Reporters are trained to be observers, to witness those events that the general public cannot attend. Ultimately, reporters prove their worth and the value of the profession of journalism by being where news is happening and by interpreting those events for the audience.
Television cameras operated by videographers and video cameras operated by amateurs are ubiquitous. Rarely does anything of any importance, it seems, occur without be captured on camera.
But pictures, even moving pictures, can only tell us so much about an event and can add just a limited amount to our understanding of the things that happen in our world. We need reporters to identify, to explain, to offer background, and to give us context for what we may see.
Being there is part of the reporter’s job.
But on-the-scene reporter is not an easy task. It demands training, experience, planning, intellectual acumen and physical energy. To cover an event well, reporters must plan as much as possible, they must use their instincts to find out the information they need, and they have to rely on the experience they have acquired as journalists. All of these things make great demands on reporters.
Three kinds of events occur that reporters must cover: staged events; spontaneous events; and events that are a mixture of the two.
A staged event is one that is planned and about which information can be gained before the event occurs. A staged event might be a concert, a political speech, an awards ceremony or a grand opening. These events are usually managed by a person or organization and have a purpose that benefits whoever is producing the event. These are the easiest for the journalist to plan, often because the producers of the event want news coverage and will be cooperative with the journalists.
Journalists who cover staged events should contact the producers beforehand to get the who, what, when and where of the event. They should make sure that there are arrangements to accommodate journalists by finding out what access journalists will have to the areas of the event, to whom the journalists can talk to, the timing and scheduling of the event and so on.
Journalists should check with the producers to see if there are any special rules in covering the event and to see if those rules are acceptable. Sometimes producers will want to limit coverage or will try to make sure that events are reported in a particular way. Journalists should not agree to attend and cover staged events if the conditions intrude on their freedom to write and say what they want about the event.
One particularly important thing to check on with a staged event is to find what electronic and wireless availability there is in case journalists what to report live from the scene via the web.
A spontaneous event is when something unexpected and significant occurrs that involves more than a few people: a fire, an explosion at a factory, a major traffic jam caused by a wreck, a tornado that destorys property, etc. While many spontaneous events are bad news, that is not always the case.
Still, a spontaneous event is more likely to involve tragedy than not. Journalists must be ready to cover such events with all of the professionalism and objectivity they can display. They must remember that they are witnesses and should not get caught up in the moment and its emotions.
In covering a spontaneous event, journalists should try to get as close to the event’s location as possible. When the event is a crime or natural disaster, this may not be easy, and journalists should always carry some form of identification that shows they are reporters working as media professionals. Police and emergency workers are more cooperative in allowing reporters access when they are convinced the reporters are professionals.
On September 11, 2001, CNN reporter David Mattingly was visiting family in Pennsylvania when he hear the news of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. He then realized he was about two hours away from where a plane hijacked by terrorists had crashed. He drove there immediately but did not have any identification that would show he was a reporter. He talked with the police guarding the crash scene and convinced them to let him have access to the scene by showing them his Georgia license tags (CNN headquarters is in Atlanta) and a CNN baseball cap that he had in the back seat of his vehicle. (See James Glen Stovall, Journalism: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How, Allyn and Bacon, 2005.)
Reporters covering spontaneous events try to find officials in charge of the scene so they can get the latest information. They also try to find eyewitnesses to the event and interview them. Finally, they try to find people who have been affected by the event and talk with them about the ways in which the event has altered their lives.
As with any interview situation, they should identify themselves and make sure that people understand they are talking with a member of the news media and that they may be quoted if they continue the conversation. They should take additional care for those who are grieving to make sure they do not take advantage of their vulnerability. And, if they are asked by those in grief to be left alone, they should honor that request.
A mixed event is one that has both elements of spontaneity and planning. An event might be planned, but its outcome may be in doubt. A sporting event such as football game is a good example. Journalists know generally what will happen at such events, but they still need to be there to witness the action and record the outcome.
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