There’s a guy in my area who drives a big old Cadillac. The trunk is full of video gear, and next to the
radio on the dash, a police scanner drones out routine calls. The guy is an ex-firefighter, disabled while
doing his job. But he can still shoot video.
When a tragedy happens, such as a major fire or a multi-car accident, this guy races to the scene. The
firefighters know him from days past and the police have seen him plenty since. He has access.
The guy covers the action, interviews the witnesses, takes notes and gets the correct spelling on any
names. Then he calls the TV stations.
The news directors know him. He tells them what he has and they decide whether they want it.
Sometimes, the TV station’s crew was at the scene before he was. Then he calls another station in town.
He’s not being disloyal; it’s just business.
It’s not a particularly lucrative business. The guy might make $50 for his work on a story. But he likes
the action, the danger, the smoke. It got in his blood when he was part of it. Now that he can’t do it
himself, he’s content to capture it on video.
This guy might not be in your town, but chances are, there are a few like him. If you want to join their
ranks, to work weird hours for small pay, read on: you might have what it takes to shoot news footage. If
not, read on anyways–the tips in this article apply to many kinds of spur-of-the-moment shoots.
And besides, you never know when you might be in the right place at the right time, camcorder in hand,
when ground-breaking news occurs.
Before you embark on the road to television journalism, be sure you really want to do so. Working for
TV news means covering visual stories–car wrecks, murders, severe weather. You’ll have to look at many
gruesome sights and then interview the witnesses, even if those witnesses are close family members of the
victims. Do you have the stomach for such work? It takes a thick skin.
Of course, there are plenty of stories that don’t involve horrific details. Unfortunately, they are often less
likely to sell. Such is the state of our society.
If you shoot for news, you may need to re-think the way you work. A “great” news story (“great” being
a story that a large number of people want to see, no matter how horrible the subject) will sell no matter
how unprofessional or poorly shot.
When you capture a plane smashing into a busy highway, it won’t matter if the shot is nicely composed-
-the story is on its way to network news because of the content. But if the story is only marginally
interesting, the networks will reject it unless the technical aspects meet the station’s standards.
Keep It Simple
When you watch feature films, you will see elaborate camera work. The picture floats and pans as
actors move in harmony with the shot. This is possible because the production crew carefully plans and sets
up each shot. If the shot doesn’t work the first time, you can shoot it over and over until everyone is
But in news or documentary shooting, you’re at the mercy of the action. To the viewer (and your client-
-the news director), that action is much more important than your expertise in moving the camera.
If the camera moves, there had better be a darn good reason for that move.
When the firefighter runs from the burning building carrying a small child, you may pan the camera to
stay with the shot. But most of the time, you want to give the news department simple, static shots.
Why are non-moving shots better for news? Because news editors edit for time. Time is precious on a
news show. A story might be forty-five seconds, if you’re lucky. An editor doesn’t have the time to wait for
shots with movement to “get to the point”. The editor wants shots that tell the story quickly.
The editor is also working against a deadline. He or she doesn’t have time to pick and choose from your
shots. The editor may only have time to grab the first wide shot, medium shot and close-up that seem to tell
the story. These shots had better be good, or someone may not get a chance to do another story. Also, if the
move is static, the editor can match the shot to the same length of time it takes the announcer to voice the
words that go with it.
You might think, “Well, I’ll save them the trouble by taking the footage back to my editing setup and
cutting it down for them.” Hold that thought and then discard it. It’s wrong for several reasons.
News is about immediacy. If you take the time to go to your editing equipment and then edit the story
down, the story may no longer be news by the time you approach the TV station with it. Remember,
yesterday’s newspapers are fish wrap.
Also, every news program has its own “look” or style. The program’s editors cut footage in such a way
to maintain this style. Your style will not be the same.
And, as a videomaker, you know about generational loss. Every time you play a tape and record the
signal onto another tape, you lose some quality. If you then play back the recorded tape and then re-record
that signal, the quality degrades some more. The TV station wants to work with the highest quality video
available–and that means your raw tape.
Tell The Story
Pretty pictures do not impress a news director. A strong story will. You need to decide quickly what
the story is and then decide how to use the elements available to tell that story. In video, you can use
pictures and words to convey information.
As you gather facts at the scene of a story, be sure that these facts are accurate. What happens if a TV
station runs a story that you have given them and it later turns out that you reported an important detail
incorrectly? Someone may sue the station, and you will certainly not be selling them any more footage.
To tell the story visually, you have to understand what it is. A major fire is easy. You get a wide shot to
show the fire and the buildings in the surrounding area (this establishes the scene for the viewer). You get
several wide shots showing fire and emergency vehicles and pump trucks. Then capture medium shots of
firefighters pointing hoses, smashing windows with axes, climbing ladders, etc. Finally, capture close-ups
of people watching, injured firefighters waiting for help, etc. You can get these shots in any sequence, as
they present themselves, but give the editor plenty of variety.
