It’s getting dicey out there for TV reporters and photographers especially when they are prepping or doing a live remote. You cannot fully protect them from pranksters, thieves or killers. But you can take precautions like curtailing sending reporters out alone. The one-man band may no longer be a “smart idea,” says NewsLab’s Deborah Potter.
Every month, we post a reel of TV news bloopers from YouTube. But the clips are not all bloopers per se. Often, amid the verbal fumbles, reporter tumbles and other on-air mishaps, are an example of two of what’s called video bombing — people running into live shots to make faces or lewd gestures or to shout obscenities or inanities.
From what I’ve seen, these intrusions into live shots are harmless, more annoyances of the modern age. I’ll confess to thinking some funny.
But in the wake of the shootings in Virginia on Wednesday in which reporter Alison Parker and videographer Adam Ward of WDBJ Roanoke were killed on a routine assignment, I’m thinking differently about the video bombing.
Now, as I look at the videos, I think of just how vulnerable reporters and videographers are when they are in the field. And I just don’t mean when they in a dangerous situation like the edge of a riot or raucous protest demonstration. I mean whenever they are in the field.
The vulnerability spikes in live situations. When reporters are focused on presenting their stories, they can’t also be fully aware of what’s happening around them. And even if they suspect trouble, they are not in a position to do anything about it if they are on the air or just about to go on the air. The impulse, I think, would be to go on and hope to get through it before the trouble materializes.
I spoke to Deborah Potter of NewsLab and Mike Cavender of RTDNA and both say the harassment of reporters is getting worse, particularly during live shots. “It’s been escalating for years,” says Potter. “It used to be that they would stand behind you and jump up and down. Now they come right up to you and yell in your ear and yell at the camera. It’s gotten to a point where it can be a risky thing being out there going live.”
Potter and Cavender blame YouTube and social media. Clearly, it’s a big part of the problem. Before their advent, your reward for making an ass of yourself in a live shot was perhaps a friend seeing you for a moment on the evening news.
Now, you can record and circulate your dubious achievement to all your friends and be assured that it will live forever in cyberspace, perhaps on the monthly blooper reel.
“A sense of ‘hate the media’ is also an issue that we are dealing with here and it seems to give people permission to behave in completely uncouth ways,” Potter says.
Uncouth behavior is not all broadcasters have to worry about these days. Lately, it’s gone from pranks to serious crime. In San Francisco, just last month, three men robbed two news crews at gun point during a live broadcast, pistol whipping a photographer from NBC’s KNTV in the process.
Every newsroom today should be thinking about what it can or should be doing to keep its reporters and photographers safe when they are in the field, especially during live shoots.
Potter believes stations should reconsider whether “sending one person out to go live is a smart idea.” I would agree.
Bob Papper, who surveys local TV newsroom annually for the RTDNA, says the use of one-man bands (OMBs) is on the rise, increasing two or three percentage points per year for the past several years. In his latest report, more than 50% of newsrooms reports they “mostly use” OMBs, and more than 90% use them at least occasionally. The smaller the market, the greater the prevalence.
A second person is no guarantee of absolute safety. That was one of the many hard lessons of Wednesday’s tragedy.
But a second person would undoubtedly improve safety. Two heads are better than one at anticipating trouble and figuring out how to avoid it. Even when the camera is rolling, the second person can help. “If it’s a lock-down live shot the photographer can look around and check his back, while the reporter has to be focused on the lens,” says Potter.
We’ve reported on the proliferation of OMBs over the years and I see that they cut two ways. On the one hand, they allow stations, particularly small-market stations with tight budgets, to put more reporters on the street. On the other, the economy comes at a cost. The reporter isn’t reporting if she is spending time safe-guarding and setting up her gear. And she isn’t concentrating on the video if she is chasing the five Ws.
In my mind, the safety issue tips the balance against the expanding use of OMBs.
Potter also believes stations should scale back on “live for the sake of live” to mitigate risk.
“So many live shots are done simply for production value, not because something it happening,” she says. “They’re done because you’re a producer and you’ve been told to have so many live hits in your newscast. It’s not really about the value of what is happening at that moment a lot of a time…. I think viewers actually see through that.”
I have to part ways with Potter on this point. Yes, the live reports I see here in the New York market are sometime gratuitous. But on the whole, they breathe life into newscasts. They tell this viewer that the station cares enough about your community to be on the scene of the house fire, even if it was extinguished hours ago. Whenever a station is broadcasting live, it is using the full power of the medium.
Cutting back on live news is the wrong takeaway from Virginia, says RTDNA Cavender. “You can’t lock your employees inside the building all day. You’ve got to go out and gather the news whether it’s at a shopping center or an interview with a person from the Chamber of Commerce. You’ve got to go where the news is.”
There are more lessons to be learned and discussions to be had about what happened in Virginia. I’ve been amazed at how many issues beyond safety have already been addressed by the coverage (we have posted three dozen stories over three days) — the ethics and propriety of the media’s use of the killer’s graphic first-person video, workplace violence, the difficulties of covering your own story as WDBJ did, the role of social media in the crime, gun control, even the video autoplay function of Facebook and Twitter.
All should be considered further in due course.
But for now I would simply like to extend my condolences and those of the rest the TVNewsCheck staff to the families and friends of two fine young broadcasters, Alison Parker and Adam Ward.
P.S. Today, we posted the bloopers for August. It contains no serious video bombing.