Reporter Photographer Harmony

The reporter/photographer relationship is one of the most unique dynamics in the newsroom setting.  Sometimes it’s the most joyous.  Sometimes it’s the most volatile.

Sometimes being on assignment feels like being with a “working wife/husband” while other times the thought of spending an entire workday with that person is unfathomable.  But, finding that happy medium and really jelling together as a team can help to produce some fantastic stories, the kind that make it fulfilling to be a journalist.

This is a little perspective from the photographer side, a look at how that guy/girl with the camera on their shoulder (and hopefully on a tripod) sees those daily assignments.

Every shop I worked in always claimed how much they valued the photo staff, but in the end, most of the higher ups see that value in a technical sense, not editorial, leading to a lower link In the newsroom food chain.

But, just like everyone else in the newsroom, photographers have egos too.  Getting the most out of that photographer for the day may not be too complex and involves a few simple steps

Each day brings a new assignment.  Once the crew leaves the newsroom, the first task the reporter faces is how to engage the photographer and get them onboard for the day.  And it does not matter if it’s a double package/double live shot day or one of those rare times when you actually have a little time to craft a package.

Here are three simple tips to hopefully get things headed in the right direction so those “human mic stands” can get the most, visually, out of photographers.  In return, the photogs can offer some simple things to shed the image of “camera guy.”

These may not be the most intricate points and can seem basic, but not starting off on the right foot can doom a story before that camera is ever fired up.

What the photog can/should expect from you?:

1.  An introduction:  Wow, this seems simple.  Introducing the photographer to the people being interviewing.  It’s a team effort, right?  A simple, “I want you to meet ________”, seems pretty standard and just plain polite.

For me, no introduction meant game over, that easy.  I checked out for the day.  The job was still done to a solid standard, but nothing more.  And the best part, the reporter would never even know.  It was a simple matter of respect.  If a simple courtesy couldn’t be extended, there was no extra effort from me.

Of course when it’s mass chaos or chasing down a hostile interview this won’t apply but, in general, the point is there.

2.  Discuss the story on the way:  Talking.  Again, seems basic.  But some reporters get busy on their phones and nothing assignment related is said on the drive.

There’s a chance the photog wasn’t in that assignment meeting and hasn’t been given much of a description about what it is you’re putting together.  Well, what is the photog’s perspective on basic story structure, both visually and editorially?

Again, at the core, it comes down to a matter of respect for your co-worker.  If my input isn’t in the end story, my effort probably won’t be there either.

3.  Involvement/Reinforcement:  Talk as the story evolves during the day.  Not only does it keep the photographer engaged, it also gives you both an idea how the story is unfolding visually long before sitting down to log the video.

What is the opening shot? What is the closing shot?  Any good nat breaks?  These questions keep the photog involved and engaged, letting them know you’re depending on them to help mold the story.

Does the photographer have a wireless mic (belt pack kind)?  How about offering to move it around for them from person to person.  What a great way to send a signal those great pictures and sounds are being counted on to put the story together.

As a photographer, I fed off of enthusiasm, even on stories that were pretty dry.  Seeing the reporter moving the mic around and getting involved in the technical end made me step up the effort, every time.

While simple, all this respect talk is a two-way street.  Reporters aren’t baby sitters and have enough to handle for the day.  The above are ways to get the photographer on-board, utilizing the “journalist” in photojournalist.  So now that you the reporter is putting out the effort, the question is……

What to should expect from the photographer?:

 1.  Return Engagement:  The job is done making sure the photographer knows the story is a team effort.   Now it’s up to the phojo to get involved.  In addition to all the technical aspects running smoothly, is the photog engaged in interviews?  Asking questions (when appropriate)?  Listening for sound bites and varying up the framing for different looks?

I have heard stories of fellow photogs being on their cells phones on personal calls, DURING AN INTERVIEW!  For any photographers reading this: Not a good way to be taken seriously.

