The art of being in the wrong place at the right time: behind the scenes of social media newsgathering


This reflection was written by David Crunelle and first appeared in the original French on his website www.davidcrunelle.blogspot.com. This translation is published here with Mr Crunelle’s permission. The original can be viewed here.

The goal of writing this blogpost is to shed some light on what happens behind the scenes of horrific events such as those that happened on Tuesday, March 22nd 2016 in Brussels. My goal here is neither to blame nor criticise journalists or other professions. Neither is it to reflect further on my personal experiences during the events, nor to further describe what I witnessed. My goal is to testify to what happens in the collection of those photographs and videos that we see on a daily basis in the media through an illustrated timeline of my experience.

7:59 am

7:59 am : A first explosion happens 20 metres to the right of me. Everyone understands instantly, people flee instinctively. My phone is in my hands, I try and open the camera app. Three seconds later, another explosion, this time to my left. One second later, I’m filming what is happening, a 27 second video — the time it takes me to leave the terminal building. People are walking, completely dazed, I wave my hands at them to show them to get out of the airport quickly.

08:00 am: I send an SMS to three family members, then I tweet:

Tweet above reads: “Two explosions at Brussels airport.”

08:20 am: The first telephone calls from newsrooms. La Premiere (RTBF [Belgium’s French language public television station]), Vivacité (RTBF), L’Express, ABC News, ABC Australia, France Info, France 24, BBC… Everyone asking the same questions (some more elegantly than others) and asking me to go on air live. At that exact moment, I realise that the journalists have absolutely no more information than that which I am giving to them.

08:42 am: My telephone is going crazy, so I post to Facebook:

Facebook post above reads: “Am ok, please don’t telephone me.”

Between 08:45 am and 10:00 am, I continue to tweet and field telephone interviews: CNN, The Guardian, CBC… From Australia to China, from Brazil to Denmark, from some I receive emails, Twitter direct messages, and even messages on Facebook and via WhatsApp. The situation is unmanageable. I receive more than 10,000 notifications on my telephone in one hour, including from supporters of jihad, small-minded fascists, hoax reporters, trolls and then in particular… requests couched in legal terminology.

In the middle of all this, I try and get in touch with my sister by telephone, but the network is completely choked, impossible to get through to a Belgian number. The press, on the other hand, can contact me no problem.

At this point, I allow all media to use my content — with the exception of BFMTV and TF1, because, well, we can’t joke around here.

Tweet conversation above reads: 1: “@davidcrunelle Hello, can we use your pictures with credit? For BFMTV. Thank you and stay strong.” 2: “@LennyPomerantz no, not BFMTV.”

10:13 am: I post some screenshots of the video I shot at the start of the day. A journalist for BFMTV tries to pull a fast one and contacts me pretending to be from CNN. Even if the majority were professional, many journalists were particularly agitated because they were unable to talk to me earlier “in spite of our multiple requests”.

I stop answering my phone and only answer briefly to Twitter requests for the next few hours.

I get home around 1:30 pm, my landline doesn’t stop ringing, the memory on my answerphone is full. I learn that “people” contacted my clients attempting to get my mobile phone number, completely terrorising my colleagues and friends in the process.

I’m swimming in requests for on-camera interviews, the BBC offers to come to my home “immediately”, CNN asks me to come to their “mobile studio” at the Stock Exchange. These are all requests that I refuse, people don’t need to see my mug. They want to be informed and reassured.

2:10 pm: I put six seconds of the video I shot in the morning on Vine.

2:11 pm: CNN contact me again.

They ask me to be interviewed live on air, and offer to purchase any content that I have not yet shared on social media, or to agree an exclusive international licence in return for payment. Even though the people I speak to on the phone do so elegantly in spite of the situation, it’s quite annoying. I ask advice from friends, at 2:30 pm I accept the offer of 1,500 USD without negotiation, underlining that this money will go to the victims, and I insist that all Belgian media may use the videos. It’s still my country, after all.

I send them a low-resolution version of the video by email and the high definition version by WeTransfer. The video appears on air virtually instantaneously with the caption: “Eyewitness / David Crunelle”. A few phone conversations later, I receive an email from the ‘director of third party content’.

I reply to the email 20 minutes later. From 3pm, CNN is showing the video on repeat, but has added “CNN Exclusive” in front of my name. From that moment on, no other media outlet can show the video.

4:57 pm: I ask that nobody contacts me for other interviews or requests. My head is completely drained, I realise that I haven’t eaten since the previous day, and drunk nothing but my coffee at 6 am in the morning.

5:02 pm: In spite of my request, the telephone rings endlessly, emails, messages and tweets continue to gather. Amongst of all this, an Irish company (which, notably, had also contacted my clients) is particularly insistent. They had seen the Vine post, and had already prepared their offer at 2:40 pm…

This company was proposing to play the role of intermediary in order to negotiate the best price I could from the six seconds of video. I thought I was dreaming. All I had to do was click on a web link, fill in an online form which was already partially complete. Of all the things I saw that Tuesday morning, this one really took the biscuit…

Not having received a speedy reply from me, the manager of the company ended up telephoning , clearly upset at not having been able to contact me earlier. He gives me some juridic/commercial bullshit about the six seconds of footage. I answer that I had sold the exclusive rights to CNN, and I wasn’t trying to make any money with the 30 second video. He goes nuts in an Irish accent — the video was five times longer than he thought. He asked me — forcefully — to send the agreement that I had reached with CNN so he could “check with his legal team how to get around the limits of the agreement”. I tell him clearly that this was making me want to vomit, and ask him to leave me alone. A request which didn’t stop him sending me more emails to check that I hadn’t changed my mind.

Thanks to the different time zones, the American and Canadian media continue to contact me. Now on my mobile, the number of which is not available online. I only learn at about 9pm that my mobile number had been given to a swathe of Canadian journalists by the director of a Belgian television station.

00:20 am: Last telephone call from a British news agency before I turn off my mobile phone and try and get a few hours of sleep.

From about 4 am I start to learn more about the blast in the metro, have contact with friends abroad, and try, gently, to get myself together.

Interview requests start at about 8 am, this time they are calmer, more human. I spent the rest of the day between administrative battles, telephone calls with my loved ones, and a lot of time listening to people around me.

Dealing with a disaster 101

I learnt a huge amount from this horrendous day. About human nature, about the logistical organisations around such a catastrophe, about the police, about what goes on in the media, about Twitter trolls, about my friends, about myself.

It was also an outstanding/formidable media training session for me, which, doubtlessly, stopped me going totally crazy after all I had witnessed.

Throwing in some clichés

Even if I truly want to, I will not name the people I interacted with since the start of the week. There were the good (professional, empathetic, trustworthy), and there were the bad and the ugly (idiots, vultures, miscreants… sorry, I’m unable to find better adjectives).

Do what you wish with these thoughts, there is nothing scientific in them, they are just my personal feelings: the majority of the French media showed themselves to be true professionals (and I cite, in particular, L’Express), the Canadians were top of the pile (particular mention to the team from Radio-Canada), the British and the Australians were very empathetic and professional, the Americans were very … American, with what that means for good and for worse. I prefer not to mention my thoughts on the Belgian media with whom I dealt.

Finally, for those who wonder why I behaved how I did that day, I invite you simply to listen to this interview [in French].

Carpe diem, my friends.


Translation by Sam Dubberley, co-founder Eyewitness Media Hub.