“We Ain’t TV…”

New photog at KXTV

That seems to be the clarion cry of newspaper photographers everywhere as they shift gears and begin shooting video. But there’s a lot of meaning behind that cry…and you have to listen to hear what it really means.

Part of it is obvious…we’re real journalists/not some highly-visible off-spring of entertainment. As in, “We cover real news the right way.” (Do I detect some tilted noses?)

The second part lays claim to new territory – print photogs are discovering a new way to visualize and they are not tied to the broadcast model (reporter, standups, live shots). They bring their own vision to video – a vision that is excited about exploring the limits of video rather than doing the same old same old.

The third part is hardest for broadcast folks to get. You stage – we don’t. Ouch and true. Reaching down into the well of time, let me recall what I can of this transition. 1974 – it is ground into my very being to NOT stage any story or event as I began my new career at KXTV/Channel 10 (Sacramento). A reporter wanted to show how a purse snatch happened for a story and was told to super over it “Re-enactment.” That was the only time I saw that super – it was extremely rare for broadcast photogs (cameramen, as we were then called) to do anything but shoot what was happening. I recall getting to a demonstration early once – bus drivers on strike about something – and Jane Fonda was supposed to join them. We pulled up without being noticed and saw a bunch of folks standing around drinking coffee. A few minutes before the announced time, up pulls Fonda, hops out and the picket lines begin marching – just in time for the arriving media. Now I’d been in anti-war marches in college and I know we marched for ourselves – not anyone else. This was a first for me. A staged protest.

As the 80s approached, the slippery slope became very hazardous. Broadcast moved from covering events to asking occasionally for a subject to “do what they’d normally be doing” for the camera. The ethics debate over these incidents grew. Wasn’t a cutaway staged? Were you allowed to move an object to make an interview background look better? Wasn’t lighting and placing a subject in a specific area staging? Consensus finally arrived with an understanding that some staging was “soft” (ie, ok) and some was forbidden (never never never in hard news). Frankly it became a personal matter and personal ethics ran the gamut. Mine were kind of in the middle, leaning towards being conservative. Several times a week I’d get sent out to do a horse and pony show. Ag stories. Political stories. Most of the time I’d grab what was actually happening. Sometimes I’d get boxed in and resort to the “walkie talkie,” with reporter walking and talking with the subject. Some mom would leave dirty dishes in her sink so we could shoot her cleaning them for a drought story. It became easier to bend the once hard and fast rules. Not that they were always bent. Remember Holly Hunter in “Broadcast News” arguing with the cameraman about the soldier putting on his shoe? I had an argument with a reporter when covering a story on allergies. A construction worker sneezed while I was shooting elsewhere. The reporter asked the worker to do the sneeze again for me when I can back…and for some reason I dug my heels in. So judge me both guilty and not.

The ethics of shooting/covering a story is the real chasm between broadcast and print photogs. Not that every broadcast shooter crosses the line or that every print photog is pure. That we all fudge is probably closer to the truth – with broadcast fudging more. Why? My guess is that newspapers do not have to fill their pages with photos, but TV stations do have to fill their air-time with video. Time is money.

My hope is that the print media does not get caught up in the many hidden traps of shooting video.

Addendum: After reading this through several times, I need to make the warning clearer. With the inevitable staff cuts and fewer people doing more and reporters shooting video, ethics become even more crucial. Broadcast got squeezed by not enough staff, not enough time, and competition.
My favorite video stories (both print and broadcast) run at the pacing of real life. There is no staged feel to them. The stories I hold dearest and those I still think I did well on are those with no staging (okay…I’ll give on the reporter standups/but both the stations AND reporter mandated those).
And let me add that shooting with low-end and tiny cameras for the past few years have made me aware of just how much that big bulky gear imposes itself on the story and the consciousness of those who see them. Just as those big black Canons and Nikons let the world know still folks are pros. Unless newsies are literally the fly on the wall, their presence will affect/alter moods and events.

10 thoughts on ““We Ain’t TV…”

  1. First off, I think you make some pretty insulting comments…

    There is a role for everyone, print photographers take photos for print, broadcast photographers take video for TV. What you are doing is fine, and there is a place for it in these changing times… but what you dont seem to understand, is that you are not doing it the only way or the “correct” way. There is a place for your breed of video-journalism, as there is a place for television journalism. Your attitude is what makes so many people angry in the debate over TV and print jounalists. You think that you are a real journalist while those working in broadcast are not.

    I think there is a huge part of the puzzle that you are missing in your write-up, journalism is about presenting the facts, and there are different ways of doing that. Obviously its done differently on television than it is in print or even radio. The approach may be different, but I think the end result is generally the same. There is an added bonus that with video in that you can show things, moving pictures and sound to go along with the story. Because the end result is displayed differently, there is different gear, sometimes there are tighter timelines for completion, and an overall different editorial system. Of course that can make people react differently but thats just how it is. In order to see and hear the news on TV, you need to use different tools. That does not make somebody less of a journalist.

    You continue to cover the news your way, but remember that you are covering for a different output… and that’s what makes your approach different. It’s not about being a better journalist, its being better at presenting the news in whatever way you do.

  2. Cory…I am/was a broadcast camera(man) for 28 years. I’ve been watching this debate from the sidelines and puzzling it out. Yes, journalism is about facts – but there is a schism between print and broadcast photogs that has existed for years. And now I see print folks posting the “We ain’t TV” as a response to why they look down at TV, while pretending they invented video. You make the point perfectly…as long as we get the message to the audience, we are doing our jobs. My pain is in the divide, which I’m trying to decipher for the broadcast folks (including myself) and to point out to the print folks how their attitude comes across. Unfortunately everyone seems to put their own spin on it (hmmm, maybe THAT was the whirring sound I heard when I read your post).

  3. He put his eye to the hole. He just managed to spy some people sitting in deckchairs chanting, before a finger came out of nowhere and poked him in the eye. As he staggered back, the people started chanting, “Fourteen, fourteen, fourteen…”

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