2.  Professionalism in Dress and Attitude:  No, photographers will not be wearing suits and ties to working on a daily basis.  But for many GA stories, the people we talk to are in a business setting.  Appropriate dress and attitude should be expected.

Yes, it is up to management to make/enforce dress codes, but perception in our business is reality.  No t-shirts, no ratty jeans and good personal hygiene all go a long way.  Society has changed and there are many new ways people express themselves.  But, for photogs with excessive piercings and or tattoos, find a way to take them out/cover them up when in a business setting.  It hurts the reporter’s credibility too.

3.  Offering a visual blueprint:  Photogs, feel free to speak up as well during the day.  Let the reporter know what’s been going on behind that lens.  Any good nat breaks or sound bites you heard during the interviews?  Ideas how you can make it work visually with their words?

Most of the time the reporter doesn’t see/hear what’s been shot until it’s logging time.  During a time crunch, the chance to log all the video is long gone.  Help them out.  Know what can be weaved into the story.  Is a key shot missing?  Fess up early so a script doesn’t show up that “writes you into a hole”.  We’re in the communication business.  That starts in the field, long before the story is sent out to a television or web audience.

So, none of the above is earth shattering and most seems pretty basic.  Yet, day in and day out, these things are not done in newsrooms in all sized markets.

Of course there are variables.   Some days, and things, don’t go as planned.  But the above points are basic ones that are often missed.  When missed, they not only affect the product, they affect attitudes.  If these mistakes are made day in and day out, bad attitudes often take over.

After 20 years of doing this, I’m not naïve.  One of the questions (from either side) is probably, “I’ve tried this every day for a long time and person X just won’t respond, what should I do now?”

Honest answer, we can’t all get along and sometimes we’re just on a different page from one another.  Try to not take it personally.  Try to get a good lunch in.  Keep it simple and live to fight another day with another reporter or photog.

One thing I do know, is that when the opportunity to really produce that special story comes along, it takes a team effort.  Teams aren’t built overnight.  It takes time and effort.  Yes, there’s a lot more that goes into to hitting home run-type stories.  But one thing for sure is if there isn’t a mutual respect from the beginning, it will be a struggle just getting up to the batter’s box.

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Andy Benton is a  20 year veteran photojournalist who’s won 2 National Murrow Awards, 3 Gabriel Awards and 25 Regional Emmys.

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What is viewer benefit, really? A close look at WIFM.

“Viewer benefit” is a buzz term that is used more and more in newsrooms.  You have to have payoff for the viewers if you want high ratings.  It’s a critical concept.  So important, actually, that you need to get it or you will be told to get out.  So what does viewer benefit really mean?  We’re breaking it down for you.

Let’s begin with the consultant buzz term “WIFM” (What’s In It For Me). The me is the viewer.  So yes, to some degree you are being asked to read viewers minds and figure out how a story will benefit a stranger you will never meet.  No, this is not as intimidating as it seems, especially because of the influence of social media on the way information is shared.  If you aren’t already building sources and checking trends on Twitter and Linked In, start now.  You need to spend some time each day surfing.  This goes for whatever job you have in the newsroom, especially anchors and reporters.  That’s because, in addition to pulling in new information and stories, it gives them the added benefit of building more direct relationships with viewers.

So, what do you look for?  See what kinds of stories people are messaging about.  Some of us also like to hop onto newspaper blogs and other local blogs to see what’s happening.  Here you will get obvious story ideas with proven “WIFM.”  You can answer the questions people are bringing up and engage the viewer.

