Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fleabaggers and teabaggers: covering protests in America

Protests are as old as America itself, and whenever there has been unrest, there's been a protest.

But the rules have changed, as we now live in a cell-phone-camera viral-video world, and the presence of a camera changes the actual content of the story.

I remember sitting in a newsroom back in the eighties and watching some protest from overseas, with a crowd shaking its fists. Then someone said something that stuck with me. "They must get awfully tired shaking fists 24 hours a day."

In other words, point the camera, cue the fist shaking.

Flash forward to the two major protest groups of the year, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Two very different groups angry with the government.

A while back I was getting my car fixed and had an hour or so to kill, so I took a walk. I heard some patriotic music and followed it. Lo and behold, I had stumbled on a Tea Party rally.

I decided to check it out. For once, I didn't have a photog with me or a camera of my own. There was no media around, so there was a chance for me to see first hand what was the real story behind the protest.

I walked into the group and was quickly welcomed. Most of the people were middle aged or older, but I saw something I'd never seen before on news coverage. Young people and minorities.

The signs they waved at passing motorists were not derogatory, but pretty funny shots at the government. They simply played music, waved flags, and talked. Then a local news camera showed up and they kicked up the flag waving and cheering a notch.

When it was over the people all looked down at the ground and picked up any litter. There wasn't a gum wrapper to be seen when they cleared out.

On the other side of the coin, I have not seen an Occupy Wall Street protest, but it would be interesting to do the same thing without a camera.

Back to our original thought: how do you get the real content of stories like this?

-Ditch the derogatory terms for the groups. I've heard commentators refer to Tea Party people as "teabaggers" (a lewd term we won't get into here) or the Occupy Wall Street people as "fleabaggers" (apparently a reference to the fact some feel these people look as though they need a bath). Don't ever use those terms. It lets the viewer know immediately how you feel.

-Shoot from a distance before the group knows you're there. How do they behave when the camera isn't around? Do people confront the cops when the media aren't there?

-Shoot some video when they're gone. How did the group leave the place?

-Don't use video of the obvious crazy people from either group. Trying to paint these people as a bunch of whack jobs also conveys your opinion.

-Get a good mix of soundbites. Look for the people who don't necessarily fit the profile of the group. A young minority from the Tea Party or an older business person from Occupy Wall Street.

The video from these two groups is the most compelling part of the story. Make sure you get some of it when they don't know you're there.


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