CNN’s Emanuella Grinberg discusses the process behind breaking news

In December, we released our annual list of the 100 Most Engaging Stories of the year. In this week’s post, we catch up with Emanuella Grinberg, Digital News Writer at CNN, on her story, “Something went ‘incredibly wrong’ with Las Vegas gunman, brother says,” which ranked number 4 on our list of the Most Engaging Stories of 2017. This piece, initially published just hours after the events in Las Vegas, provided readers with a mix of both breaking news and an intimate portrait of the shooter.

We go behind the scenes with Emanuella to explore what goes into breaking news storytelling and how teamwork, platforms, and metrics are crucial  to making sure it’s done accurately and authentically.

Terri Walter, CMO of Chartbeat (TW): First of all, congratulations on having the Number 4 Most Engaging Story of 2017. Can you tell me a little bit about this story and your approach to breaking news coverage?

Emanuella Grinberg, Digital News Writer at CNN (EG): On the digital team, we know that our audience comes to us for breaking news. Typically, as soon as initial facts surface, we have to figure out the different angles we’ll need to cover as soon as possible. First and foremost, it’s about keeping our audience up-to-date with the latest information as the story unfolds. Then we elaborate as more information comes in on the sequence of events, chief suspect, and victim(s) to help readers get the full picture. It’s really a huge team effort during such fast-paced breaking news situations.

In a mass shooting such as that which took place in Las Vegas, one of the first things people want to know is who is responsible. At CNN, we are very cautious in making sure that we have the appropriate reporting necessary to go live before we identify the suspect. Given these precautions, we may not always be first, but we know that we are accurate and that we are certain. We go live with just a few lines about what we know for sure as soon as we can, and continue to update the piece as more details are confirmed.

TW: Can you elaborate on the teamwork aspect of breaking news? How does that help the story come together?

EG: Our skilled teams are the ones that bring these stories to life: the field teams are deployed right to the scene, the digital team gathers feeds from the field teams, the news-gathering desk is making calls and getting supporting information.

Teamwork is integral to the CNN brand. We are global, we are cross-platform, we are everywhere.

The great thing about CNN is that we have so many different highly-trained teams around the globe, especially in breaking news situations, that bring their strength to bear on the story of the day.

TW: That’s amazing insight. We don’t often get the chance to hear about how these pieces come together. What was it about this situation that you think made [the story] so significant? Can you expand on the storytelling and how it evolved?

EG: We were very sensitive to the fact that you have to get things right and you don’t want to put any misinformation out there. I certainly don’t think we were the first news organization to identify the shooter, but we waited until we were comfortable with the sourcing.

In this case especially, we tried to not be too speculative about the story, but rather let the characters speak for themselves and build the narrative, and certainly that’s what the shooter’s brother did. And, frankly, I don’t think this is the time to really be too creative.

In those situations, you let the facts and the people involved speak for themselves and guide you to the story as it’s all unfolding. You know that things will change, minute to minute, hour to hour.

TW: How did you decide to make this story more of a human profile of the shooter rather than focusing on other aspects of the Las Vegas events?

EG: This story is more about the shooter’s brother’s impressions of him. It’s a profile, and a profile of that moment in time. But as the story evolved so did our understanding of who [the shooter] was.

When the story went out, it had been less than a day [since the events took place], so we didn’t really know anything about the victims yet. Later, we had a separate story that was devoted to the victims: those are very powerful stories on their own, and you don’t want them sharing billing with the story of the man who killed them.

Our strategy is to have different articles that serve different purposes, especially in these stories where there are so many different angles.

What we’re trying to do is to create as much content as possible that answers the questions we know that our audience will be thinking about, so you can have multiple articles that each tell just one piece of the larger story.

That’s the beauty of the internet and the digital platform: there doesn’t have to be a “kitchen sink” approach to storytelling.

TW: How did video play a role in this article?

EG: I was in Atlanta writing the story, so I was really relying on video pieces coming in from our affiliates and our news correspondents in the field who interviewed the shooter’s brother. That’s how we captured those first few moments – on video – and then we used that to inform our storytelling going forward. It really [requires] taking different sources of material and weaving them all together to make the story work for each platform.

At the same time, we’re also working with our digital video team to make sure that they are putting together the best and most appropriate video package for the top of the story.

Video is a big priority for us. It’s integral. It tells the story in a different way.

Our teams are constantly producing videos and cutting footage to put together packages that tell different parts of stories. We use these assets as complementary content to dress the story up and keep it lean on the word side.

TW: I know you did a lot with SEO – what about social? Did you promote it widely via social channels?

EG: This particular story actually started before I came in. A colleague of mine got the first few lines out to begin executing our SEO strategy. We also have a live blog that pushes out those minute-to-minute, latest breaking updates. Then, we work with our programming team to get the story ready for mobile, desktop, and social. I think this is where CNN really shines because we have a lot of resources not just on the editorial side, but also on the programming side who are making sure that we have the right information and that it’s getting in front of our audience in the best way possible, or the way we know that they will respond to it.

We have a whole social publishing team spread around the world. That’s also where video really comes into play; they make more use of video in their posts, because they have found that our social audience responds really well to video. We create the piece of content and the social team promotes it in the way that they see fit.

Everybody has a different role to play. We share the same material, the same news gathering that’s coming in. But then everybody adapts it as needed.

TW: How does Chartbeat play into this? Do the metrics have an impact on what you do?

EG: Definitely – I think it’s because of metrics that we know that this is a story that we need to cover ASAP. We have Big Boards up throughout the newsroom focused on different metrics – concurrents, platform traffic, etc. These engagement metrics inform the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis. That’s how we decided how we could revive the old live blog.

Knowing that people come to us for breaking news and the latest updates, we do our best to make sure that we are covering all the bases as much as we can, accurately and confidently.

TW: If you were to give advice to other journalists who are covering breaking news, what advice would you give? Has breaking news changed at all in the past few years?

EG: I think the fundamentals of breaking news storytelling haven’t changed at all. You still have to do the groundwork, do the legwork, do the interviews, do your own research. Don’t rely on other sources unless they are part of a trusted affiliate network, and your boss has signed off on it. Mainly what I think has changed is the pace – we push out things faster than we used to. We put out a couple of lines as soon as we have them. But we still don’t publish anything that we are not absolute confident in.

You have to be fast, but you still have to keep your wits about you and you have to trust your gut.

Make sure you’re confident in what you’re putting out there. Take the time to get it right.

That would be my advice around the breaking news segment. It’s something I learned in journalism school, and I hope it is still being taught because it’s so important.

If you look at our work, I think it speaks for itself. We’re not always the first, but we do take the time to get it right when we put something out there.

Read the CNN piece “Something went ‘incredibly wrong’ with Las Vegas gunman, brother says” here, and see what else made the list of Most Engaging Stories of 2017 here.

Read the interview with The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg on the Number One Most Engaging Story of 2017 here.

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