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.