Outside Finsbury Mosque, close to the scene where a 51-year old man was brutally and indiscriminately mowed down by an alleged terrorist in a van last week, scores of journalists, photographers, cameramen, producers and presenters gathered. Many were approaching locals, commuters or worshipers at the mosque requesting a comment. There were far more TV reporters than there were people to interview.
I was on of them, reporting for iNews-24, an international news channel which broadcasts from Israel. It’s been a while since I found myself amid the so-called media scrum and I had forgotten how frantic it is, and no doubt intimidating to those passing by.
Camera crews and journalists on Seven Sisters Road
Many people are mystified by the surge of press presence at the scene of a big news story – in this case a tragedy. Many disapprove, accusing the media of being ambulance chasers. But it is our job to tell stories and to do this best we need to be on the scene, absorbing the atmosphere, mood and voices of people whose lives have been affected. One of the less obvious skills of a journalist is the ability to balance tenacity in finding an interviewee, with sensitivity in speaking with interviewees.
The following may give you an idea of what it is like for a TV reporter or print journalist at the scene of a breaking news story and how difficult it can be to strike this balance.
I took a telephone call from the news desk at 10am. I wasn’t even dressed. But I was at the scene and on air for a two-minute live by 11.05! Even then, the producers back at base were disappointed that I hadn’t managed to find a live interviewee for that slot. (In between getting a taxi, doing my make-up, reading up on the story, cancelling all my other appointments that day, asking fellow Nine Media colleague Karen to deal with media training emails and finding out who and where my cameraman was.)
Nine Media’s Helen Croydon live reporting
Before my second live report at 12pm, I was expected to find an interviewee. I found a regular worshiper to Finsbury Mosque. He was keen to tell me about the shocking increase in Islamaphobia that he has experienced in the wake of recent terror attacks. But when other journalists saw me speaking to someone who appeared articulate, they all descended on him. Each under as much pressure as me to source a unique quote for their story or report. At 11.55 I was desperately trying to lead him through the crowds to my camera. But print journalists lurched at him with notepads, firing questions. Meanwhile I have a panicked producer calling, asking why I am not in front of the camera at three minutes to go until air-time!
These journalists should not have been so aggressive with their questioning. We have to adhere to a code of conduct which states that we should never intimidate members of the public in pursuit of a comment. But like in any profession, sometimes we succumb to pressure.
Some people wonder why there needs to be so many members of the press at the scene of a tragic event like this. At pre-organised events like state ceremonies, there is often just one camera providing ‘pooled’ footage to all the news outlets. But if this was the case all the time the public would only receive one source of news. It is in the public interest that different reporters gather different information.
Throughout the day, finding interviewees becomes easier because producers back at base can contact organisations, such as Muslim Council of Britain or inter-faith charities and set up official interviews. It is in the immediate hours after a story breaks that the media are most in need of interviews and case studies.
For press teams it is worth bearing this in mind. The sooner you respond to a story, the more helpful it is to reporters and the higher the chance of your interview being used. Those in the media will feel the same shock, sympathy and fear as everyone else in the wake of tragedies such as this one. But it is also their duty to delve into why and how. Interviewees from wide-ranging backgrounds will help them do this.
Want more insights into the world of TV news? Here are five things you need to know before a TV interview, which a producer will never reveal.