TV news crews prepare for their 5 o’clock live shots
TV news crews prepare for their 5 o’clock live shots

There’s something about being on-scene for a major news event that never fails to boost my energy. Maybe it’s a simple adrenaline rush for this news junkie, or perhaps it just the fumes from scores of satellite truck generators humming away in the vicinity, but every time I find myself barreling down the highway to the Big Story I feel an increased sense of professional purpose and a palpable tingling of excitement.

On this day, I covered the execution of Georgia death-row inmate Troy Davis, who was convicted in the 1989 slaying of off-duty Savannah police officer Mark McPhail. The case was garnering a great deal of media attention, and as expected, satellite trucks from markets near and far, all garishly emblazoned with logos, were jostling for position in the media corral as I arrived to take the baton from our dayside crews. Reporter Jennifer Mayerle, SNG operator Jason Byers, and I were all painfully aware it was going to be a long and interesting day in the proverbial salt mines.

It was organized chaos as crews claimed space for live shots. Reporters, armed with pens, notepads, and cellphones negotiated with producers and worked contacts as photographers and SNG operators snaked cables through the labyrinth of alleyways between the lumbering satellite trucks. As deadlines approach, the intensity level ratchets upward; lights are flown, mics checked, and reporters line up in a row to present their stories as the news clock strikes the top of the hour.

At news events like this one, there’s usually a mix of veteran journalists who have been there, done that, and won the Murrow award for it, and those that are newer to the business, still learning the ropes and gaining experience in their first small market jobs. If you fall into the latter category, here are some tips that might help out when you find yourself navigating the satellite truck encampment on the Big Story:

Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to help other crews in need of a favor. The crew you help today, even with something as simple as a pen or a 9-volt battery, could be the crew that helps you out of a jam at the next big story. A little goodwill goes a long way in this business, and favors are seldom forgotten.

Bring food. There’s no guarantee you will be able to leave to get creature comforts like food or water during a major news event, so be prepared for the worst. Five minutes in a roadside gas station stocking up on bottled water, gatorade, and snacks (Pringles are a personal favorite) is time well spent. Hours later, when fatigue kicks in and nerves are frazzled, at least you and your crewmates won’t have hunger to blame.

Bring more food than you need. Granola bars and bottled water can be powerful bartering chips when dealing with everyone from camera shy eyewitnesses to hungry first responders and PIO’s who can return the favor by keeping your crew in the know when important information starts to seep out. Besides, it’s a nice thing to do and will help your bottom line on any karmic balance sheet.

Network. Being on-scene at a major news event means hard work, lots of it, but the hard work can also be interspersed with interminable bouts of standing around and waiting for something to happen. The world of TV news is a small one, so get to know the crews from other markets. Exchange business cards and war stories, make some friends, and keep in touch. These same faces you see around you today will probably be at the next Big Story, and could even help unlock the door to your next career opportunity somewhere down the road.

Don’t be intimidated or starstruck by the presence of big fish in the pond. Everybody who’s here is here with the same objective; to provide the viewer with accurate, compelling coverage of the Big Story. Pretty much everybody in TV started small and worked their way up to the perches they inhabit today. The job is essentially the same whether you’re the biggest network anchor in the world or a one-man-band in market 200, you’re both there to get a quality product on the air and online.

Stay positive. You’re in a fluid situation, and when the game plan changes, and it most definitely will, just hang on and roll with the punches. There will be plenty of time on the ride home to second-guess the decisions made by folks in the building, but when you’re in the field on a tight deadline, nobody wants to hear you complain.

Keep your emotions on a short leash. This can be difficult, especially if you’re an extremely passionate person. When tensions rise, as they often do in a major news scenario, emotions can and will run wild if left unchecked. As a journalist, being the master of your emotional domain is crucial to maintaining an outward appearance of objectivity and calm, even if you are somewhat overwhelmed internally by the intensity of your surroundings. I still struggle with this at times, and admire the professionalism of my colleagues who carry themselves as if they have ice water in their veins.

Pause. Take a deep breath and look around. Your job is unique in that it affords you a front-row seat to potentially historic events every day. Take a moment to take a mental snapshot of yourself and your surroundings. Retaining clarity in these moments helps you to gain perspective as a journalist, and ultimately shapes the way you cover stories as you go forward in your (hopefully) long and productive career.

Most importantly, Deliver. Your station sent you to the Big Story to get the job done. Management will never throw you a ticker-tape parade for meeting their expectations, but success will most likely earn you an opportunity to cover the next Big Story that comes along. See you there!

(This article was originally written for Breaking Into Broadcasting.)

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