It's a Feeling Out Process

by Jim Parisi

"There were three photographers - one says, when people start to jump, he continues to roll, his camera is in play/record mode, because that is his job. And whether the videotape is ever going to be used or not is a secondary issue. Then we have a second photographer who says that once he saw people starting to jump from the windows, he turned his head away and he turned his camera off, and that was it for him. Then yet we have a third photographer, who just stood there paralyzed, and said the Lord's Prayer."

-Journalist Robyn Walensky, telling us of the different accounts related to her for the book "Covering Catastrophe" regarding broadcast journalists coverage of last Sept. 11th.The message here is that photojournalists are as different as people can be sometimes.

Some are in-your-face kamikaze, some are never-say-boo introverts. Some are 'get the video at any cost', some are 'it's a job I do well, but it's a job'. When a shooter works alone, it's the job of a good editor to choose the right person for the job. This process has been going on since the beginning of journalism.

But in television news, it's a whole different ballgame. Now you need to choose the right team. The best combination of reporter and photographer. And as is the case with any team, often the chemistry is what creates the synergistic situation, not each person's experience or talent. And that's the challenge to the News Director or Assignment Editor of a TV news operation. But that's the easy job.

The harder job is being part of that team, and making it work. There are myriad subtleties in place, and being part of a great crew is sometimes not for the faint of heart. There will be tense moments, major disagreements and of course personality clashes.

At the heart of the matter is that in many shops it's not clear which member of the news crew calls the shots. It's not usually a matter of station or news policy, because it can't be. Sometimes the reporter has 20 years experience, and the shooter is a rookie. Other times the shooter knows the city and the newsmakers as well as anyone at the station, but the reporter was just brought in from 3,000 miles away the day before.

Many times, it's a matter of giving up creative control for the reporter. Some of us started in small markets, where we shot our own stuff. We knew what we needed, and we knew ahead of time which shots would go where when we started editing the piece back at the station. After a few years of doing it this way, it's no easy task to hand the camera off to someone else who can't really read your mind. Sure, the photographer is a better shooter, often with better instincts and more experience with a camera. But as a reporter, we were never trained on how to communicate our video needs to someone else at this point in our careers.

What results is often an awkward dance of talent and ego. A feeling out process. A give and take. And it's not easy. Back at the station, the heated conversations often go like this:

Reporter: "Hey john, where's that shot of the papers being handed to the Governor?"

Shooter: "I was getting the sound bite of the protesters outside the building that you asked for. Can't be in two places y'know."

Reporter: "I have no usable cut-a-way shots at all for this piece!"

Shooter: "Then quit nodding your head while I try to get one, that's not good journalism to act like you agree with what the newsmaker is saying."

Reporter: "Oh now you're the journalist here?"

Shooter: "I sure was when I got exclusive vids of the Mayor being punched last week while you were too busy putting on your make-up, wasn't I?"

So it's not easy. Often the experience and talent levels are incredibly different in a crew. In larger cities, the photojournalist might be is in his/her 40's, and knows every player in town. He knows where is best to set up gear, and has the trust of the newsmakers and the admiration and respect of the competition. Maybe they even save each other now and then when a cable breaks or a tripod is stolen. Then enters some hot-shot 20-something reporter from a far away small market, pushy and arrogant. The rookie reporter is alienating newsmakers and making life a living hell for the veteran shooter. Sometimes the rookie doesn't even give the professional respect that is due the photographer, and what results is never a great body of work.

It doesn't have to be that way. From a reporter's standpoint, there are some basic ways I've found to make a situation work.

If you are new to a market, do a lot more listening than talking. Always make your suggestions in the form of a question: "Hey John, do you think this is a good spot to catch the Governor coming out? He said he might use the front entrance. Where do you think we should set up?"

When you have to tell the shooter specifically what you need, tell him, but don't tell him how to do it. And give him the respect of understanding why you want what you ask for: "John, I'm trying to go with the angle that the Governor is upset at getting served these papers!so I need the papers, his face, maybe his hands know the deal, do what you do best!" Or, "I need the entrance to the building and reaction shots of the Governor. Anything else is all yours John. Do it up!"

Introduce your shooter to the newsmaker immediately, like you would a partner, not a 'helper'. "Governor, this is John, our new photojournalist. Does GREAT work, you'll like him. Give respect to the shooter, especially in public situations. "Gov, John knows his stuff, he'll even find a way to make you look good!"Now it's not a matter of stroking the shooter's ego. It's a way to help make the team work best. The photojournalist does know the best place for the shot. He will get better video if he's 'let in' on what is driving your story. And your shooter is a journalist, with instincts every bit as honed as yours are. Give the respect, and I promise you you'll get more in return than you ever imagined. Maybe the conversation back at the shop will go this way next time:

Reporter: "John, how the HELL did you get the Governor sneaking into his limo out the back entrance???"

Shooter: "The State Trooper who drives the Gov's limo owed me a favor. He told everyone else the Gov was leaving out the front door, hehe."

Reporter: "Hey, I thought we missed the audio of the protestors? I had the mic on the table at the news conference inside!"

Shooter: "Yeah, I borrowed a Lav from the lady at the CBS affiliate. Last week she needed a dub and we gave it to her!"

Reporter: Wowww! That rack focus thingy you did made my two-shot look like magic! John I thought we had a boring piece! you saved me, man."

Shooter: "No prob. It's my job."

Think I'm over simplifying this? Try it. Oh, and for you anchors out there who like screaming at the studio camera people during every commercial break? Do you still think it's a coincidence that the over-the-shoulder graphic seems to cover your face at least once every newscast?

It's a feeling out process.

© Jim Parisi

(Jim Parisi dabbles in television news management where he specializes in interactive news, is a former anchor/reporter, and is the editor of

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