The Leff Exchange podcast: A conversation with Emmy-winning broadcast journalist Lauren Victory

Anyone who works in any storytelling field has had to learn to manage deadlines. It’s a threat, a motivator, and sometimes a crucible for creative ideas. While many of us have spent our careers dreading encroaching due dates, the field of journalism is like a full-throttle sprint toward deadlines on a daily basis. For broadcast journalists like Lauren Victory, a longtime reporter for CBS 2 in Chicago, managing deadlines brings not only recurring challenges but also the ability to excel under the most trying circumstances. Along the way, she picked up an Emmy for her investigative reporting.

In this conversation with Scott Leff, Lauren discusses all of the storytelling elements she manages for her segments, the evolution of her storytelling approach, how she distills complex topics into relatable stories, and how social media has altered the game.

Scott: Lauren, thanks very much for joining today. Really appreciate it.

Lauren: Happy to be here.

Scott: There’s a lot I want to get to, but one of the things about other journalists I’ve talked to is they almost talk about the field like a calling. What drew you to pursue a career in journalism?

Lauren: Well, as the story goes, I was one of those little kids that was asking questions incessantly, but apparently more than the average kid, and so my mom turned to me one day and said, “You should be a newscaster.” It must’ve been when I was really, really young. As any good journalist, I went back and looked for evidence of this, and I’ve been able to find an old letter to my grandmother in second grade where I said, “I want to be a newscaster.” Then, by third grade, they asked everybody what they want to be when they grow up and put it in the yearbook, and mine said, “Interviewer.” So I pursued that, I did. We didn’t have any TV journalism programs in high school, but I was able to do the school newspaper, and then when it came time to apply for college, I only applied to journalism programs; that’s what brought me to Northwestern.

I love asking people questions. I love learning about them. I also have always loved school. So it’s a really exciting job that I get to explore a new topic almost every single day or sometimes dive back into a subject that maybe I touched on weeks or months earlier and can draw on that knowledge—but it is a lot of facts that you cram in your head at once. Somehow I’ve learned to process it all.

Scott: People are used to seeing you on the news, but I don’t think a lot of people probably grasp how much goes into broadcast journalism—the skills that you have to have and all the hats that you wear on a typical day. Could you give people a peek behind the curtain?

Lauren: Certainly. There are people that are surprised when you interview them that the story is going to be on that day. “Wow, you can turn it around that quickly?” And then you have other people that say, “Oh, you do all this shooting for two hours only to make it a minute and 30 seconds long?” So there’s definitely some confusion about what goes on behind the scenes.

In addition to being the voice and the face behind the story and the interviewer, I’m the one that’s writing the story. I’m the one that’s booking the story. I’m doing all the research. Then there’s other aspects of the job, including—like I’m a data aggregator. A lot of the numbers that you hear in stories aren’t just numbers that we’re pulling out of press releases. We are filing Freedom of Information Act requests and asking different departments for numbers. We get these Excel spreadsheets, and we’ve learned how to figure out how to crunch those numbers and pump it out in a way that makes sense for the public.

We’re also kind of untrained therapists sometimes. There are moments when we’re meeting people on some of their worst days, and if they want to talk to us, they’ll come over, and it’s cathartic for them to talk to us. Not so much in this time of COVID, but certainly before then, I’ve been known to give out some hugs—just to show people that I’m here and I care. So there’s many, many facets to the job; that’s for sure.

Scott: You said that sometimes you’re talking with people on their very worst day. How do you approach that? How do you convey empathy and give them a supportive environment to open up?

Lauren: I always start by asking people. I would never shove a microphone in your face—unless you’re a politician and I’m trying to ask you some questions about money that you might’ve wasted. In a tragic situation, I would always ask if you feel comfortable sharing. That’s number one. Then you get into it slowly. I do know a lot of journalists ask, “How do you feel?” That’s kind of an obvious question. How do you think somebody feels? The worst thing just happened to them, so you try to focus on who this person is—if it’s a loss or a fire, what did this person mean to you? Or what are some things that you are leaving behind in this home that are going to be irreplaceable?

And then figuring out a way to help them get their message across: is there any way that the public can help you? And that might be a hard question for them to answer in that moment, but they could be like, “Well, I could really use a place to stay,” and then all of a sudden we’ll get a phone call from the Red Cross, “Tell them to call us.” Or we’ll have different resources that we’re able to recommend.

Being in Chicago now for five years, I’ve gotten a pretty good handle on what department handles what, so I can always say, “Call the water department” or “Call the legal department,” and hopefully that’ll get them at least on the path to the answer that they need.

Scott: Your job must move at a tremendous pace. You talked about shooting the story and having it on the same day. Can you walk me through the development process from pitching the story to when that idea actually airs?

