Monday, February 22, 2010

Telling Thursday's Story

Pro Photographers Needed

Images of the horrifying and disturbing scene of last Thursday’s apparent suicide by airplane into a building in North Austin reaffirms why we need a full staff of professionals and especially professional photographers in newsrooms. For hours on end, television news photographers documented the scene. The pictures were page one above the fold in the Austin American-Statesman three days in a row.

Yes, reporters could have shot some pictures. They probably did, but reporters have another job. Yes, the first pictures on television or the Internet may have been from folks with flip-cameras or cell phones—passersby. Those pictures are of marginal quality, but for first pictures, they’re OK. After a while, they began to all look the same, however.

One local TV station tried to show what was happening using broadband early on, but about all you could see was the dashboard of the news unit. Another local TV station stayed on sorry-looking broadband images far too long late Thursday morning. Perhaps they were just showing off. Perhaps they didn’t have a live shot set up. Whatever. Broadband live shots are great if they are the first live images from a scene before the professional photographers and live truck operators show up, but they cheat the audience after the fact.

Another scary detail reported in a newspaper story regarding the use of so-called social media in news quoted a KTBC-TV (Fox) assignment editor saying that he heard emergency radio scanner traffic regarding the incident and passed it along on Twitter. That is doubly dangerous. Emergency communications picked on a scanner are nothing more that the first indication, not verification, that something happened. Scanner traffic should never be reported as fact, even on Twitter. It’s totally unprofessional.

During a fluid “spot news” story, there is no substitute for a professional.

At the scene, there is no substitute for pro photogs. Ralph Barrera, Jay Janner, Rodolfo Gonzalez, and colleagues at the Austin American-Statesman shot hundreds of frames. They are in a “slide show” on the American-Statesman’s web site, Their wide angle photos of the scene were on the front page day after day.

Thursday was Thomas Costley’s birthday. Costley is a photographer and live truck/satellite truck operator for KXAN-TV (NBC). Costley was on the job, working his tail off all day. I’m betting that Thomas would have been fishing otherwise. Costley, however, is a pro.

Another multifaceted pro, mentioned here before, is KEYE-TV’s (CBS) chief photographer John Salazar. Once again, Salazar, gathering in all of the information and images in his mind, several times delivered the most complete, concise, and cogent descriptions of the events ON CAMERA. No telling what he was doing with his camera when he wasn’t live. Salazar’s live reports were better than any reporter. Once, the station pitched to him just as a news conference was beginning. KEYE did not have a live camera at that location, but, Salazar pushed his cell phone into the news conference as the TV station used other images. His day was long as well.

Sometimes, you are in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, you are not. KXAN was out of position for at least two news conferences. Probably, it was through no fault of their own. TV stations set up their live shots where they can get the best shot, but the news conferences may not be happening there.

All broadcast stations and News 8 did fairly well covering the story. KVUE and KEYE had something of an advantage because of their locations in north Austin, but it’s all about execution.

My philosophy was to be the first on the scene and the last to leave the scene. All stations resumed programming shortly after the noon hour, no one really wanting to be last.

The bottom line in TV spot news is pictures. It’s not reporters. It’s not anchors (There was entirely too much speculation from the anchor desks.) It’s not graphics. The bottom line is video—pictures. The best pictures come from professional news photographers.

When and if Austin has chiefly reporters shooting pictures and video—one-man-bands—we will have taken a giant step backwards.

© Jim McNabb, 2010


d lowry said...

I have said this many times before, Austin's photojournalists are some of the best in the country. They could work in any market and are respected by all the network folks. Hopefully the inevetible move to one man bands will draw from them first.

Lance said...

The RF live shot paths from trucks to towers look like they were straight over the burning building. This would play havoc on the signals due to mirage effects from the heat. This is common at big fires, and disrupts RF from VHF 2-ways all the way up to 10 Ghz, This problem is present at fires in central cities, and sometimes shuts down all manner of radio services.
Once clearing this particular fire, the RF paths had to contend with clearing Cat Mountain, and the hills in the Bright Leaf State Natural area up Mt. Bonnell road. A very challenging deployment.

Ray Niekamp said...

I second your call for pro photographers. The current tub-thumping for "citizen journalism" ignores the fact that pictures and especially, video, submitted by amateurs is terrible. It lacks any sense of composition. The video is shaky, with too much camera movement. If there are no alternatives, amateur pictures will do in a pinch, but let's get the pros to the scene right away so people can get a real sense of what is going on.

Big Government said...

Someone might want to let the Fox guy know that "passing along" scanner traffic is illegal. Federal law allows you to intercept and listen to any unencrypted radio traffic, it does not allow you to rebroadcast it via any means.

bage said...

The state of ENG technology has come a long way since the early 90s when I was one of the first in Texas to use a "live" truck as my primary news unit. You may think, "wow.. that is really groundbreaking... excellent pioneering work done by a mere photog as part of the news staff and not an engineer." What would be the truth is .. I was sick of working nightside but having to share a vehicle with a number of different dayside shooters and constantly switching my gear between different rides.. turns out it paid real dividends though ... as I could be "live" within 8 minutes of arrival at a scene. This despite the lack of an air conditioner, pleather seats your shirt would sweat through unless you leaned up and no chair in the back for a third passenger.. (interns sat on the floor).
Now... everyone has a video camera of some sort or other, including reporters who are called on to do more with less. Its not fair to them, nor the viewer. No one in their right mind, including McNabb would have wanted me to report from the scene regardless of how fast I got the shot up... but in today's environment of cutting newsroom staff... I wouldnt put it past an assignments manager.
BTW - thanks to Montana (KXAN engineer extraordinaire) I was sparred having to use the shiny new live rig with all the bells and whistles. My tires were better though.

Anonymous said...

KEYE has that few reporters -- and/or that slow of an assignment desk -- that they had to rely on live reports from a photog even tho they are 5 minutes max from the fire? Wow.

Anonymous said...

i agree, collectively the Austin market is blessed with great photojournalists.
but i take exception to the statement "all stations resumed programing shortly after the noon. hour" im pretty sure KVUE was on until 2pm and was back on less then 2 hours later interrupting Oprah for a media briefing.
I think other stations were also on far past noon.
But at some point stations had to break from on the fly wall to wall coverage to focus on producing comprehensive newscasts that put the story in context and brought home the humanity of the day.