A Pulitzer-winning couple tells GBJ students what it’s like to cover a mass shooting in real time

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Mark Potts speaks about the L.A. Times’ video editing process for coverage of the San Bernardino shootings at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

By Alexis See Tho

“It was an organized chaos,” recalled Mark Potts, a video editor at the Los Angeles Times, describing the scene in the newsroom when photographs, videos and Twitter posts poured in from the San Bernardino shootings two years ago.

Potts and his wife Hailey Branson-Potts, who is also a journalist for the L.A. Times shared the drama of covering a breaking news story of global significance with Tsinghua University’s multimedia reporting class. Branson-Potts and Potts were part of the Times team that received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, the top award in American journalism, for breaking news reporting.

“In the back of your head, you’re thinking, this is what I went to school for. You train and work your whole life so when you get into these situations, you don’t mess it up,” Potts added.

The prize-winning young journalists spoke to Global Business Journalism Program students in Professor Rick Dunham’s Multimedia Business Reporting course on March 1. Branson-Potts worked for Professor Dunham as an intern in the Washington bureau of the Houston Chronicle, where she covered the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, among other national stories.

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Professor Dunham uses the coverage of the San Bernardino shootings as a “best practices” case study for using social media in reporting. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

The December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, California, made international headlines when 14 people were killed an American man and his Pakistan-born wife. U.S. President Donald Trump has cited the shooting as a reason why he is seeking to restrict immigration to the United States.

Branson-Potts did live reporting on Twitter from the shooting scene, talking to the police and interviewing victims’ family members. And for days she stayed put in San Bernardino to get more information on the ground. It’s important to always be ready for moments like that she said.

“I have a ‘go-bag’ in my car,” Branson-Potts added, where she keeps a pair of jeans, comfortable shoes, make-up and supplies for at least a day.

But there are some areas that cannot be prepared ahead of time and only real-life experiences can be the teacher. Branson-Potts was answering a student’s questions whether news organizations train journalists on how to face situations such as the shooting.

“There’s no psychological training in newsrooms,” said Branson-Potts, who have worked and interned at news organizations such as the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and the
Houston Chronicle.

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Hailey Branson-Potts explains to the class her first few live tweets from the scene of the San Bernardino shootings. (Photo by Alexis See Tho)

She added that although her editor did ask how she was coping when she was on the ground in San Bernardino for days, the answer would always be “I’m fine.”

“You don’t want to be pulled out of the story,” Branson-Potts said.

Although she has worked for big names in America’s newspaper industry, Branson-Potts’ first taste of the world of journalism came when she was 15 when she worked on the printing press for her hometown newspaper, the Perry Daily Journal, one of Oklahoma’s smallest daily newspapers.

“They only printed 2,000 copies everyday, but it was real experience (for me),” Branson-Potts said. She advised students to find as many opportunities as they could to work in newsrooms.

“When we hire young people at our paper, we don’t care what grades they made at school, we don’t care what classes they took. We care about their resumés and the stories they produced as an intern,” she said.

For shooting and editing videos, Mark Potts’ greatest education came from watching bad movies during his student days while working at a movie theatre.

He added that a journalist’s work attitude is of utmost importance. “I approach things like there’s nothing below me,” he said, “I’ve done videos for subjects that secretly…I don’t want to cover. But I go in there and say, ‘I’m going to make a really good video. I’m going to cover this like I’ve covered the inauguration and a protest.’”

For both of them, they repeat the mantra: There’s no story that you’re too good for.

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The Hailey and Mark Show (Photo by Alexis See Tho)


Communicating from China: My five lifelines to the world

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Facebook is my #1 communications tool.

One of the realities of living in China is that I must communicate differently with friends and family.

No more drinks at the National Press Club. Cell phone calls and individual emails are an inefficient way to communicate with a large number of people.

So how have my communications methods evolved? Here are my five most frequently used sources — dominated by social media.

1. Facebook.

It is my lifeline. It is how I share my life experiences and travelogue through words and images. It reaches a large audience instantaneously. And it is my primary method of chatting with friends in America and Europe. The only problem is that Facebook is blocked by the Chinese government, so it is necessary to climb the Great Firewall of China to use it. That occasionally means some unplanned days of Facebook blackout.

2. WeChat.

I had never heard of WeChat when I arrived in China. I knew that Weibo was the Chinese combination of Facebook and Twitter. But I quickly learned (taught by my students) that WeChat is far superior. Almost nobody uses email in China. WeChat is the preferred means of communicating. Its “moments” feature allows you to post updates and photos like Facebook. And group chats allow me to communicate instantaneously with everyone in my class — or with a group of friends heading to dinner. It’s great. And there’s nothing in the U.S. quite like it. Yet.

3. Twitter.

I hadn’t realized just how much drivel gets posted on Twitter until I left the United States. So many American political reporters post so many unimportant updates. So many politicians have nothing to say. So many words (140 characters at a time). So little value. When I came to China, I spent a month “unfollowing” people who offered little insight and added some of the best tweeters in China. Now, once again, Twitter has value to me. But it is no longer my number one social media source, like it was when I was a reporter in search of breaking news, 24/7.

4. Skype.

In the past week, I have Skyped with people in Africa, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Texas and France. It is the most cost-effective way for me to do my job as an academic. The quality is usually decent, though, as with everything in China, technology is hit or miss. But Skype allows me to see Pam regularly and to communicate with friends from America to Europe to Asia. I also spend less on long-distance calls today than I did as a college student at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you, Skype.

5. Email.

My students don’t use email. My colleagues rarely use email. Email is a very “Y2K” thing. But I still use it. It’s the best way to send documents or memos. And it’s the best way to have lengthy exchanges. It’s the only “old-fashioned” way I communicate.

Funny thing: None of these five methods of communication had been invented when I started my career as a journalist. My, oh my, how technology has changed our world.