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Broadcast journalism 101: Avoid going “live for lives’ sake”.

So… this reporter at a small U.S. television station in West Virginia was doing a live shot about a ruptured water main for the evening news. It was nighttime, and she was standing on the side of the road, apparently behind a car, giving her report. The vehicle suddenly started reversing and knocked her to the ground. Then, still live (but off camera) you hear her say something like “It’s ok! All good Tim!” Then she pops back up, finishes the report, and throws it “back to you in the studio”.

It’s funny in a humiliating way, obviously. And luckily, she didn’t get hurt. But it’s cringeworthy for another reason, too. It’s a TV news live shot that didn’t have to happen. And now a days, with the technology we have, live shots should have a much higher threshold for necessity.

The TV live shots we know today started back in the 1970’s, with microwave trucks, fly-away satellite dishes, and other, now outdated, technology.

The point was two-fold: to show viewers the images of the plane crash, protest, earthquake, or whatever, and to use a reporter to explain what was going on. Back then, a reporter “on the scene” could gather facts quickly, first-hand, then deliver that information to the audience as it happened, in real time.

But over the years, live shots morphed into something else. By the late 90’s and early 00’s, information was more fluid, so you didn’t really need someone gathering information where the event was taking place. Yet, everyone had the equipment to do live shots from any place, at any time. So, they did. The rationalisation was: simply being in the proximity of the breaking news event gave you authority over the story and more “journalistic credibility”.

One of the most memorable examples of this was Timothy McVeigh’s execution. Imagine rows and rows and rows of satellite trucks and reporters from all around the country, and world, standing in a field, about 500 meters in front of a building where a man was going to be executed. Only a handful were allowed to witness the actual deed, so there were no “facts to gather on the scene”. Still hundreds of reporters stood in front of their respective cameras that day, reading wire copy from their newsrooms and saying some version of the following sentence:

“Timothy McVeigh was killed by lethal injection in the building behind me …..”.

And some 20 years later, water main girl, we are still doing it.

Can’t we do better? Unless the story is in a super remote place with outstanding images, or truly lends itself to needing someone on the ground to gather facts- leave the reporter out of it. I could just as easily do with commentary from the studio.

How about scaling back on superfluous live shots and remember what you learned in j-school? Don’t go “live for lives’ sake.” Give our smart young reporters better things to do with their mojo skills like investigative journalism, natural-sound only pieces, mini documentaries, etc. As news companies work to solve distribution problems and try to turn “TV news” into “Internet news”, maybe they could start retiring what now looks old fashioned and inauthentic. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Telling the truth? Just because you’re standing in front of Buckingham Palace doesn’t mean you know the Queen of England (but let’s see what happens when the old bird finally kicks it).



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