Know the rules

There are so many occasions when TV reporters show up to the scene and they're not welcome. This is not meant to be depressing, it's just a fact. If you think about it, quite often, when we're there it's because something bad has happened. People aren't on their best behavior because they're upset or sad or angry. Understandable. Sometimes they vent on us. We should know that's coming. Still, we've got a job to do, so it's incumbent upon us to know the rules that define where we can and can't shoot video.

deport the racists sign.jpg

Today's story was a follow-up to the #AbolishICE protests that began on Monday in downtown San Francisco - this was day four. In the previous coverage, we'd presented the protesters telling their side of the story, explaining why they thought the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency should be abolished. Today, we focused on how this point of view, while newsworthy and relatively popular in the Bay Area, is not a majority opinion in the United States. In fact, it's very much the minority opinion. A recent poll conducted by Harvard University shows more than two-thirds of Americans think ICE is a good thing, not that it should be abolished.

The three elements I tell my students to look for in a story are:

  • So what (what difference does it make): protesters are making their point in San Francisco, but does it make any difference anywhere else? Probably not.
  • Real people (the people living the story): the protesters
  • Show me, don't tell me (video): the protest
 University of San Francisco migration studies professor Bill Hing.

University of San Francisco migration studies professor Bill Hing.

Step one for the day was to get an expert to explain how what people think in the Bay Area is not necessarily the way people think in the rest of the country. A media relations person for the University of San Francisco was quick to help me out and we arranged an interview with a migration studies professor.

I was given two choices: interview earlier at the professor's home or later at the professor's office. Each of these is appealing. The office would likely provide the more appropriate background. But, the home would be a better time. In TV news, the best time is "sooner." Sooner is absolutely, positively, 100 percent of the time, always better than later. So I chose the home setting.

 

This is something beginning reporters may be hesitant to do - ask for what they want. But it's OK to push for an earlier interview. The worst that can happen is the person says no. But if you get a yes, then that gives you more time before deadline to deal with surprises (see below).

On to the next part of the story, the protest. This is where things got interesting. On Tuesday when I had covered the protest, people were shy about appearing on camera, but they simply turned away or hid behind sheets when the camera was pointed in their direction.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
— The First Amendment

Today, a much more confrontational situation. I showed up and was asked to not shoot any faces. I informed the protestors that would be a difficult proposition given they were spread out across a city block. My goal was to be honest and straightforward: "I simply cannot guarantee no one's face will appear in the video. We're on a public street," I said. That answer was not good enough for the protesters. They decided if I couldn't promise no faces there would be no video at all. I was told I was not allowed to shoot anything without their consent. This, of course, is patently false because of where we were. The same First Amendment that allows them to peaceably assemble on a public city street to protest is the same First Amendment that protects the media's right to shoot video and cover stories on those very same public city streets. We did not come to an agreement, as you can see in the video below.

I spent about four minutes standing my ground. I didn't feel threatened because we were in the middle of the street (as opposed to down an alley), in the middle of the day, with lots of business people walking by. Plus, I knew the law was on my side. But, there does come a point where there is no point and continuing is just asking for more trouble than it's worth. I got the video I needed to tell the story, as well as another element that would help the viewers understand what the protesters were about.

Another view of my First Amendment conversation.

Beginning reporters should know the rules and be aware of where they can and cannot shoot video. However, they should also know when it's time to quit and move on to another part of the story. This is a sixth sense that's developed with experience. You don't want to be a pushover, but nor do you want to push too far and have something bad happen.

 

Takeaways:

  1. Sooner is better - always.
  2. Know the rules, because a lot of the time, other people don't and will try to limit what you indeed are permitted to do.
  3. Stand your ground, up to a point. Each situation is different and you have to judge for yourself. Ask: is it really worth it?