By Mark Neuling
Field Camera Operator
A little over twenty years ago I quit teaching, went back to school and studied what was called back then “Broadcast Arts.”  At that time, similar to now, there were no full-time teaching jobs available for inexperienced, young teachers.  I started my career in television with an internship at a Public Access cable television station close to 20 years ago and never looked back.
When I started here at my current job we had a young and largely inexperienced staff of reporters and producers. One of the reasons I was recommended for my job at TechTV was because of the work I had done at Santa Clara University teaching production classes.  Coupled with that was my position as the intern coordinator at my previous job.  Of course I’m paid to make pictures, but I always try to impart some lesson or share some experience with the younger staff members.  Subtle stuff like, “I’m glad I don’t have to log that tape.”  Which translated means – your interview went a little long.  Or, “Sure, let’s shoot the stand-up your way, but could we do one like this?”  Guess which version they choose nine times out of ten?
Early one Friday afternoon the assignment editor comes by my desk with a shoot that I need to head out on right away.  The day before the San Jose Mercury News had broken a story about six students at a Fremont high school that had hacked into the school district’s computer and changed their grades using software they downloaded from the Internet. The desk wants some b-roll of the school, an interview with the principal and some MOS from some of the students.  Standard stuff.  Then she mentions that they’ll be sending an intern with me so I don’t have to get this all on my own.  Great, at least I’ll have someone to hold the microphone I think to myself. 
The intern and I head for the car.  Neither of us is sure if this is to be a “day of” story but we want to play it safe and assume that it is.  We also aren’t sure if the principal will give us an interview. That hasn’t been confirmed.  Our directions from MAPQUEST say that it will take just under an hour to reach our destination.  It is twelve-thirty now; say we need to be back by three o’clock to give adequate time for the story to be written, approved and edited.  Figure two hours of driving barring that we don’t hit traffic; that leaves us with about thirty minutes to actually shoot the story.   It’ll be tight, it won’t be award winning, but it’s doable.
I’d only worked with this intern once before.  I’d rarely seen her around the shop after that one shoot.  As we crossed the Bay Bridge I asked how her internship was going.  “Fine, I’m glad I came back for a second semester,” she tells me. I wasn’t aware she’d already done one semester much less come back for a second.  This time around she was spending more time in the field with crews and less time logging tapes.  I try to get some information from her about the shoot, but she doesn’t know any more than I do.  I query her as to what questions she might have in mind.  I can see her wheels spinning but I sense how unprepared she is.
A news car is a lot of things; cafeteria, confessional, psychiatric couch and classroom.  Occasionally I have to do an interview, so I know the elements that are a part of most television interviews.  I encourage the intern to cover the basics, get some background on the situation, make it conversational and listen closely to the principal’s answers for follow-up questions. 
Our drive is rather uneventful for a Friday afternoon.  The producer for this story calls on the cell phone.  “Are you there yet?” he asks in his rapid fire way.  “About halfway,” I tell him.  He’s managed to convince the principal of the school to meet with us for an interview.  This particular producer is a great guy and bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out stories.  But he tends to pre-visualize the story.   I’m all for having an idea about what the story should look like, but I learned a long time ago to glean what I can from the field.  Things almost never present themselves in a manner that the desk jockeys back at the station see them.  Sometimes the shots just aren’t there.  Besides, most pre-visualized shots are the same old television cliches that have been floating around the industry for decades.
It’s a clear blue day with a sky that sparkles from the rains.  There is not a soul in sight as we pull into the school parking lot.  The campus is extremely quiet for a Friday.  We unload the gear and make our way to the Administration Office.  The principal wants to shoot the interview outside.  I know the intern wants to make a good impression and to appear professional.  But she herself is only about four years removed from being a high school student.  The questions feel rehearsed, her demeanor doesn’t express much confidence.  The principal handles the interview well.  He has a good grasp of the technology the kids used to hack into the district computers.  Towards the end of the interview the bell rings and students flood into the quad as they make their way to their next class.  I need to get b-roll of this.