You also have to look at the stories that management insists that someone cover each day.  Here you might think the “WIFM” will be hard to come by.  Not really.  There are some general trends you can rely on to help you begin to craft the essence, or “WIFM”, of your story.  A list to keep handy:

Elements of WIFM

  • Emotional Connection
  • Cost
  • Personal Safety
  • Characters
  • Location
  • Impact On Key Demographic

Some of these may seem redundant, but I promise they aren’t.  The emotional connection of a story is more than whether you have or could easily get someone crying or shouting on television.  Irony is a great way to build a connection that can tug at heartstrings.  Facts that make you just shake your head and wonder what to think also provide great emotional connections to a story.  You start to wonder, could this happen to me or someone I love?  This is especially helpful when covering political stories that don’t necessarily affect one’s pocketbook.

No matter how the economy looks, people have a heightened sense of cost.  This means more than just being able to pay the bills each month.  Long term effects will have a draw.  If there is a cost in human terms, like less time with the kids or shorter life span, viewers will watch.  Do not take cost lightly when writing and teasing these elements.  People do not want to be played in these areas of their lives.

People also want to feel safe.  Viewer benefit is not scaring the “you know what” out of them every night.  Yes, some crime stories are simply scary and viewers need to know.  Yes, stations will cover crime like crazy. (Why they do it, is a whole other discussion beyond it bringing in ratings!)  Stations that really push viewer benefit want you to quantify the crime stories whenever you can.  Perspective can be as simple as where the event happened to how to protect yourself, to police accountability in “taking back the streets.”

You probably know the saying “Location, location, location.”  This applies to “WIFM” also. Especially when covering crime news.  If it happens in a “bad area” for crime you have to approach the story differently than if it happens in an area where no crime was committed for years.  The impact is simply different as we described above.  Same goes for economic stories.  This is where looking at characters and key demographics play in.

Characters are the people or things you choose to build the story around.  This goes for more than just reporter packages.  Producers should look for characters to write around and refer to whenever possible.  If you think this is a waste of time, I urge you to again hop onto Twitter and pick a topic.  Do searches and see who comes up.  Read their descriptions.  It is very obvious people want to be heard.  They also want to hear others.  They want some control of what happens around them.  Characters give viewers a chance to feel in control when watching the news.  It gives them something tangible to cling to and interact with on some level.  When the U.S. invaded Iraq, the second time, you may remember a lot of coverage about a statue of Saddam Hussein in a square.  That statue became a character for the war.  When it was pulled down, you could sense the accomplishment from across an ocean.  You could feel the change taking place.  The war became real, not just something happening on TV half a world away.  For a moment you had to stop, stare and care.  Do not limit your payoffs for stories to people.  Sometimes symbols engage and create “WIFM” or a sense of engagement just as well.

By key demographic we mean both the viewers you have, and the ones you want to get.  You will phrase stories differently depending on what you need from the viewer. (i.e. – increased loyalty vs. new fans.)  It is important to recognize who watches your newscasts, at what time of the day and on what days of the week.  The “WIFM” can be different on a football night for example than on a night with a family based drama that appeals to more to women.  Lead in shows impact audience and “WIFM.”  Understanding that is one way managers know for example that certain days of the week are better than others for covering consumer news.  The more the staff is aware of a newscasts audience, the more you can tailor a few elements to keep your loyal customers happy and branch out and try and appeal to a new set of eyes.  If this sounds more like marketing than “Big J”, you are partially right.  Open your mind a bit more though and you will see that the traditional “Big J” type stories usually hit basic human needs and concerns.  You just might approach how you report them a little differently. (see article “Produce It Up” for some ideas of techniques that can still help you feel you gave just the facts ma’am.)

Final point, do not get hung up on managers saying that stories have to be unique in order to have viewer benefit.  The viewer benefit doesn’t come in story selection so much as “the spin”, which is based on your station’s news philosophy.  This is largely because different news philosophies define viewer benefit differently.  The approach makes your station, package, or newscast have a specific kind of “WIFM.”  To really capitalize on viewer benefit, you have to know what the station’s news philosophy entails.  If management is at a crossroads on this, you cannot go much beyond the obvious economic impact, human safety, and emotional type of “WIFM’s.”  But even by focusing on these elements you can make your stories more relevant to your viewers.  So focus on what you can, and let management guide some of the viewer benefit.  After all, they have access to all the audience research driving all that buzz about “viewer benefit.”

