Covering the Gulf Oil Spill, One Story at a Time

Donna Francavilla, CBS Radio News Reporter, Oil Spil Story

Covering the Gulf Oil Spill, One Story at a Time

By Donna Francavilla, Owner, Frankly Speaking Communications

Donna Francavilla, CBS Radio News Reporter, Oil Spil StoryAs sticky, thick, black oil washed ashore the Gulf of Mexico’s pristine powdery, white beaches, ruining livelihoods, killing sea life and becoming the worst environmental disaster the U.S. has faced, reporters were dispatched to cover the story. Most reporters operated as one-man bands, a trend in the industry. They dealt with emotional victims and faced technological challenges.

CBS Radio News Correspondent Peter King was on the scene early on, returning multiple times to Louisiana and once to the Panhandle, where he spoke to the people in the fishing and tourism industry.

In one report, one he termed a “picture-postcard,”, King wove audio seamlessly into his story.  King referred to grating sounds of angry seagulls as they flew overhead. The veteran journalist indicated the birds weren’t the only ones who were angry about the oil spill. The owner of a fishing lodge and marina told King about how cancellations were pouring in. The exasperated man said he had just finished rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. King captured frustration in the man’s voice. The emotion was amplified by the agitating sound of screeching seagulls. The listener could feel this man’s unfolding tragedy. In 30 seconds, the piece packed a powerful punch.

What is this veteran radio reporter’s secret? King said he spoke to “real people,” and focused how the spill was negatively affecting “their lives, their livelihoods, their way of life and how they feel like they are loosing everything.”

This award-winning journalist’s greatest challenge in covering this story was the depth and breath he provided.

“The area is across such a wide field, there is so much to cover; yet you want to find other stories other reporters haven’t done,” he said. “And as this story goes on for weeks and months, that’s becoming more and more of a challenge.”

King’s advice? “Go out there with an open mind. Don’t go out there with pre-conceived notions. Always listen. Always know where food is and where the bathroom is because you’ll never know when you’ll eat again and when you’ll go to the bathroom again. Expect to get by on very little sleep when doing a story like this.”

Fox Radio News Senior National Correspondent Rich Johnson didn’t file television reports but sometimes fed material from a television satellite truck. He said his dilemma at the satellite truck wasn’t getting a signal out, but rather getting a connection so that he could hear his cue from anchors who were introducing him. They could hear him just fine, but he couldn’t hear them.

Often cell signals were non-existent, landlines were too far away from beaches and Internet signals were low. Johnson said he remained versatile. The news veteran filed anyway he could. Sometimes he used a landline, other times a cell phone, satellite phone or skype.

Johnson said what he found most compelling was how this story unfolded. First came the cancellations, followed by scarce business at the height of tourist season. When the oil arrived, so did the tears as residents wondered how they going to feed their families.

“I went into a low-budget Italian pasta-pizza joint like you’d see all over New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and I was the only customer,” he said.

Colleagues Peter King and Rich Johnson both agreed that when they are covering stories in which people are distraught, they feel honor-bound to watch, listen, report accurately, while capturing the emotions they observe.

Many reporters say they set aside their intense feelings while the story is unfolding, only to decompress when back home.  Said Johnson, “I’m thinking about more now that I left and am back here.”

King says, “If you are not feeling the emotion, you must be some kind of idiot. As a reporter, I feel maybe telling the story is going to help (victims) in someway. But you absolutely have to stay focused on doing the story justice, rather than getting caught up in your own emotion.”

King admits, “How has this story affected me? It’s heartbreaking. In many cases, the people we’re covering are the ‘have-nots’. They don’t have a lot to begin with, and now are losing everything.”

ABC News Radio dispatched Matt Gutman to the scene. According to Steve Jones, Vice-President of ABC Radio, Gutman demonstrated versatility when he fed reports back to the news bureaus for broadcast on radio and television. Jones said Gutman is a rising-star in part, because he can shoot, produce, and edit for radio and television audiences.