I ask the principal for permission to shoot the kids as they scramble back and forth to class.  He gives us the OK for the b-roll but doesn’t want us to talk with any of them; there is still an investigation going on he doesn’t want anyone to say something that may jeopardize it.  I have no problem honoring the principal’s request.  I wade into the stream of students passing by. 
On nearly every Friday for over a decade I would shoot high school sports for my old TV station. Some days we’d hit four different games.   I’ve spent many hours at high school events and around high school students.  I have learned to ignore the requests to “Put me on TV!”  There are only a few minutes to get some footage.  My intern still has the microphone and I can hear the students asking her why are you here?  Most seem to instinctively know the reason. “Are you here because of the cheaters?” I hear over and over.  In a few moments the quad is empty again save for some JV baseball players waiting for a ride to their game.  We throw the gear into the back of the car and drive up to the corner to get some signage.  The street outside the school is silent and empty.  No cars are leaving and nobody is milling about.   We call it a wrap.  I need to find a restroom.
I return to the car after my break.  The intern seems a bit concerned.  She’d checked in with the producer and he’s disappointed that we didn’t get any sound from some students.  He feels it’s really important to the story; but has us head back to San Francisco anyway.
There is a fair distance over city streets for us to cover before we reach the highway.  The stoplights give us time to discuss what options we had. 
We could have shot first and gotten permission later.  Most of us in the media have used this tactic from time to time and it has its merits. Sometimes you’re not going to get anything unless you take the initiative.
We could have ignored the principal’s wishes.  Plenty of students passed right by us as I shot b-roll.  We could have clandestinely asked any one of them some questions.  Even if it was only sound from my camera mic, it would have provided the sound bite that the producer wanted.   Or we could have waited a short distance off campus and tried to interview someone after school.
But we did what we did, which was to honor the principal's request that we not speak to any of the students.  I felt his reasons were valid.
Now all of this raised another question for us.  High school kids will say and do just about anything to get on TV.  Why would we want their “opinion” about an event that most of them would have no first hand knowledge about?  They might have read about it in the papers, they certainly heard rumors about in school but no one most likely would have any personal knowledge about the incident.  Just opinions.
This presents us in the media with an even greater ethical question.  Why do we (especially television) depend so much on opinions garnered from the man on the street?  We mold these sound bites into little digestible nuggets and present them to our audience in a factual manner.  Why do we continue to pander to the lowest common denominator?
The intern and I ruminate over all this on our way back.  But I’m just a camera monkey and all this intellectual stuff is better left to the egg head types.   About then the cell phone rings.  It’s the producer calling from San Francisco.  He still thinks he needs sound from some students, can we turn around?  I try to keep calm.  “No we’re already on the freeway,” I say.  Besides, I silently think to myself, school’s already out for the day.  “Well maybe we could go back on Monday,” replies the producer.  This statement pushes my button.  My attempt to maintain a calm demeanor suddenly evaporates and the tone of my voice rises.  “Look, I promised the principal that we wouldn’t interview any kids from the school.  If you want to go back on Monday fine, but don’t assign it to me,” I blurt into the phone.  “If the principal finds out about this what does it say about our credibility?” I ask. There’s a brief pause as the producer thinks it over.  “Well, maybe we could find a computer class at another school and have a round-table discussion.  I know a teacher who might be able to help us,” he says.  “Hey that’s a great idea,” I reply.  Crisis averted, I hang up the cell phone.   The intern sitting next to me quietly thanks me for defending our position.  “You’ll have a lot to discuss in class next week,” I tell her. 
The things they don’t teach you about in college.
© Mark Neuling 2003
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Email info:

TechTV is the world’s leading cable and satellite television channel covering technology news, information, and entertainment from a consumer, industry, and market perspective 24 hours a day.  Available in more than 75 million households across 70 countries, TechTV is also the world’s largest producer and distributor of programming about technology.
Copyright TechTV 2003 TechTV Inc. All rights reserved.



Contents Page

Contents Page Editorials The Platypus Links Copyright
Portfolios Camera Corner War Stories  Dirck's Gallery Comments
Issue Archives Columns Forums Mailing List E-mail Us
 This site is sponsored and powered by Hewlett Packard