Behind the Lens
by Susan Nester '88
My friend is a journalist here in Washington, DC. A couple of weeks ago, he covered a tragic accident where a city bus had killed a pedestrian in a busy intersection. As you can imagine, it was a gruesome crime scene, abuzz with police activity. My friend was hustling to gather the needed elements for a TV news story, interviewing emergency personnel, eye witnesses, and transit authorities on the scene.
Days later, the same journalist was up to his waist, literally, in the bitter cold Chesapeake Bay after a brutal Nor’easter ripped through the mid-Atlantic , flooding homes and washing cars away. Just getting to this spot was a precarious challenge, and only then did his job of bringing breaking news to anxious TV viewers begin.
But the TV news man in both cases isn’t who you might think. He isn’t the blown-dried, polished reporter everyone saw on ABC for either of those stories. He is, in fact, the videographer. And I think this job is the most misunderstood and underrated position in television news.
Camera crews are the backbone of any TV news operation. You watch their work every day, probably never thinking about the people who are actually making the pictures. During my tenure at CNN as a producer, if I didn’t make it to a news conference to ask my question, chances are, a colleague from another network asked it. My cameraman was rolling. If I missed the stakeout outside the Capitol and couldn’t shout at the Congressman with the hot bill that day, another reporter did. Again, I could review the tape. But what if my photographer didn’t show up? TV is nothing without video.
The job of a photojournalist is hard. It often means countless hours, days, even weeks away from home and family on faraway news assignments. It’s physically demanding. Imagine standing in 100-degree heat for 10 hours to get a 10-second piece of video. Think about carrying heavy gear up a mountain to achieve that perfect panoramic view behind the on-camera talent. Try unpacking and re-packing enormous suitcases full of equipment a dozen times in a single day, and schlepping it up and down narrow staircases in between. I have worked with crews who have done all that and much more. And their tough job is growing harder.
Budget cuts in the sour economy have forced the elimination of audio technicians, the videographer’s sidekick and second set of hands. In many cases, video editors are also gone, so it’s now up to the photojournalists to not only shoot the story, but also edit it together on a laptop in the field and send it back to the station online. And with newsrooms squeaking by with fewer reporters, many videographers are winding up just like my friend did at the bus accident, not only shooting the interviews, but asking the questions to produce the needed soundbites from the scene.
Photojournalists are just that—journalists. They are called upon every day to use their carefully honed news judgment, to snap into action on a moment’s notice, to be both the first responders and the last resort for news teams that are stretched too thin. And they enjoy little of the recognition or accolades of their on-air colleagues or even their producers.
Think back on the major news events of the last decades. The first steps on the moon. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall. The space shuttle Challenger exploding. That plane slamming into the New York skyscraper on 9/11. It’s not the reporters or producers or shows that endure in our collective memory, but the images themselves. And for each of those, we can thank the hardworking photojournalists who were there to capture the moment and share it with the world.
Susan Nester '88, is Broadcast Media Director at IIAB.
Previously she worked as Washington financial producer for CNN,
organizing business coverage for CNN's nightly "Moneyline with Lou
Dobbs" and other world financial programming.