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!

 

Of all the terms you hear in a newsroom, this is the hardest to clearly explain.  Television news is dependent on video for its existence, yet few TV journalists really know how to write to the images on the screen.

Writing to video means taking the images and making them mean something to the viewer.  You are providing perspective and complimenting the video the viewer is seeing.  Let’s start with aerial shots of flames burning up a motel.  In the video you see that the flames are shooting way above the roof.  There seems to be more than one floor.  It is early morning, before sunrise.  The flames are red, orange and yellow and the building is dark black.  You can see thick walls, but seem to be able to see through the building.  This is an aerial shot, so while there’s a lot to look at, the only movement is a pan from one end of the building to the other.  No close ups.  Here are the facts you get from the assignment desk and the crew on the way to the scene:  The motel houses 150 families; Most of the families called this place home, because they cannot afford to live anywhere else; The fire woke them up; Firefighters on the scene are struggling to save even a small part of the building which takes up nearly a city block;  You have the address;  No one is hurt.

Now let’s write to those aerial shots we talked about above.  Most would start off with a breaking news banner or breaking news open and say something like:  “Take a look at these flames in (city name).”  So, you mentioned the fire in the video right away.  For many, that’s writing to video.  Saying the phrase “take a look at these flames” is referencing video.    But it’s not writing to the video.  And, it’s also an overused phrase in news copy.  (see “So cliché”) Writing to video means coming out of the breaking news open or banner and saying “A fire almost the size of a city block is burning right now in (city location).  While you look at these flames shooting toward (helicopter name) consider this:  150 families are watching this same fire knowing all of their belongings are burning up.  This motel on (street name) was home for nearly all of them.  The only housing they could afford.  Firefighters are trying to save some of the building, but you can see what they are up against.  You can tell the fire is stripping this building down to its foundation.  While you look at this exposed skeleton of a motel, we want you to know that no one was hurt in this fire.  Even now these flames keep shooting into the sky, lighting it up more than even the boldest sunrise ever could. An awful way to wake up this morning, for so many people.

Read that one more time.  All the facts are in this story, and the copy uses images to help compliment and put into perspective what viewers are seeing on the TV screen.  The phrases “this fire,” “these flames,” “you can see” and “you can tell” are all meant to get people to turn around and look actually at the video.  The phrases “lighting it up more than even the boldest sunrise ever could” and “While you look at this exposed skeleton of a motel” help explain the intensity of the fire for people just staring into a TV screen.  These lines are meant to make the flames lasting images in the mind of the viewer.  Mentioning that this is how the families woke up helps make the video more relatable to the viewer as well.  It makes them think about what it must be like to wake in the middle of the scene playing out before them.

Now I want you to look back at paragraph 2 where I set up this fiery example of how to write to video.  Notice that I described the video before I told you the facts of the story?  That was intentional.  When writing to video, you have to see the images then, write.  This is opposite of what we are taught.  You probably have had it ingrained in your head that the facts are the most important thing.  That is true.   But what you need to consider the video as facts in your story.  Actually, in TV, the images are the most crucial facts.  That means when you start writing a story you need to know your video.  And, you need to be able to boil down your story into one sentence, in a way that puts a picture in your head.  In other words picking a first image is as important as writing a first line.  Luckily when you identify that image, the words will flow naturally as you explain the facts behind the pictures.  (For more on how to flow your stories read “Rule the Word” and “Storytelling on a Dime.”)

Let me give you another example of how to use images to provide perspective.  When we went to war a second time in Iraq there was a visual moment that summed up why the U.S. was there at all.  American and Iraqi troops knocked down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.  The head of the statue fell off and Iraqi’s dragged it through the streets.  Saddam’s head was literally handed to the Iraqi people after 24 years of his reign.  This moment was easily summed up in one line and with one image, “American and Iraqi troops join together to topple a key symbol of Saddam.” A powerful image, partnered with powerful facts, burns in your mind.

Now that you know how important writing to video is, I offer a challenge.  Before you write anything, put a shot list in your script to reference.  This goes for all writers.  Even assignment editors should write some sort of list of images that either the crew on the scene or stringer picked up.  It’s another question in a long list I know, but it will help everyone see the worth of a story in terms of television.  TV is writing to video.

If you take away only one thing from this article, make it this.  Video grabs a viewer’s attention for a few seconds.  You have to give the video meaning to last the length of the story.  That is writing to video. Even video as compelling as a huge fire can quickly become a turn off for viewers, if the words don’t support it.  They have other distraction pulling at their attention.  They have the internet to check out later if they are only mildly curious.  Your words have to help bring the video to life, no matter what it shows.  Some of the most compelling lines I have ever heard referenced boring video.  Take the image of the outside of a home where someone was killed.  Write to the video and say: “So and so welcomed company through that front door.  But now (name is gone).”  When I think of the Casey Anthony case two images stick in my mind:  Caylee’s photograph and a still shot of Casey Anthony.  The images burn in my mind because of the meaning behind their repeated use:  This little girl is dead and her mother is accused of killing her.  The point is video (or in this case photos) don’t have to be full of action to be compelling.  It just needs perspective.  Can you picture it?

 

No way around it.  This is an uncomfortable trend in many newsrooms right now.  In fact, some companies are making it written policy.  The good part:  You get a sweet out of town assignment!  The bad part:  You have to pay the travel costs upfront, fill out an expense report when you get back, then wait for reimbursement that can take up to 6 weeks.  And, by the way, your credit card bill will come due before that 6 weeks is up and you get your money back.  It’s a problem a lot of news employees are wrestling with these days.  I recently read a forum entry on b-roll.net from a photojournalist asking how to approach this subject during salary negotiations.  Here are some ideas to deal with this road trip trend.