But what if the story is about a gunman who has run through a neighborhood with a pistol, shooting
wildly? When you arrive at the scene, the police have already captured him. Do you go around to the
houses and shoot pictures of the bullet holes the gunman created in the walls? Or do you ask someone and
find out if the gunman is still nearby, perhaps handcuffed and sitting in one of the police cars? If you don’t
get that shot first, the major visual element (the gunman) could end up down at the police station while
you’re off shooting something with less importance for the story.
The Five Ws
Every beginning journalism student learns to answer certain questions in the first sentence of a story.
These are the questions that the reader would ask for themselves if they were at the scene. These are: Who,
What, Where, Why, When and How–the five “Ws” (and H). Answer these questions in any situation and
you will have told the meat of the story. You can then go on to fill in the details.
You can ask the questions in any order and repeat as often as necessary. Who was the gunman?
What caused him to go crazy? Where is he from? Where did the bullets hit? When did it happen? How did
they stop him? Who was hurt? What will happen to the gunman now?
Your footage will be of more interest to a news director if you have the information that goes with it. He
may already have a reporter calling the police station to get the details, but if the information that you
gather is also correct, you will begin to win some trust. Not too much, not too quickly. News directors are a
tough, cynical, unbelieving bunch and you have to earn any respect that they might give you.
The other part of the storytelling job is interviewing witnesses. Police and firefighters can give you the
facts, but for human interest, you’ll need to talk with people that the story affects personally. If the gunman
shot a little girl in the leg, you should get an interview with the mother. Does this sound easy to you? It
One of the first assignments newspapers often give new reporters is the obituaries. How does a reporter
get the information needed for this death notice? The reporter picks up the phone and gives the survivors a
call and has a nice little chat about the deceased. It’s good training for speaking with people in various
states of shock.
Who Will Buy?
What if you have an idea for a story that you could cover, and you want to run it by a news director to
see if there is any interest? Before you do, put yourself in the news director’s place.
As news director, you are responsible for everything that goes into the newscast. Like the main editor of
a newspaper, it is your job to be sure that you not only get every story before your competitors get it, you
are also responsible for verifying that the information in each story is complete and correct.
There are only so many hours in the day to get everything done, but you still have to take phone calls
because the main story of the day may be waiting at the other end. But what if the person on the phone is a
videomaker with a vague idea for a story that you might want them to cover. Worse, this person
doesn’t get to the point right away, wasting your valuable time. You probably will tell your secretary to
screen future calls so that this person does not get through to you again.
How should you approach the news director? If the story that you have in mind is evergreen
(which means you can produce or run it at any time), it might be better to send the news director a letter
explaining what the story is, how you will cover it, what your credentials are and how the news director
can get in touch with you. If you don’t get a call, you’ll at least have made an initial contact before making
a cold call. If you do call, do so early in the day, before it gets close to the time when the news programs
will air. Also check to make sure that no breaking news is happening just before you call.
Even if you do all this, the news director may still be too busy to talk to you. See if someone else is
available. If your story idea has merit, you might still be able to sell it.
And You Are…?
Why should a news director give you a chance? Have you produced a show that gives you the
experience to cover news? Have you taken classes in journalism? Have you sold stories to other TV
stations? Do you have a demo tape to show the quality of your work? News directors are tough, but they
have limited resources. They can’t have crews everywhere, all the time. If you can prove you can do the
job, they should be happy for the help. But if you get this chance and screw it up, you’ll be gone.
Let’s say you’ve shot a story and call a news director to see if they are interested. It may seem like a
great story to you, but don’t try to “sell” it. State the facts and live by the decision of the TV station. Then
try the next station. There are many reasons that a station may chose to reject a given story.
The first station may reject it because the news director doesn’t think the story is newsworthy. This
decision is subjective and the news director of the second station might not agree. Another reason that a
perfectly good story might be rejected is that the station doesn’t have time for it in that newscast. When the
program has to fit stories about a major earthquake in California, a chemical spill in New York and the
scandal involving the head of the local school board, it doesn’t leave much room for you. On the other
hand, when it’s a slow news day, your input may be greatly appreciated.
Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite…
Is news for you? If you are thinking of getting into this field as a money-making venture, I would say–probably not. But if you are insatiably curious and like to be on the scene when things are happening, then shooting news may have appeal.
News Shooter’s Checklist:
- Shoot simple, static shots.
- Don’t edit.
- Get the shots that tell the story.
- Remember the five Ws (who, what, when, where, why–and how)
- Learn to think like a news director.
- Make sure it’s newsworthy (don’t “sell” your story).
- Solicit more than one station.
- Don’t try to compete with big news stories.