Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Leaving the camera in the car can create an open door policy

Imagine you're home watching TV, doing your laundry, or just relaxing. The doorbell rings. You open it and find a reporter and photographer, camera rolling with a blinding light in your face. Your instinct would be to back up, slam the door, or both.

Sometimes you need ambush tactics in this business. Chasing Bernie Madoff? No problem. Knocking on the door of some corporate criminal? Fire up the lights. But if you need an interview with someone who has just gone through something traumatic, it's best to leave the camera in the car.

The last big tragedy I worked involved the murder of ten people in a very small town. I was the first member of our crew to arrive in the middle of the night and was directed to the command center. I asked to see the person in charge. When an official came out I introduced myself and told him who I was representing.

He backed up a bit, looked over my right shoulder, then my left.

"I don't have a camera with me," I said. I stuck out my hand. "Sorry for your loss."

He exhaled and relaxed.

As the story played out, we were called upon to seek out sound bites from people who knew the victims. This involved the old fashioned duty of going door to door.

And in every case, we left the camera crew waiting in the car. A block away.

Tact and compassion will get you far if you're covering something delicate. Ambush journalism will get the door slammed in your face.

On the third day of that story someone actually drove to our sat truck and told us one of the victim's family members would talk to the media at a certain time. When we arrived, I noted that not all the crews covering the story were there.

Had being tactful gotten us an invitation? Had using ambush journalism left some other crews out of the loop?

Trust me, no one really wants to knock on the door of a stranger who has just had a family member murdered. But if you have to do it, start out as a human being before you change into a reporter.


John said...

It was so refreshing to read this! It's nice to know you can still be successful during those terrible stories while still maintaining your humanity.

Jim said...

Yep, we had a swat standoff situation here not long ago where this worked. Guy was holed up in a closet, and the only good shot was going to be him coming out (in handcuffs or otherwise).

They had the entire subdivision blocked off, so I drove up the road beside it, and turned down the next country lane. Drove until I saw three good ol' boys leaning on a pasture fence. We were there.

Stopped the reporter from jumping out and running up to them full tilt, explaining to her that we needed to do this right.

We just wandered over to them with a "how you fellers doin' today, watching the excitement?"

"Yep, it's that house, right over there." As in directly behind the pasture fence, 100 feet away. Now this was not one of those "he's probably gonna kill everyone" standoffs-they had the guy trapped in a closet with no windows at the front of the house, with officers in the bedroom waiting on him to come out.

So, I was perfectly fine with staying right there, which I did. After a few minutes, I said someting about maybe getting the camera out.

When they brought the guy out the back door an hour later, in handcuffs, he was staring straight into my lens, all thanks to a little low pressure persuasion.

Had we gone barreling up the driveway, and jumped out with gear in hand, we'd probably have been sent right back down the lane.