30 minutes in the life of an “On the Scene reporter”

Things are always a lot harder to do than they seem don’t they? I have a new found respect for the “On the scene” reporter. The banal chiche’s were about the only ones I was used to when talking about the “television reporter” on the scene of an incident.

“All she’s doing is repeating the same thing over and over again”.

“He’s saying what we know already, what’s the new news here”.

“He has no clue about what happened and is saying exactly what the police man said”.

“She’s trying to make the story a sensational one, and generate hype so they can get more viewers”.

Or my personal favorite:

“What kind of a dumb question was that? Even my 4 year old can ask a better question”.

Well its time to eat humble pie and realize their job is hard. At about 2pm on Friday (local Bangalore time) I got to know about 4 blasts in Bangalore from my cousin who called me. Few minutes later when I checked twitter, there were over 20 tweets on Bangalore blasts. Having learned one of the blasts was very close to where I was working yesterday I decided to head out there – dont ask why.

Since I had broadband access I also was viewing CNN IBN and NDTV on my browser. The news was coming in fast and furious. the numbers slowly climbed to 5 then 7 and finally 8 blasts. It got more unnerving as I heard more and I was rethinking my decision to get a little closer to the site of one of the blasts. Since I did not have an option to head back home (I sent the car back home with the driver and most taxis/autos were not plying), I decided to just go for it. I decided I’d ask my cousin to come by and pick me up later. Most people were streaming out of the office at the central business district anyway, so I figured it was the only option.

The next 30 minutes were enlightening at best. The site of one of the blasts was an absolute mess – not from the carnage of the blast, and neither from the traffic – just from the number of curious onlookers – yes I was also guilty of the same. In the midst of this were 3 reporters from local television stations, at least 150-200 people watching and about 15 policemen. Here’s what you as a reporter have to go through:

1. Separating fact from fiction & opinion. 3 policemen were offering 3 different variants of the blast. No kidding. Wonder why they even chose to speak to the reporters – I am sure they were not “authorized”. On top of that 2 “eye witnesses” were offering their slight of the “sequence of events”. Learning what happened and when was difficult at best, let alone trying to determine why or who. So imagine you are the reporter (and its hard enough trying to locate who was there), you are now being asked on your headset to report what’s going on. No wonder the reporters back in the studios ask layup questions like “What’s the mood out there?” and “What are you hearing?”.

2. Determining what to report from all the information available or what’s “newsworthy”. Ultimately all people want to know (I think) is “What happened, when and why”. Facts and numbers speak more clearly than multiple story lines to the same plot. There were 2 or 3 other subplots – size of the bombs, impact of the blast, what the bombs were made of, etc. But the main story line remained – there was a bomb that went off, 2 people were injured and no one died at Vittal Mallya road. But its hard to stop at that is it not? The subplots make the rest of the story.

3. Understanding who to listen to. Eye witnesses probably know best what happened. Police came there about 25 minutes later. There were onlookers who all have multiple opinions, but since they get to see the whole picture, their opinions sometimes contain certain facts that are relevant to report. In this particular case, the guy who was one of the eyewitnesses was largely ignored by the police who were busy trying to sort the wreckage. I dont blame them. There’s enough panic around to deal with and multiple people asking you questions to which you hardly have any answers. The reporter in this situation has to prep the interviewee (at least understand which language to ask questions in and translate if necessary), prepare the shot and then report on cue. So who (all) do you get a perspective from? I chose to just ask the one policeman who was close by to where I was situated and a couple of people who claimed they were there during the blast. Obviously I got a certain perspective, not sure if it was the complete view.

4. Putting the story together so it makes sense. I thought the best story lines are those that are viewed with the dimension of time. Well turns out that’s only one view. The subplots are more interesting to certain audiences. Many viewers (me included, all the time watching NDTV, etc.) wanted to know the extent of the damage. Others back in twitter-land wanted to know if their loved ones were okay. Still others wanted to know who was responsible for this. You get the picture.

5. Giving information that’s timely versus repeating it as it comes. I sat on a couple of key pieces of information relayed to me by people next to me – why? – I was not sure of its authenticity. To give you an example I heard from a few others about a total of 8-10 blasts and I did not repeat that until 2 hours later, when IBN confirmed it. Realizing all along most people following did not want all the details, I stuck to information verified by 3 people or something I heard from the policeman. Not sure that was the right thing, but there’s a lot of value to being timely. At the same time, letting everyone in twitter-land know everything I was exposed to made no sense. If you are a reporter however and you get scooped on the news – there’s probably hell to pay from your news editor.

Long story short – there’s more to television reporting than meets the eye.