter Cronkite. Though we had never met him in person, his TV persona left us gaga, wishing our male contemporaries had even an ounce of his style, knowledge, or wit. But that was a long time ago. In those days, Cohen still spoke in long sentences about politics, family, education, and Walter. Now she talks in sound bites. While Iíve cultivated a life of extended explanations, sheís worked her way up through the media ranks to become ABCís Senior Producer for World News This Morning, recognizing her audience has to learn something meaningful 20-seconds at a time. I shouldnít have been surprised, then, that during our interview, right before the 2000 election, she didnít return to her sinuous sentences of years ago to talk about her experience, working in the news. She is quick. But looking back so was Mr. Cronkite.
Conner: How did you arrive where you are today?
Cohen:†I started in the news when I landed an entry-level position at CNN in Atlanta. I started as a newsroom assistant, running script, running the TelePrompTer, pulling tapes, doing menial labor in the newsroom, and learning as I went. From there, I was trained to be a writer. I just wrote in my free time until they thought I was good enough to do it on a show. I started writing part of the time and being edited by the more senior people until I could hold my own, and then was promoted to do it full-time. From there, I started putting shows together myself. The producers, who put these shows together manage the writers, make assignments, and point the writers in the direction they want their stories to go. Today Iím Senior Producer for a daily half-hour newscast, World News This Morning on ABC.
Conner: Wonderful. One of the reasons I wanted to talk with you is because of the role of news in designing our world-view. The bottom line is that people in the news are very much in the business of helping people learn. Do you think about the fact that you are helping to educate as you are helping to develop the news?
Cohen:†I do think of it that way, not always consciously, but I think thatís why we do what we do. We want people to know more about whatís going on in the world around them and to make better decisions about their lives and their communities, because they understand these things.
Conner: If part of your role is to help educate people, to help them make better decisions can you enlarge the scope of what your particular show focuses on?
Cohen:†My particular show is a general news show covering whatever is happening in the news that day, primarily domestic news, but we cover anything going on in the world. Maybe because weíre close to the elections Iím thinking a lot about how the political news is covered and what weíre trying to accomplish. Each night weíre going through huge volumes of materials that come about the candidates and the campaigns. We try to figure out what is put in the short amount of time we have. We try to help people know whatís going on, what the candidates stand for, and how theyíre presenting themselves. The public tells us, by watching or not, whether weíre giving them what they need to know.
Conner: Handling such a huge volume of information must be difficult. How do you do it?
Cohen:†Thatís really how I spend most of my time. I actually sort through all the stuff that we have to start with and weed out whatís going to work, what we need, and whatís important, and finally, how to put that together on the air. A lot of my time is spent just managing all the material that we get in the course of the dayóall the information, all the video, and the factual materials that need to get evaluated and put into place.
Conner: How do you separate it out? Do you identify one story and all the information that supports that or only whatís interesting?
Cohen:†Thereís no one formula for it. Itís partly experience and knowing whatís going to work for you in a newscast, and also just using the judgment you develop over timeóthis is good, or that will work, or this is important. Some things are obvious and some are less obvious. Over time you develop a sense of what youíre going to need in the course of putting a show together and what will help you tell the story.
Conner: What youíve just described sounds like the ultimate information overload.
Cohen:†Sometimes it really is like that.
Conner: So what you are really describing is how you handle sorting through that information and determining what works and what doesnít. Youíre describing what youíve gained through time and experience. How did you learn that?
Cohen:†There wasnít any formal training. At none of the places Iíve worked has anyone ever sat me down and said, ďOkay, this is how you make decisions about whatís news and how to cover it.Ē Itís come more from the experience of being in an environment every day where people that are more senior are doing this. From observing and asking questions you learn how they do it and you start developing your own judgment. You start being able to evaluate. Would I do it the same way? Do I agree or disagree? What else could I do with the same information or material? People donít always see the same stuff the same way, but for me a lot of it came from immersion and starting to rely on my own judgment.
Conner: Do you then use those same skills in other sorts of experiences during the course of your life?
Cohen:†I try to avoid other informational overload experiences. I get enough of that at work.
Conner: It seems that it would have to help you make decisions a little faster, though.
Cohen:†Thatís probably true. Years of doing it this way in such a short, quick sort of TV format, putting stories together, I think has also changed my way of thinking to a certain degreeójust having to boil things down a lot faster. I know it has definitely changed my writing style, too.
