The Lighter Side of Being on TV
Updated: May 11, 2019
Years ago, I never even imagined that being on TV and speaking to large groups of people would become a routine part of my job and my portfolio career as an author. After 15 years of trying to get a book published, I didn’t even know if I would ever even become an author. It was my dream, and I’m living it.
I didn’t set out to be on TV, nor did I want or intend to become a public person with a brand or image to worry about. I was a newspaper reporter, first and foremost, who enjoyed working in stealth mode, where I could walk into a meeting and no one would know who I was.
Before I became a print reporter, I was even sidelined by thoughts of a career in photography and graphic design while attending graduate school at the Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois.
It always makes me laugh when people tell me I’m such a natural on TV, because if they only knew all it has taken to make it seem that way.
I started out as a shy, introverted child, who loved reading books and writing stories. My faded photo albums show that I could be a ham for the camera, but it was only in private with close friends and family. Even years later, I was very scared of speaking in front of a group, even if it was just my coworkers. My heart was beating so hard and loud I feared it would come out of my chest.
I spent my last quarter of grad school in the Washington, D.C. program at Medill, where I and my fellow students paid tuition in order to be published as the “Washington correspondents” for small papers across the U.S. There was also a program for broadcast students, who did the same for TV stations.
It’s ironic to me that one of the teaching moments I remember most about that quarter—apart from feeling overwhelmed by how much I still had to learn about journalism and covering government—was the message I heard delivered to broadcast students. They HAD to remember to always fix their hair and look well- groomed and put together on camera, because viewers would not hear a word they were saying if their hair was askew or flying around in the wind.
I laughed inside when I heard that, because at the time I thought that was such a superficial thing to have to worry about. What a distraction. As a print reporter, I was happy not to have to think about such matters, so I could focus on the important topic of the day and get my story written on deadline, which was hairy enough.
When I was fired from my first newspaper job--I was actually just not hired after my six-month probation period, and I didn't miss a single day's work before going to work for another newspaper that had previously offered me a job--a couple of editors decreed that I wasn't cut out for the newspaper biz.
"You should go into TV," one editor said. "You have the looks for it."
I took that as a major slap in the face, because they clearly did not respect our colleagues in TV news. I turned around and promptly wrote an op-ed, which garnered kudos from the same people who had just fired me.
"Wow, you really CAN write," one editor said.
No, way, really? What did you expect when you kept telling me I couldn't?
I’ve since worked for 19 years as a daily newspaper reporter, I’ve published 13 books and I’ve done at least 200 interviews on TV, radio and podcasts, (some of which obviously don’t involve a camera). And on those TV days, apart from knowing the subject matter inside and out, my hair is always right at the top of my list for things to worry about.
I’m always amazed at how much time it takes to get it to look the way I want it. It never fails. Every morning I’m scheduled to do an on-camera interview I am guaranteed to have a bad hair day. I have some secrets I’ve learned over the years to improve my chances, but more often than not, I will wake up to flat, lifeless locks, or an unruly, tweaked or frizzy look.
My hair has a mind of its own, depending on the weather, and it usually takes about 40 minutes to comb, brush, put on various goops, water, sprays—I even pull out the scissors sometimes—before I look presentable. Some days I just give up and figure it’s as good as it’s going to get. It almost always looks better on days I sit alone at home, working. Go figure.
Anyway, my hair aside, it’s also taken me a loooong time to get comfortable and confident on camera, and I’m happy to say that I enjoy doing it now. It sure took long enough.
In the early days, I remember my friend Gene Cubbison, who started in newspapers like me, then went on to be a veteran TV reporter and host his own political show. “Just have fun!” he told me during a pep talk before I did a round of interviews for my first book, POISONED LOVE, which came out in 2005.
How do I do that when I’m absolutely terrified of saying the wrong thing? I thought. What if I get sued? Or give my opinion?
Those worries stem from the old days of working at the newspaper, when I started dipping my toe into the rare TV or radio interview to talk about a story I was covering on my beat. One particular editor was known to listen to the shows and then tear into reporters who said what she thought was the wrong thing, went too far, or sounded biased. It was so stressful, it almost wasn’t worth it.