Lauren: Sure. There are two different beasts in local news. One I did for many years, which was breaking news. For those stories, you can imagine, there is no pitch. You hear something happens and you go. There, you need to get to a scene and stop and breathe and analyze it and see what’s going on and try to figure out the person who would know the most information. So you’re looking for that fire official or police, and if those folks aren’t available, you’re not going to march in the middle of the scene and demand that they talk to you. Then you start looking for neighbors and witnesses and things of that regard—and always making sure to ask their relevance to the situation. There’s certainly a lot of lookie-loos out there who don’t know anything.

You want to know—what is your attachment to the situation, and what can you tell me? There have been plenty of mornings in the past where I’ve gotten to a scene at 5:50, and I need to be live by 6:00. But the important thing to remember there is you can only report what you know, so keep it simple. It’s very important to gather your thoughts, gather as many facts as you can, and then pump them out to the public in a way that’s responsible because it needs to be only what you know and can confirm.

For the type of stories that I do now, which are quasi-investigative and involve a lot of consumer-focused sorts of reports, they come to me in a variety of ways. It could be something I see on Facebook that spurs a thought, and then I can type an email or call somebody up that might help me: “Hey, I’m looking to do a story about this. Do you have any people that have been affected in this regard, and can we massage a story out of this?” Or there’ll certainly be PR folks that send me pitches all the time, and it all depends on what they are pitching me, but sometimes their pitch could be as simple as, “Hey, it’s national ‘blahdy blah’ month, and our organization wants to raise money.” And I say, “Well, can you find me somebody that’s been affected by X issue?” Then you’re able to focus the story on that person while telling the broader point.

Once I figure out and am approved for a pitch by a producer, I’ll talk on the phone or over email with the person that we’ll be profiling. Oftentimes, you’re asking for pictures or videos or documents in advance because that only helps you show evidence of whatever they might be alleging if it’s a sort of situation like that—but also, it helps illustrate your story. Then, the day of the interview, you either drive somewhere, or you have a Zoom interview. My interviews are actually pretty quick. A lot of people might think that they’re 60 minutes long, but I’ll be done interviewing you in 15 minutes. It’s not because I don’t care and I’m glossing over things. A lot of it is because I’ve done my homework, we’ve talked in the past, and I’ve seen all your documents, pictures, and videos, and I know the core of what I would like to focus on for the story. I also ensure they understand what we’re focusing on so there are hopefully no surprises.

Then I write the story, which usually takes about two hours. I’m screening video, and I’m listening for those sound bites that I had heard during the interview that perked my ear up. You don’t necessarily always choose those because there might be something else that was said in the interview that jumps out: “Actually, that was really good, and that makes a lot more sense in the flow of this story.”

Once that script gets approved by a producer, in the stage of COVID-19, I walk into my closet full of clothes to get good audio, and I do my track, which is your voice for a piece. Then, I email it to my editor, who also serves as my photographer, and he puts it together. While he’s spending two hours putting it together, I’m researching and calling people for stories for the next week or so. I’m usually, at this point, booking about a week in advance.

Scott: In keeping that kind of schedule to develop stories, you must have built up some muscles, where it’s easier for you to recognize the parts of the story that you need. Over the course of your career, how has your approach changed or gotten more refined?

Lauren: In my first job, in Burlington, Vermont, I was a one-woman show. I was the camerawoman, I did the editing, I did the writing, I did the interviews, and I drove myself two hours away and two hours back. Those two and a half years were spent just getting the core tenets of journalism down, learning how to make my interviews faster, learning how to hone my on-camera presence. My second job, I was in Hartford, Connecticut, covering basically the entire state of Connecticut. I worked really hard on developing my live presence and the ability to, when I’m at breaking news scenes, be able to ad-lib based on what I see going on around me and just get really good at telling those lead stories.

I was able to work with some terrific photographers that started to teach me this power of storytelling. We use it a lot in our business, that buzzword, but it really is very true. A huge part of storytelling is developing that character in a minute and 30 seconds in a local news story. Somebody that you’re focusing on, from either the start of the piece or almost the start of the piece, that can help you as a viewer empathize with what’s going on. Why should I, out in the suburbs, care about this person in the city? Well, you need to find a person.

Sometimes when they send me a pitch, I ask back, “Well, do you have somebody that’s been affected by this?” Because when you can get into somebody’s personal story, it really can resonate a lot better with the viewer. So in Connecticut, I honed that skill a little bit more. In Chicago, first couple of years was working on breaking news again. I was on the graveyard shift where I’d be up at 2:00 AM. With this more investigative consumer sort of role, I’m working a lot on figuring out how to help people solve their complex issues. Sometimes that’s just asking more questions. Sometimes it doesn’t pan out into a story because you’re asking people a few more questions about what went on, and they might realize, “Oh, I didn’t try that route. Let me try that.” And then all of a sudden their problem gets solved and then there’s no story. I’m happy for them when that happens.