Conner: Do you write in shorter sentences?
Cohen:†Yes. Youíre telling complicated news stories in 20 or 30 seconds, which is not a lot of time. If you started reading a newspaper story, youíd be through the first 20 seconds before you finished the first paragraph. So, for the news, you really have to figure out ways to pack a lot of information into very concise, condensed forms.
Conner: Does your show offer longer features or is it solely quick format?
Cohen:†The show Iím working on now has a quick format. Itís a half-hour show, but once you add weather, sports, and all the extras, the amount of time you actually have for the news isnít all that much. There isnít a huge amount of time to go into any one story in much depth. Some of the reporter pieces might run 1ĹĖ2 minute, but thatís about the longest. Iíve worked on other shows, where there was time for more in-depth segmentsófive minutes for a longer interviewówhere you could really focus more time on one story. Now itís really a much quicker pace.
Conner: You were saying your personal writing style and the way you think has even somewhat changed because of the short format. Have the time segments gotten shorter or has this always been the news format?
Cohen: In the time Iíve been doing it I really havenít seen it change that much, although people whoíve been in the business longer have noticed a change. By the time I started, that shift had already taken place. Iíve seen studies about how much shorter sound bites have become. Itís now something like 6 seconds. And they used to have a lot more substance. That change hasnít taken place in the span of my career, but itís definitely happened to the news in general.
Conner: What are the changes youíve seen in your career?
Cohen: The most noticeable to me is that people have a very limited interest in or understanding of things happening in other countries. It has to be proportionately bigger and more significant if itís happening overseas before people here are going to cover it.
Conner: Do you have any sense of how much they retain or what they use that information for?
Cohen: Thatís an interesting question. We like to assume that people are paying attention, getting something out of the show, and remembering what they saw, but I think itís just background noise for a lot of people. I donít know how much they pick up and actually retain from whatís there. With our show, people wake up and turn it on to make sure the President wasnít assassinated overnight, and assuming he wasnít, theyíre not that interested in anything else.
Conner: That really is the burden (or opportunity) of early morning news. I hadnít thought of that before. Because many views are probably only partly away, do you have to work harder at providing more pictures?
Cohen:†I couldnít give you an actual breakdown, but the goal of the producer is not to have your anchor sitting, staring at the camera, chattering away for any longer than absolutely necessary. You want as much video as you can use appropriately to tell a story. If you donít have video, you add some graphics; basically anything to keep the visual interest going at the same time the anchor is telling the story. One of the things youíre reminded when youíre new is that TV is a visual medium. Weíre always looking for different ways to present things.
Maybe because I was a writer before I was a producer, but I think someone telling a good story is enough. Good pictures are helpful, but I would rather have an interesting story without pictures than good pictures but nothing to say about them. Perhaps people who started their careers as tape editors might tell you exactly the opposite: that the pictures are the most important element and everything else is secondary.
Conner: Given the hour of your current show, some people may enjoy the pictures more, but if they are in another room brushing their teeth, itís the story theyíre going to hear. Whatís Iíd like to hear, before we wrap up, is what you think people should know about the news they might not know today.
Cohen:†I think some of the assumptions people have about the ways the news is presented are misguided.
Conner: It's not a conspiracy?
Cohen: There's no conspiracy, but there are definitely shortcomings. I think they are more often caused by simple ignorance, or lack of time, resources and attention to be able to make things more comprehensive and accurate and to put things more in context. Some perspective falls by the wayside when you're on deadline or when someone is less experienced, and doesn't necessarily know all the background.
Conner: Youíve just described everybody's work situation.
Cohen:†I hear people talk about the liberal media, and I'm not saying that they can't point out examples where that would appear to be true, but I think usually that's the result of other failings and not a deliberate bias. Too many people with too many different opinions and interests work on the news for it to be planted in that way on purpose.
And on that note, we ended our interview. With the election lasting over a month and the winter weather at the end of 2000 far worse than recent years, I have no doubt this producer has had more than a little information to sort through, make sense of, and present in a meaningful, non-biased way. My appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes has certainly increased and each day Iím amazed again how on so many levels, the news mirrors life.
Paula Cohen is Senior Producer for ABCís World News This Morning. Learn more from http://abcnews.go.com.
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