So what if you are asked to go out of town and just cannot front the money?  You need to tell management flat out.  Yes, it could mean losing out on a primo assignment.  Better that than not paying your bills though.  In many cases, if management really wants you on the story, there is a work around. Sometimes the boss pays the hotel, or perhaps the business manager ponies up some petty cash.  It really depends on the station and the individual managers.  Does saying you cannot pay upfront make you look bad to the bosses?  That depends on the manager.  But even if they seem upset, they usually understand.  Most often it’s more a case of managers being frustrated because they know asking you to pay upfront is unreasonable and the boss is stuck with a policy that stinks.

If you decide to front the money, get a description of any limits for certain expenses ahead of time in writing.  (i.e. – How much per meal?  How much for parking etc.?)  Be firm on this.  Trouble is, some of these policies are so rigid, the limits can be highly unreasonable. For example, some companies have a maximum amount to be reimbursed for hotel stays.  Depending on where you are going and what you are covering, hotel costs can vary greatly.  This can put a crew in a really rough spot especially if the limits were not checked ahead of time.  The last thing you want is to pay $150 for a room only to find out the company policy is a maximum of $100.  That’s your credit card and, therefore, your financial worth on the line.  If no one can provide you with written limits, think hard before agreeing to the assignment.

If you are headed out of town on a last minute assignment you need to ask about clothing and equipment reimbursement limits.  You never know what’s going to happen, and you want to be prepared.  Also, in an open ended return kind of scenario, set a limit as to how much you are willing to pay out of pocket before you go.  Make sure management and the business office are clear you will not front a single dollar more and there needs to be a backup plan everyone is aware of in case you have to stay longer than your money will pay for.

Also ask how far out of your market qualifies a trip as “out of town.”  You don’t want a scenario where you decide to push it driving home, then stop for dinner somewhere too close to your ADI to count for reimbursement.  Yes, you were miles and miles away on assignment, but the button pushers will only look at the location of the purchase if there are ADI restrictions.  You will either get stuck covering the meal or have to go several rounds with the boss to make your receipt an exception.  If that happens it could be held against you later.  Remember, a case like this makes the boss look disorganized.  Even if the boss is sloppy, you don’t want to be the one who makes it obvious to the world.  Asking for those policies ahead of time will avoid the mess.

What if your contract requires you to front the money ahead of time?  The only practical advice we can offer is to keep a credit card that can “cover you” until you are reimbursed.  A contract is a contract and if you signed it, you’re going to have to live up to its terms.

This is a complicated and emerging issue in TV newsrooms.  There may be more ways to deal with it than we’ve listed here.  So, please, if you have other ideas let us know.  You can leave comments below.  Many of us are facing this type of situation for the first time in our careers and need to bounce ideas around about covering that sweet road trip upfront.

 

We have seen some incredible talent get burned by making the wrong choice.  First let’s spell out why human resources really exists.  Headline:  It is not for employees.  Human resources is designed to keep management from being sued.  It oversees hiring, annual reviews and station policies to make sure the company is protected.  This knowledge is key.

If you are being harassed by a co-worker, you need to be able to make a clear case.  If management is after you, human resources is helping the effort.  However, human resources does still give you options.  You just need to play your cards right because the deck is stacked against the individual worker.  If you complain as a group, there can be safety in numbers and strength in message.  This is hard to understand for many workers, however, it is the simple truth.  Also you should never go to human resources before speaking with your direct managers.   This will burn you because you are not going through the chain of command and giving management a chance to fix the problem.  The only exception would be if your reason for seeking help is a problem with the news director.

So when do you go to human resources?  The answer is usually in your employee handbook.  When station policies are clearly being violated you have the right to complain.   This often involves a manager that is out and out ignoring written policies, like approval of vacation time or denying sick time despite having sick notes or other required documentation.  This means you must have a paper trail.  Written proof of one incident is usually not enough.  You must be able to show a pattern.  Again, the best bet is if several people have similar documentation and it’s all turned it in over a short period.

Now let’s say your job is being threatened.  Complaints to human resources might buy you time.  Again though, you must have documentation.  Let’s say management is complaining you don’t always come to work.  If it’s because a manager keeps changing your schedule and doesn’t inform you, that could buy you time.  So, in this example, copies of the schedules and the changes that caused the issue could go a long way toward protecting you.  Also, check your employee handbook.  Usually you must be given written notice of schedule changes.  If you are told there are issues with your job performance, take a look at your annual reviews.  If you have several past reviews that are strong and one that is weak, you may be able to buy some time.  Request that management give you an action plan to improve your performance.  Then follow up with human resources if management fails to give you such a plan.

Human resources can also be a direct link to the general manager.  Weigh this knowledge carefully.  If you just hate a manager and want to bring the person down, a complaint to human resources is a serious gamble.  You need clear cut proof the manager is not following corporate or station policy.  You also need several others who can corroborate your complaint.  If there are clear cut problems though and a group of people are willing to stand up, your chances of getting help are much better.  Notice we said help.  Do not expect a manager to get fired.  What you might see is policy change or disciplinary action.  In one case we saw a news director forced to seek anger management training.  No firing however.  Still it did help calm the waters in the newsroom.  But you must also realize that this process does not always happen in a vacuum.  Here’s one final note to think about:  That particular news director may have actually been told who complained.  So, think hard if you want your boss to know you complained about them later on down the line, when layoffs or other changes are needed.

 

 

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