 

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You exist to hold my tripod: How to make peace with the photographer that hates reporters.

Throughout my career I heard this phrase uttered by photographers when discussing reporters: “You exist to hold my tripod.” It was followed by a laugh and shaking of the head.  There is a lot behind this phrase that many reporters and news managers don’t stop to think about.  It’s especially true now, with more stations turning to one man band and backpack journalists.  Without photojournalists, there would be no TV news.  The video, together with sound, is what separates us from other news mediums.  Yet many take for granted the photojournalist that is putting a lot of physical effort and artistic ability into his/her work.  In many shops photojournalists do not get much recognition from management.  It all goes to the reporters and anchors.

Being the reporter thought of as only good enough to hold the tripod is frustrating.  But a good journalist can consider many perspectives, right?  Whether you like it or not, you are going to be assigned to work with photojournalists who have this attitude from time to time.  They exist in every shop.  Murphy’s Law dictates you will be assigned to this angry photojournalist whenever you have a great story that you hope will be good enough to keep for your resume.

So in the interest of peace and understanding, let’s look a little more at why some photojournalists feel this way.  In truth, there are many reporters that think photogs are their servants.  They refuse to help carry gear.  They boss the photojournalist around and tell them to get specific shots, rather than gently asking.  And they often do this in front of someone being interviewed.  This treatment is humiliating.  Think about the time when a ND calls you in and asks how you could ever have written something so dumb?  You know how it feels.  We’ve all been there.  Showing respect is crucial.  Also, because there is a lack of training in newsrooms, often a seasoned photojournalist gets stuck working with newbie reporters.  All of us are clueless when we first take news jobs.  We are a pain in the butt and a potential liability as we get our TV legs.  Add in a know it all, “I can conquer the world” attitude and a seasoned photojournalist legitimately wants to not only hand you a tripod to carry, but shove it where the sun doesn’t shine!

So enough psychology of why, let’s talk survival skills.   The tried and true way to develop a positive working relationship with these seemingly impossible photographers is to show them some respect.  Yes, you will often want specific shots taken in the field.  So, let the photog know what you are thinking and ask them to help you out, rather than tell them to get a shot.  Then ask for input and tell them you would love a few more shots or more natural sound to go with the shots you need if the photojournalist sees a good opportunity. Ask the photojournalist’s opinion, often.  This person is a huge asset for you, even when it can be a bitter pill.  These articles spell out why and what to do if the photog is really hazing you. (see  Photog is a reporter’s best friend and Thank you sir, how to handle newsroom hazing)

Do whatever you can to get the photojournalist involved in the story. Again, at end of each interview ask if the photojournalist has any questions for the subject.  Some of the best perspective on a story can come from the true observer.  (There is no truer “observer” than a photog watching the story play out through the lens of a camera!)  When you shoot your standup talk to the photographer about what you are thinking of doing and ask for help making it work visually.

Most of all, don’t give up.  Keep showing respect even if you think you are only getting insults in return.  Remember the psychology of why.  These photographers often care, passionately, about the video and sound they are gathering.  They want their hard work appreciated by someone, but they have been burned, often.  Be patient, compliment when appropriate, and show respect.  With time that photographer will turn into an asset and you will be glad to hold the tripod for him/her!

 

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Why photographers are a reporter’s best friend.

Chinese philosopher Mencius said:  “Friendship is one mind in two bodies.”  This is the basis of why I tell young and/or inexperienced reporters that their best “friends” in a newsroom should be the photographers they work closely with every day.  Being of “one mind” about the stories you tell on a daily basis is the difference between below-average to average TV news stories and great, memorable storytelling that gets viewers to pay attention and your work noticed.