Then, also, there’s this aspect of kind of working a little bit on longer-form stories—six, seven minutes long that I’ve been working on. My skill set in that regard is pretty much in its infancy.

Scott: One of the things that we spend a lot of time doing at my company is really acting as a translator: working with smart people but trying to distill their ideas so that they’re understandable to a broader audience. That’s something that you do in your work, as well. What’s your process for taking complex topics and making them understandable?

Lauren: That’s actually one of my favorite aspects of the job, which doesn’t make my life too easy. I love taking a piece of legislation that has all these gobbledygook words that you don’t know what it means and figuring it out. What does it mean for the average person? The biggest thing for me to simplify is to just ask a million questions, which I’m used to doing, but I’m also not afraid to do. Certainly, there could be some people that might get annoyed with my barrage of questions, but I find that most people really respect when you are asking for clarifications because they can tell I’m really serious and I want to get this right. I think that would be the biggest way that I tackle that.

Scott: You mentioned that you’ve had the opportunity to work on longer stories of six to seven minutes. How do you need to adapt your storytelling approach—going from having to be as economical as possible to having a little bit more space? What are the main components that you maybe can explore a bit more?

Lauren: Everybody has their own process for doing long-form stories. Because I’m not specifically assigned to do them, I can’t dedicate myself every day to working on one. So it’s something that I chip away at for a while, sometimes months on end. It could start with an idea that I’ve meant to do for a day turn; that’s the term that we use for something that is turned around in our eight-hour shift. Then, all of a sudden, I could realize that wait—there are all these different facets, and maybe this is worth a longer-form story. It actually happened recently. I had a story air at the beginning of April that was all about organ donation during the pandemic. It started with a company that pitched me a story: “Hey, our private aviation company would normally be flying people around the United States, drinking champagne and eating caviar. In the past year, our planes have been used for transporting life-saving organs across the US.”

I was ready to do a story on just that. They were going to show me a plane and get a few stats and just profile a company that way. But my producer encouraged me to find a way to do the story where we’re not just focusing on a for-profit company because this is a huge thing that affects a lot of Americans. I started looking into it more and realized that it wasn’t just this company that had experienced this record-high year. All organ donations across the entire US were up last year, even though we were in the middle of the pandemic and even though there was a period of time that some of the transplants weren’t even happening because some types of surgery were shut down for a while.

Then, I stumbled upon another piece of information, all while chipping away over the course of several days and weeks, while working on my other stories, that there was actually a slight problem—organs were going missing or becoming delayed in transit. While it was rare, it was enough of a problem that this nonprofit was working on fixing it. They were working on a way to track these organs across the US. So you could just see how things start spiraling. I’ve already improved my long-form storytelling because the challenge is how you fit that all in even five minutes or six minutes or seven minutes, and how do you make it such a cohesive piece?

I work with a really great photographer named Reed Nolan, and he encouraged me to think about a theme. He’s done a lot more long-form pieces than I have, and he’s like, “Well, what’s a theme here?” And I said, “Time. There’s time. People are waiting for these organs. The doctors are waiting for these organs to arrive. This organization that’s working on a solution to track these organs so it’s more efficient, and it could lead to transporting organs across the United States in a better way.” So he said, “Well, why don’t we go to a shop with clocks in it, and we can figure out a way to get the ticking sound in there and clocks and have this theme that you’re hearing and that you’re seeing and that you’re writing to.”

We ended up at a clock repair shop out in the suburbs and spent about an hour there with all these clocks ticking and chiming. I think it really helped bring you into this waiting period for both the patients and the doctors.

Scott: One of your longer stories, “The Riding Risk,” about rider accidents on the CTA, won an Emmy. What was the theme in that story that jumped out at you and what elements made it so distinctive?

Lauren: I worked with Reed on that piece, as well. I think the theme throughout that one was a lack of information. There was a young man that fell off a CTA platform and was hit by a train. When his family got the video, they realized that he had actually been stumbling around on that platform for 45 minutes before he fell off. The family had originally been told it was a suicide—case closed. Then it became, well, why didn’t anybody help him? Why wasn’t the CTA attendant up there? There are cameras at all the CTA stations. Well, we discovered that those cameras don’t project a live feed to the CTA attendant below. So if a person’s not up there monitoring what’s going on on the platform—they might want to be monitoring the people swiping in with their tickets below—they might not see something like this young man, Clark Pryor, stumbling around and might not have been able to help him. That’s exactly what happened here.