ABC is proactive in preparing journalists to work on a number of platforms.  Journalists undergo one week of training in a new program called, “The Digital Bullpen.” 

Said Jones, “People who are expected to provide content for multiple platforms go through this one week of training. There is a radio component to it for ABC News Radio so that folks who don’t have radio training understand what it is we need. Conversely, we have trained all our radio reporters in how to shoot video; they do  very little editing. We are not throwing anyone into a situation where they will not be confident in their abilities.”

Kim Rankin seems confident in her abilities to do it all when out in the field. Rankin, a reporter for CBS affiliate WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, shot, produced, voiced and edited reports for 5, 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts. She even has learned how to operate the satellite truck, if needed. Rankin loads her video into her laptop and uses FTP to feed it back to the news station in Birmingham.

I caught up with her as she was wiping taffy-like thick ooze off of her shoes and clothes in Orange Beach, Alabama. Rankin said, “You want to capture the best video, the best sound and the best story, and our best story is in the middle of the oil.” 

Unlike volunteers who were wearing HAZMAT protective clothing, she was feeling vulnerable to the elements. Her biggest challenge was trying to keep the nasty, sticky oil off her skin and her gear.

Her advice for journalists? Hand-out business cards, ask for tips, ask people to call if they see news, and write down contact information of everyone you meet, then call them and ask what they know and if an interview can be scheduled. She also advises reporters to call contacts in the city you are driving to set up stories.

Frankly Speaking Communications owner Donna Francavilla is a media consultant in Birmingham, a former RTDNA Director-at-Large, and a freelance journalist for CBS-TV, CBS News Radio, America in the Morning and Agence France-Presse.                         ###

People on the move


Donna Francavilla
Radio News Reporter at CBS Radio News

National CBS Radio News Reporter, Donna Francavilla won a total of 7 broadcast and journalism awards from Alabama Media Professionals on May 10, 2012, primarily for her work in covering the killer April 27th tornadoes. The founder of Frankly Speaking Communications, LLC., picked up 4 First Place Awards for Radio Broadcasting: Prepared Report, On-The-Scene Spot Report, Best Presentation, Audiovisuals-Still Illustration and Multi-Image Slides and 2 Third Place awards for her Radio submission, Personal Column On The Air and for News Article Written Specifically for the Web. AMP even gave Francavilla a “Sweepstakes Award” for winning top awards in various categories. Since 1981, Donna Francavilla has worked in the broadcasting industry as a talk show host, news director, field producer, news anchor and program director. A former NBC 13 reporter, Francavilla has covered stories for CBS Radio News for the past 13 years.

Blacks–be careful when moving to Birmingham (ComebackTown)


Donna Francavilla - Blog - Civil Rights - Warning To blacks moving to Birmingham Alabama

Donna Francavilla

David Sher, Comeback Town By David Sher, Comeback Town
Follow on Twitter
on May 28, 2013 at 6:30 AM, updated May 28, 2013 at 6:44 AM

Comebacktown published by David Sher & Phyllis Neill to begin a discussion on better government for our region.

Today’s guest blogger is Donna Francavilla.

What will it take for Birmingham to remove the tarnish of a half-century ago?

Whenever images of Birmingham’s tumultuous past are flashed before viewers, the black and white footage and photographs of attacking police dogs, of fire hoses blasting teenage demonstrators, and peaceful protesters being hauled off to jail are shown.  You’ve seen those indelible images repeatedly.  They continue to stigmatize our community in the eyes of the nation and the world.

In 1963, Birmingham was considered the heart of the segregated South.  In fact, the Reverend MLK Jr. called Birmingham the most segregated city in the South. The children’s crusade, which happened fifty years ago in early May in downtown Birmingham helped galvanize the civil rights struggle.  Children willingly left schools in droves to take their positions as foot soldiers on the front lines of the movement. They chanted and marched, were spat on and hit with billy clubs, according to 16th Street Baptist Church bombing survivor the Reverend Carolyn McKinstry, who was 14 at the time.  The marches happened between May 2nd and May 5th, 1963.  The children had attempted to march to City Hall to talk to the mayor about integration, but were harassed and arrested instead.

