Reporting live from the protest march

Journalists, demonstrators – everyone's got a role to play, and they always play it.
Crosscut archive image.

An obligatory interview. (KOMO-TV)

Journalists, demonstrators – everyone's got a role to play, and they always play it.

Okay everybody, hang up your blue blazers and take a seat. Today we're going to talk about a special area of television reporting: Demonstrations. And by that I mean when a group of pissed off people get together to complain about something, not when a guy shows how to slice tomatoes in one easy motion with the new miracle knife. There are two ways to cover a demonstration. In a live shot, you're actually on television as you speak – that's what we mean by "live." Demonstration live shots have become common because all those pissers and moaners out there have finally learned to schedule their protests when our newscasts are on the air. Back in the 1960s, they used to stage demonstrations when they wanted to, not when we wanted them to. It was a simpler time. Demonstration live shots are also popular now for the same reason we go live on every story we can, whether or not it makes sense. It's because being "live!" makes anything more interesting – even yabbos standing around bitching about, whatever, planting-strip regulations, endangered snail darters, ethnic cleansing, anything. Look how much more interesting life is because it's, uh, live. Go live on a news story and it doesn't matter how little you know about what you're covering or how ineptly you cover it. If you're trying to explain a complex issue with only a C-minus average in communications from Ball State and 10 minutes of preparation, do live. But there's a danger going live at demonstrations. People tend to demonstrate at them. And the moment you're live, where they're going to demonstrate is behind you. Not just to say "Hi Mom!" either, though a lot of them will. Sure as hell some of them are going to make gestures, remove clothing, and scream "Shucks!," "Fudge you!," and "President Bush is a very bad person!" at the camera. So to avoid ending up on Foulups, Bleeps and Blunders – which is national exposure, but never a good career move, unless you're Dick Clark – keep moving during the standup so they can't get position behind you. Or stand against a wall. Or bring along four big guys to beat the hell out of anybody who gets near you. I want to spend the rest of our time today talking about the other way to cover a demonstration: the field report. A field report lets you carefully craft your coverage on location before you go back to the newsroom and hand your notes and footage over to underpaid "writers" and editors who actually put it together for the broadcast while you get ready for your live shot somewhere else. Even though these peons do all the real creative work, you still have to give them what they need from the field. Let's look at a field report from this past weekend. This is from KOMO-TV in Seattle, and the demonstration was about global warming, I think. It doesn't really matter. Guillermo, roll tape. OK, stop here. You see the first guy he interviews – the quiet, knowledgeable guy with the beard that has a little grizzle in it? There's a guy exactly like that at every demonstration you will ever cover – he's known in the trade as 'The Jim Street," whether he is or not. You should always talk to him early on because he can explain what it's all about a lot better than you ever will. And once he does that for you, everything else you do in the field can be for fun; not as fun as feature stories about deformed animals and handicapped athletes, but close. OK, roll it. Stop again. At almost every demonstration a woman leads the crowd in singing a song to a known melody, something "This Land is Your Land"-y, with lyrics that have been re-written to apply to the demonstration subject. And because there's only one Joan Baez and she can't be everywhere, the singer and the re-written lyrics almost always suck. It's painful, but for us it's a golden fun moment. Roll it. Another great moment: The renowned KING-TV photographer/philosopher Randy Partin said back in the 1970s that at any event, you always shoot the oldest man and the youngest woman, or vice versa. So here's the de rigueur interview with the ancient dotty lady in the big silly hat. There's always one of these at demonstrations, too, and no matter how sincere they are, they make the whole protest sound nutsy, like it's about an issue that is of interest solely to dotty old broads in silly hats, but nobody who actually has a life. Let's finish it now. Kids. You see the reporter ended with kids. No little kid has ever said anything interesting or pertinent at a demonstration, except maybe, "Please remove yourself from my face, person who sleeps with his mother," or words to that effect. Nevertheless, kid "sound pops" are crucial to any protest field report, partly because next to a five-year-old, even a mediocre Ball State graduate looks smart, and partly because they give a reporter who doesn't know what else to do something else to do, something that actually looks creative. For instance, on the Seattle Channel recently they did a field report from a Woodland Park Zoo anti-garage demonstration that ended with four kids who are so young they can't talk yet. Four times in a row, the reporter stuck his mike in the face of an infant and asked "What do you think of the garage" and the kid just stared back. Four times. Funny? I could have plotzed. So what if it had nothing to do with the protest and, in fact, sort of trivialized the whole event, at least for Seattle Channel viewers? That's my final point. We do the news, so we have to look objective. Not only do the elements I've talked about make for fun stories, but they show we sophisticated newscasters have seen it all and done it all before, that we're blasé about everything, that we don't care. And what's more objective than that? Class dismissed. Class reconvened (update): I saw the KOMO demonstration story once in passing when it was broadcast, but thanks to Crosscut, I was able to watch it again this morning. It was a live shot, not a field report (I should have assumed that), and I had the cliches out of order – the dotty old lady in the big silly hat came before the Jim Street, not after. My apologies for these differences, which obviously make all the difference in the world.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors