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Women in the Media

Melinda Dionne

Being a woman in the media business can be tricky. It isn’t all glitz and glamour. It’s hard work. It takes a lot of balance; it takes long hours. Behind the scenes, behind the talented anchors and reporters of our local news stations, scores of ladies work to ensure that everything goes off without a hitch. And that’s exactly where these women want to be.

Producers, assignment editors, production assistants, and writers. They do whatever jobs need to be done at that moment, and sometimes with only minutes to spare. It’s not exotic work, but it’s essential.

“The news moves quickly and you’re constantly on the fly,” said Erica Bain, Executive Producer for KBFX channel 58 in Bakersfield. “I thought I understood deadlines and organization until I started working in this industry.”

That’s because with less than three minutes before going live on the air, Bain is still awaiting anchors that haven’t arrived on set, reporters that are writing their last minute pieces, and a clear signal from a remote shot.

Sound like complete chaos? For Bain, it’s one huge adrenaline rush.

“You just can’t have five more minutes” she said. “When you are on air at five o’clock, you have to roll whether you’re ready or not; it puts a whole new spin on the word ‘deadline.’ ”

But it’s not just the time spent in the waning moments before a reporter in the field or anchor in the studio goes live that’s the most critical, this careful ballet of bedlam goes on all day until those very seconds leading up to a broadcast.

“I am like the air traffic controller of the newsroom,” explained Melinda Dionne, assignment editor at KERO, Channel 23. “My job is to keep things running smoothly around here, starting every morning when I walk through the door.”

Orchestrating photographers, running to pick up the phone, breathe in, filtering story ideas, breathe out, fact-finding, locating contact information.These are just some of the responsibilities invisible stars like Dionne are tasked with on a regular basis and sometimes simultaneously.

Just ask Irma Cervantes, a backpack journalist for the Kern County Bureau of Univision, where she has plied her talent for the past 11 years.

Erica Bain

Cervantes’ typical day begins around seven o’clock in the morning conducting interviews and shooting footage for a planned event. She then returns to the studio and begins to edit that footage along with numerous VOSATS (voice-over sound on tape), as well as transcribing several pages of notes before sitting down at a computer to script the stories that will be presented during that evening’s broadcast.

Of course, if an important story breaks, Cervantes must spring into action in an attempt to be the first one on scene.

However, she is in a race against time, and Dionne, who is equally committed in making sure to have her reporters first on scene, carefully monitors the newsroom scanners, gleaning every word for something that may turn out to be the day’s biggest headline.

“You get scanner ear, and all you really hear is white noise,” Dionne, whose prior job included monitoring 27 scanners in a Denver newsroom before coming to KERO just five short months ago, added laughing. “Ironically, it’s very difficult to miss something because you can hear the inflection in their voice.

“I’ve been on the desk when a firefighter and police officer were killed in the line of duty, and you can hear the escalation in the dispatcher’s voice and you just know something has gone wrong.”

A keen ear for news is critical in the fast-paced environment of broadcast journalism. Unlike other news mediums, there is no time to second-guess what stories you are going to cover and what potential scoops are canned because of lack of credible information or resources.

“You have to have a good grasp on what makes a good story,” said Bain, who watches what’s going on live in the studio while keeping a sharp eye focused on the rival news monitors. “All journalist are competitive by nature in this industry; we all watch each other, and are always trying to craft the most enterprising stories.”

“I get a charge when I see a story or headline that our station breaks that nobody else has,” added Dionne.

But uncovering a newsworthy story is only the beginning. What happens after is where the real magic happens.

“I love watching all the aspects come together, especially when they’re least supposed to,” Bain elaborated. She pours tirelessly over the day’s stories, fact checking, editing, writing, and rewriting. “Misspellings or other mistakes are critical to the flow of the broadcast, so it’s important that we get it right.”

Irma Cervantes

Meanwhile, Cervantes is wrapping up, uploading her video stories via the microwave link while preparing for her live broadcast as Dionne continues to monitor the scanners and wires for any potential breaking news while going over any last minute details on the stories the team has already prepared.

However, in spite of all the cautious preparation, double checking, and attention to detail, there are those instances when things go wrong, a point in time where there are no rewinds, edits, or do-overs.

“You know those moments when you’re watching the news,” explained Bain, whose job also includes making sure technical problems and issues are resolved. “It’s the ones when the on-air personality usually says something like, ‘We’ll get to that story in a moment,’ and you feel totally embarrassed for them at that instant.”

“When things go well in the newsroom you never hear a thing,” added Dionne. “But when things go bad, the people behind the screen are usually the ones to take the blame.”

So what drives these journalistic juggernauts to work in such high-stress, high-turnover occupations?

“The thing that keeps me coming back to work every day is thinking that I can make a difference in somebody’s life,” said Dionne. “The caller that wanted help because they couldn’t do it themselves, but because we attached ourselves to their problem, we facilitated a solution to their problem.”

Dionne recalled an unemployed man meandering into the KERO lobby one day who had been treated unfairly in the workplace. After listening to his story, she decided to send a reporter out to investigate. The team was able to break the story and the man had his job back within a week.

“I think every journalist likes being the first one on scene or doing an interview with a celebrity; those things are exciting,” Cervantes said. “But the thing that I like most about my job is the feeling I get from helping people. Maybe something I do on air changes or protects their life, or helps them out in some small way.”

“You don’t realize how many people you affect with your stories,” added Bain.

A feeling shared by journalist across the globe, male and female alike, but is there a power shortage for off-air women in media?

Dionne doesn’t think so. “This is a very talent-driven industry, so if you’re going to succeed, as a male or a female, it’s about what you do and how you do it.”

“Being in Spanish media I feel women are preferred,” Cervantes explained. “Most of our anchors are very beautiful women, but they are also very good at what they do.”

Besides, there are advantages to being a woman, Bain said. “If we are going to cover a sensitive issue involving a female, I am likely to select a woman to make the initial contact, hoping to be able to communicate on the same level.”

Sometimes it can take hours, days, and in some cases, months to make those contacts, and the countless time spent away from home can engulf anyone, taking time away from friends and family.

“There are a lot of hours involved in this industry,” said Bain, who gave birth to her first child six months ago. “I was fortunate enough to get into the business before having children, but I can understand why a working mother in this business may have a hard time putting in those long hours.”

“When I got an internship in my junior year at a station in Denver, I literally became the intern that would not go away,” Dionne admitted. “I did anything and everything I could to be in that building, I feel the same way about this job; it fits my personality.”

And it’s a good thing these women have the personality to handle such daily stress. They’re able to make significant impacts on our local media–the stories we’re hearing, the people we’re meeting–even if we don’t see them in front of the camera.

©istockphoto.com/bluewren

Article appeared in our 27-6 Issue - February 2011