So I brought that anxiety with me when I started doing interviews, some of which were on live TV, and the segments were so short they were over before you even got a few words out.
Knowing that my first book was coming out in 2005, I forced myself to do my first national TV interview on the Greta van Susteren show on FOX, to get it out of the way before my book was released and I had to do one that mattered more. Scott Peterson had just been or was about to be sentenced, so they wanted me to talk about a story I'd written about the murder of Peterson's grandfather in San Diego 60 years earlier.
I was sick and could barely talk that day, so I saved my voice for the interview. A limousine came to the paper to pick me up and taken me downtown to a studio, where they put me in an empty room, placed a little earbud in my ear, and told me to talk into a camera lens. When I watched it later, I looked fine, but I could see myself breathing very fast and shallow, like a scared little bird, and blinking a lot. But at least it was over, and I didn’t say anything stupid.
I learned an important lesson that day. I purposely cut off my answer to let her ask one last important question so I could make my final point, but she abruptly ended the segment. Next time, I wouldn’t wait. You can’t expect them to read your mind and ask what you think is an obvious follow-up question.
After I quit the newspaper business in September 2006 to become a full-time author, I was slowly able to shed some of my anxiety because I was now working for myself and didn’t have a boss to upset. Just me, and the general public, or my sources.
I soon realized that people actually wanted to hear my opinions. And as an author, many people even expected me to state them, increasingly so as our world grew more and more drowned in voices of the 24/7 cable-news talking heads. That said, when I do interviews for crime documentaries on Investigation Discovery, Netflix, Oxygen or REELZ, I still try to withhold my opinions because I want to be viewed as a neutral, objective writer and hopefully avoid any accusations of bias.
It’s always tricky to give interviews as I’m writing a book and still gathering research and interviewing sources, because I can’t help but give away some telling analysis that will upset someone or make him think I am for or against something.
The publishing world often expects authors to have a point of view these days, which makes it even more complicated as I sort through what I want to say. That’s why I always ask in advance for questions, or at least topic areas, so I can review my notes, and even re-read one of my own books, which allows me to sound intelligent and to give detailed answers.
While I’m on camera, I try to be measured in what I say. I think that’s why I’m so often used as a neutral “storyteller” in true crime shows to just explain what happened without taking sides. Sometimes I kick myself after an interview when I feel like I’ve said too much, but that’s usually only when certain producers repeatedly try to elicit opinions from me even after I’ve specifically and pointedly told them that I don’t want to do that on camera.
After I’ve finished writing a book, I find it helpful to draw up a list of talking points, which I send out before a TV or radio interview. That helps me to think through and practice what I want to say. It also helps steer the interviewer toward topics and revelations that are new or exclusive to my book, and about which I am the most knowledgeable. In addition, that helps the interviewers to have content in hand so they don’t have to read the entire book beforehand. Most don’t have the time, and as much as I’d like them to have read it, it’s not realistic to hope or expect them to have done so.
If it’s going to be a live, versus taped, interview, I always ask how long the segment will be so I know how long to make each individual answer, and can come up with short sound bites that get right to the point. If it’s a longer more relaxed interview, I know I can elaborate more. But it’s always good to be prepared.
I watch and listen to myself afterward, watch for ticks and flaws, so I can try to correct them the next time. I also watch others on TV to see what I can learn from them, what they did right or wrong, so I can improve my own appearances.
My singing teacher told me it helps to do a vocal warm-up before I do an interview so my voice will sound more resonant, and after hurting myself singing so many times as I’ve tried to learn how to sing better and longer, I have taken that advice. I also bring a purse full of sprays, lozenges (like slippery elm and DGL licorice), drink plenty of water, and remember to reapply lip gloss, which looks nice in the lights.
And I always ask the cameraman if some tuft of my hair is going askew. They are very happy to tell me when this happens, because what they said in grad school is right. Who is going to hear a word you say when all they can do is focus on your funky hair?
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