Whenever I move into a new newsroom, the first thing I do is take inventory of the photography staff.  Who’s good?  Who’s average?  Who’s motivated?  Who’s not?  And most importantly… who gets “it?”  Do you know what I mean by “it?”  I mean simply: storytelling.  It is THE number one thing that can take your career as a reporter to limitless heights.  (For more on storytelling see this article https://www.survivetvnewsjobs.com/?p=306)  Most of us know it when we see it and you should definitely look for it whenever you start in a new shop as well.  Once you have identified the “players” among the photography staff, buddy up with them!  Why?  Because they can make your daily life easy as well as set you up for a successful career path.  On the opposite end of the spectrum… news photographers can also make your life a living hell if you dis them.  Think about that last point for a moment.  You work your tail off turning your story (or in most cases today, stories) for that night’s newscast(s).  You find good “characters”, ask all the right questions and write a gem of a script.  You get it copyedited and it’s ready for the photog to edit into a masterpiece of local news storytelling.  But there’s one problem:  You are the reporter who gives “orders” to photographers rather than asking nicely when you need something from them.  You are the reporter who sits in the truck playing on your smartphone while the photog busts his/her butt breaking down the live shot in the cold.  You are the reporter who calls every story “my story” rather than “our story.”  So, guess what, Mr. or Miss Photog is magically having “editing problems” or just can’t get an edit to take.  Suddenly, that masterpiece of storytelling that was filled with characters and nat sound becomes just another news package slapped together so it can make air.  Think it cannot or does not happen?  Wake up Alice, you’re in Wonderland!  It can and does.

On the other hand, what if you’re the reporter who always helps carry equipment and break down live shots?  What if you’re the reporter who ends every recorded interview by asking the photog if they have any questions for the interviewee?  What if you’re the reporter who asks the photographer to brainstorm ideas on making the standup different and visually stunning?  And what if maybe you’re the reporter who always, and I mean always, tells the photog what a great job they did on “our” story today/yesterday or last week with another reporter?  Well, suddenly Mr. or Miss Photog is busting their hump to get some extra nat sound and a few extra tight shots to really make the story sing!  Keep it up, make it a habit and you’ll soon be getting that effort everyday when you work with that photog.  Then, that photog will tell the others on staff how cool it is to work with you and you’ll start getting the same effort from every photog you work with.  Next thing you know you’re work is noticed as excellent by your bosses and eventually the newsroom you target as the next stop on your march to TV news greatness!

 

The best friend I’ve ever had “in the business” is a photographer.  He just so happens to be what I would consider among the absolute best in the business too with an entire room filled with Emmy and other high level awards.  But there was a time when neither one of us knew what it meant to make really good TV.  We didn’t even know the term “storytelling” much less what it took to do it.  But as our friendship developed so did our relationship as co-workers.  We discovered that we both wanted to know what it took to be really good at making really good TV news stories.  So, we set about teaching ourselves.  We constantly challenged each other to learn and try new things in our stories.  It didn’t take long for both of us to start down the path to great storytelling.  Had we thought of each other as “just a photog” or “just a reporter” rather than as the most important part of the daily equation, neither one of us might have gone on to the successful  and long careers we enjoy.

Unfortunately, there are many, many people in this business who do view TV News Photographers as “just photogs.”  Don’t be one of these people.  TV News Photographers really are THE most important part of the equation.  TV news is at its best when it truly harnesses what no other news medium can harness:  effectively blending moving pictures, with sound and words.  When it makes you feel like ”you are there.”  A reporter can write the words and even say the words.  But without a photographer there is no way you are grabbing all three and making viewers feel connected with great TV news storytelling.  So don’t forget about your true “best friends” in the newsroom.  As Mencius suggested, be of “one mind in two bodies.”  Make sure you make it clear to photogs that you know how important they are to making everyone in the newsroom more successful.  Your job today, and career down the line, will not be sorry and you just might come away with some really good friends too!

 

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