Yet a corner was turned when those very riveting images transfixed American viewers.  White leaders, concerned about the reputation of their city, negotiated a plan to begin the end of segregation. Citing the events in Birmingham, on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to introduce new federal civil rights legislation.  A year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed major forms of discrimination including racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities and against women.

“It led me to believe, especially after the laws were changed,” McKinstry told the Huffington Post, “that there were many things that were worth fighting for.”

Recently, hundreds of high school and college students and the original “foot soldiers,” those students brave enough to cut school and march, re-enacted a the protest through Birmingham’s streets.  50 years ago, that act of defiance would have landed them in jail, for up to five days.  Interestingly, arrest records from 1963 were recently salvaged for the 50 Years Forward Commemoration.  The documents are archived in the records management division at Birmingham’s City Hall. While reviewing these documents, I discovered that bond set for violations like “parading without a permit” was an outrageous $500 or more.  $500 dollars then is the equivalent of $3,700 now.

How can the Magic City restore its reputation, recover from those damaging images burned into the nation’s perceptions and memories to heal and move forward?

This year, the Birmingham Barons were repatriated from the suburbs to a recently completed ultra-modern sports venue, Regions Field in the city whose name they bare.  Slow but steady city center revitalization includes a recently added Railroad Park, and Westin Hotel, new restaurants and an expanded entertainment district.   Now, the city is inviting tourists to join it in paying tribute one of the landmarks of the civil rights crusade.

The City of Birmingham has purposefully pulled together commemorations, reenactments, panel discussions, seminars, photographic viewings, historic marker unveilings, musical and art tributes in an effort to bring tourists and their dollars from elsewhere to help commemorate the 50th year of the Movement.  The celebration will culminate with the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, on September 15th 1963.

A recent black newcomer to this area told me his friends back home in Jacksonville, Florida, warned him to “be careful” in Birmingham, referring to this city’s historical mistreatment of blacks.   Be careful?  50 years later?   Wow!   How monumental of a public relations effort will it take before the rest of the nation doesn’t warn persons of color to “be careful” when visiting or moving to Birmingham?

So, let me take you back to my original question. What will it take for Birmingham to reverse its negative image?

Birmingham officials are fanning out across the nation to broadcast entities encouraging them to take a fresh look at The Magic City.

On April 29th, 2012, Mayor William Bell appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box.

Mr. Bell attempted to distinguish Birmingham’s robust financial health from Jefferson County’s anemic one. Bell emphasized job creation in the city, and how Birmingham earned a Double-A Bond rating despite residing in bankrupt Jefferson County.

Those of us who reside in the Birmingham area and write or broadcast about Birmingham for major publications and broadcast entities, want to tell positive news stories.  We choose to live here and we love it.   However, when we see crime, graft, malfeasance, corruption, atrocities and natural disasters, we are compelled to do our jobs.

I phoned in reports for a CBS broadcast from the middle of the reenactment of the march, as it unfolded, during the first week of May.  I walked down the streets of Birmingham, alongside high school and college students, foot soldiers and aging civil rights leaders, who lead the way, as they did 50 years ago, while chanting the familiar movement songs that still ring in our ears after a half century.

That’s what the nation heard on CBS Radio.  Celebration. Singing. Marching bands. Better government.  A unified community that cares enough to send more than 1400 of its students to participate in a reenactment.

If you ask me, that’s how we move forward. That’s how we begin to reinvent ourselves and polish our image—one positive step at a time.

Donna Francavilla is an award-winning Birmingham-based reporter/producer for CBS News and owner of Frankly Speaking Communications, LLC. 

Let’s turn Birmingham around.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter.  There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

David Sher is a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising and co-CEO of AmSher Receivables Management. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham)), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).