Then I started looking into how often this happens. Quite simply, how often do people leave the platform and land on the tracks, whether they’re jumping, unfortunately, or falling or being pushed? The data was all over the place. CTA had different data than CPD, which had different data than the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. So it led me to ask, “Well, if you don’t even know the scale of the problem, how are you supposed to fix it?” We spoke with the transportation expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who agreed and said, “There are solutions in place that the city could invest in, but they need to know how big this problem is.”

Then the piece went from there. In Washington, DC, for example, they have lights on the platform that flash when the train’s coming so you would know if you’re too close. Or a lot of people, unfortunately, are distracted by their cell phones these days. If you’re looking down and texting and all of a sudden the thing’s flashing, you’re like, “Oh shoot, there’s a train coming.” Washington, DC, has a better record than Chicago, which was number one for train versus people collisions.

So there was just this connective theme of a lack of data and then—I don’t even know how to describe it—almost like a lack of caring from CTA. I hate to be so callous with that analysis, but I was surprised that they agreed to sit down with me to talk about the problem. Their message—and it was fair on their part to get out—was this is such a small amount of people that this happens to in the greater context of people that ride CTA, that we feel we’ve invested enough money in solving this problem. They put up ads to say, “Watch out for the train, and don’t stand too close to the edge.”

Scott: When you were questioning the rep from the CTA—how do you know how far to push so that the person you’re interviewing doesn’t clam up or decide that they’re going to leave before you get what you need?

Lauren: That’s a good question. Another example of an aspect of journalism that people have different approaches to. I am not interested in being the hungry chihuahua that goes after you. But when I’m armed with data that is saying the exact opposite of what you’re telling me, I have to push back. I do it in a fairly sweet way, as you might’ve been able to see in that video: “Excuse me, pardon my confusion, but according to this data, it doesn’t say that.” I’ve never had a situation yet where somebody’s walked out of an interview. Perhaps part of that is because I try to, without revealing my questions, make sure that the person that I’m interviewing has an understanding of what we’ll be talking about. So there might be some surprises in my questions, but the person can’t feign that they are wholly unprepared for the interview when I told them this was the topic from the get-go.

Scott: I’d imagine, too, the credibility that you gained by going in and having your facts straight probably gets them to open up in a way because they know that you’ve done your homework.

Lauren: I would hope that is the attitude on the other end. Now, did the CTA like me very much after that story? No. But they’re professionals; I’m a professional. We’ve worked together on other stories since then, and it is what it is.

Scott: With everything that’s happened over the past year and the speed at which some of these stories unfold, how do you balance that pressure to tell the story and get it right with trying to keep up with the pace?

Lauren: That’s been a tough one for several years. I’ve always worked for a news director that has stressed that it’s better to be right than to be first. I don’t think that is something they just say; they truly believe it. But in the age of social media, it is really difficult to get out ahead of other people who are not journalists that are tweeting out information. I think that’s the biggest problem right now. Everybody’s had a cell phone for years now, but it’s so prolific how often people are sharing information from accounts that are not verified journalists. That’s how misinformation gets spread. For us, I think the biggest thing is not sharing anything unless it’s confirmed. If it’s a time-sensitive situation and police are taking forever or some other official’s taking forever to confirm something for you, then attribution is very, very important.

I think another way that local newsrooms have gotten better with dealing with social media is learning how to use it in a way that complements our reporting. By the time we get to the five and six o’clock news, you’ll probably have known a lot of other facts if you’ve been paying attention to what’s been shared on social media and on people’s websites. The five and six o’clock news is our turn to be very concise with what happened and aggregate it and put it all in one place so you get this full bundle of facts about what’s going on.

Then, you can use your website to expand a little further, to add hyperlinks to ways that people can help, to add information that you weren’t able to fit into that news story. There are so many times now, especially with these consumer-type stories that I’m doing, that there’s so much more I want to say, but I don’t have enough time in the TV version. I just take my web version that I write up and send over to our web team and I say, “Hey, can you add this extra two paragraphs at the end?” I can give a little bit more information and am able to point people to other spots where they can look for help or support about whatever issue.

Scott: What still excites you about the job, and what types of challenges are you looking forward to taking on in the future?

Lauren: Well, certainly the ability to ask questions. The fact that I get paid to ask people questions is great. I’m just naturally curious. I probably drive my friends and family and husband crazy with all the things I’m asking about at all times. While an entity like the CTA didn’t change their policy after I brought what I thought was a pretty big issue to their attention, I’m looking forward to doing more stories like that. So many great journalists across our market are doing stories that are causing policy changes and laws. We’re all super serious about our jobs in this market, and the biggest thing is just making sure everybody’s informed and protected.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

Leave a Reply