Saturday, July 24, 2010

How VJs Are Changing TV News?

The money savings that one-person TV news crews promise is convincing more stations to use them. Instead of a reporter and a photographer, a one-man-band shoots and reports the story him or herself. These one-man-bands (OMBs) are variously called video journalists (or VJs) and multimedia journalists (MMJs), depending on whose pig the lipstick is being applied.

Former CBS News reporter Deborah Potter writes on that one-man-bands are changing not only how news is gathered but how it looks on the air.

Potter cites an unpublished dissertation by Kutztown University's Mary Angela Bock which reports that the challenge of shooting and reporting one's own work often forces OMBs to go for the easiest stories to turn, rather than those most interesting to viewers. "Because they work alone, VJs will be more apt to look for quick and easy access to story elements," Potter quotes Bock as writing.

Another problem with OMB work, Potter notes, is the physical demands of the job. Even common doorways can prove formidable obstacles to the lonely journalist larded with equipment.

Seriously. Those are the two salient points in the article, which seemed a veiled argument against OMBs. I hope that the 500 pages that Bock says her treatise spans includes more compelling information because the items cited do not detail accurately how increased use of solo news crews affects the news you see on TV.

First, OMBs are not the only ones who go for the low hanging fruit under the ever-increasing pressure of producing news for broadcast at 11 and for the web right now. It's not because they work alone that they pursue easy elements; it's because they have deadlines that come sooner than they once did. So do two-person crews and they're just as guilty of the "one-stop shopping" syndrome.

You can make a better argument claiming that former photographers new to reporting either seek or are assigned features because they lack either the confidence in themselves or the trust of management to tackle meatier stories.

And as someone who has shot plenty of my own stories (the homepage of my website,, features a story I shot myself), I have never found a doorway that was a serious impediment. The physical strain argument overlooks the fact that the major station groups — including Gannett, Hearst and Scripps Howard — that have adopted OMBs to some degree have all bought small and relatively cheap cameras for them to use.

Their physical load is less than that of a traditional photographer.

Potter notes that Bock "reports that the National Union of Journalists in England is starting to hear health complaints–such as exhaustion or back problems–from VJs who have been on the job a few years."

I hope Bock also reports what percentage of VJs make such complaints, how many traditional news photographers make similar complaints, and whether the National Union of Journalists opposes the use of VJs. That would added needed perspective.

If you want to argue against OMBs, here it is: When one person does the jobs that used to belong to two, it's not going to be done as well. Looking for shots is a different pursuit than digging for facts and when you have to do both, they're going to suffer for it.

That's it. The rest is like the mumbo-jumbo of the Atkins diet when the bottom line is that you lose weight because you consume fewer calories. Conversely, the advantage of using OMBs is that they cost about half of two-person crews. Anything more is just the aforementioned porcine lipstick.

The most obvious thing you see with OMB work right now is that it's new (or so old as to seem new) to many of the people doing it. You have life-long photographers suddenly trying to write and read narration for a news story. Reporters get two days of training with their new camera and out they go to turn a story with it.

Of course it looks like left-handed writing by right-handed people.

This will change as aspiring reporters learn that shooting their stories is not just something they will have to do in college or in their first job out of school. Stations won't be trying to teach people to write with their other hand. They'll arrive already ambidextrous.

Will they produce work as much or as good as two-person crews do now? Almost certainly not. Would it be ideal to have teams of two collaborating on a story? Almost certainly yes.

But OMBs didn't cause the Shirley Sherrod fiasco. And they're not going away. An article about how to do better work under the circumstances would do much more good than one apparently wishing the circumstances where different.

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