Shoot first, ask questions later

Today's story took me to a sad scene. A 12-year-old boy was running across the street to catch the local light-rail train to school. He scampered into traffic, and as he was dodging cars, he fell into the path of the train. He died.

These stories are always difficult ones for journalists. No one I've met in 25 years of reporting likes to do them. No one. But we all know we have to. To make the best of it, I always tell myself:

"You can ask anyone, anything, one time, politely."

I repeat that in my head as I approach and knock on the doors of families who have lost loved ones. It gives me courage.

Today, my uncomfortable moment came when sobbing relatives of the boy laid flowers and lit incense at the scene of the tragedy. I looked through the camera's viewfinder and felt a pang of guilt, of self-consciousness as I recorded their grief. Was this the right thing to do? Would I want someone to do this to me? But I also remembered another cardinal rule of TV, which is to shoot first and decide later whether you want to use that piece of video. So many beginning reporters will let their discomfort prevent them from getting the shots they might need later. It really is OK, as long as you're not trespassing, to shoot everything. The ethical considerations come when you choose what to put on TV.

After the family had created its memorial, I went to the boy's middle school to see if the staff and teachers had anything to say. I figured, at the least, I might hear about how students were being reminded to be careful crossing the street. Instead, I found what TV reporters almost always find at schools - total DEFCON lockdown. "MEDIA APPROACHING! WARNING! WARNING! PREPARE THE OUTER PERIMETER!" Good grief. Schools have watched too many movies of TV reporters snatching fifth graders out of classrooms, stringing them up by their ankles and forcing them to talk. (No, I haven't seen that movie, either.) I don't know what it is about schools, but the reception is rarely even civil. I walked to the door and planned to specifically follow the rules as listed - "all visitors must report to the principal's office." Instead, a harried P.E. teacher cracked the door and immediately told me, "We have no comment." "To what?" I thought. I haven't even asked a question. I tried to get him to let me talk to the principal, but he refused to let me in. "Please get off the school property." Whatever. Eventually, someone came out to tell me to call the central administration number. As is usually the case, a missed opportunity to get the word out about how kids need to be safe taking public transit to school.

So after all that, I returned to the accident scene to prepare for a 5pm live shot, when I was told at 3pm to head from San Francisco to Antioch. Again, standard fare. A good reporter is always prepared to drop several hours of work for a new story the bosses think might be better. In this case, a cute four-year-old girl had told police where the burglar was hiding in her house.

This is a screen grab of the GPS route to Antioch. Notice the estimated arrival time. Show up on the scene 45 minutes before the 5pm live shot and figure it out. Stressful. A videographer was sent ahead of me and was able to shoot video and get interviews with the family and the girl.

Still, I found myself reminding myself, there's no real benefit to freaking out. The story is going to get done one way or another. The live shot will happen at the designated time, one way or another. Tomorrow will come around, one way or another. Staying calm and focusing on the task at hand makes you a better co-worker and a better reporter. You can exude stress or you can exude calm. Who would you rather work with? Don't waste the energy and mental capacity on things you can't control.

Cellphones are everywhere these days and can really help make a story come alive. No longer do professional TV crews have to be on the scene to capture an event as it's happening. The mom of the four year old used her phone to shoot the police officers hauling the intruder out of her house. That was a money shot I needed in my story. But, the file was so big, and I was in such a hurry, I didn't have time to wait for it to come through via email or text. So, I pulled out my cell phone and shot the video playing on her cell phone. Here's what it looked like:

By the way, ALWAYS shoot cell phone video horizontal, NEVER vertical.

After 10 days, I'm still struck by how much time I spend on the road. Getting to places is such a big part of TV reporting. Here are two views - one not so pleasant, one pleasant.

 Highway 4 East during rush hour headed to 5pm live shot in Antioch.

Highway 4 East during rush hour headed to 5pm live shot in Antioch.

 Headed home across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.

Headed home across the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.

Takeaways:

  1. Shoot first, ask questions later.
  2. You can ask anyone, anything, one time, politely.
  3. Do your best on every story, and be prepared to throw it all away in favor of a different one, no matter how much work you've done.
  4. Keep your eye on the ball. Your goal is to be as successful as possible in the time you have, whether that's 8 hours 15 minutes, or just 15 minutes. Panicking doesn't make the clock run more slowly.
  5. Your cell phone is a legitimate news gathering tool, especially in a pinch. Almost always, in TV, some video is better than no video.
  6. Learn to love being in the car.