Grand Theft Camera: Is Your Newsroom As Safe As it Can Be?

By Brandon Mercer

The last thing on a reporter’s mind as they deliver their story is what is happening out of sight, out of mind, and in the shadows.

Last month, as a KPIX-TV reporter delivered her live tag from Oakland, California, focusing on whether that state’s Prop 30 passed; off screen, a group of five men approached.  As Anne Makovec’s last word is delivered, they attack, punching photographer Gregg Welk, ripping his camera from the tripod, and interrupting her live broadcast.  They escaped in two luxury cars, leaving behind an injured news crew, and an uncertain future for journalism in Oakland.

Crews from KTVU, The Oakland Tribune, and KNTV have also been attacked in the city, losing editing laptops, HD broadcast cameras, and tripods.  Laptops and tripods can cost $3,000 or more, while cameras can range from $5,000 to $50,000 and higher.  

The loss of gear is a hit to the station’s bottom line.  The loss of coverage is a hit to the entire community.  The potential threat to journalists’ lives is a hit to the entire profession.

Attacks on reporters are nothing new, though they may be more widely reported now that cellphone video is ubiquitous.  Caught on camera video turns a stale print digest item into a network sensation as the video is looped endlessly for pundits to comment on.  Attacks may be on the rise, however, because at no time in history have so many journalists been working alone.  

The advent of cheap and simple HD gear, coupled with the simultaneous drop in TV ratings, and the dilution of advertising dollars across new media forces stations to produce more news with lower staffing levels just to maintain previous years’ profitability.  This creates more dangerous conditions. We are producing more news than ever before as a nation, and we’re doing it often singlehandedly.

While Oakland Police are responsive to the threats there, newsrooms must be responsive as well to their field crews anywhere.  The issue in Oakland is an acute example, but the dangers for MMJs nationwide should be the subject of newsroom discussions.  A review of safety procedures may be due for your newsroom.

KPIX is now assigning security guards to assist crews in Oakland.  KRON is only sending two-person crews, and has security on standby.  Sacramento’s KTXL sends three person crews to Oakland. 

Some best practices include:
·       Never do door-knocks on suspects or victims without two staff members there 
·       Consider lower-paid staff members like writers and editors to assist MMJs if a photographer is not available
·       Consider the value of “real estate” video for a crime scene, and use a simple map instead
·       Looklives can be done in daylight, versus live shots at 11 p.m. that can be more dangerous.  
·       When police leave the crime scene, should your crew?
·       Make sure the assignment desk always knows your location, and give them a time you’ll check back in.
·       Make sure your phone is charged, and have a car charger for when it dies.
·       As you walk up with your camera, let people know why you’re there and your goals, so they don’t jump to their own conclusions and see you as a threat.
·       If other media are there, stick with them. There is always safety in numbers.
·       Consider more inconspicuous gear.  Many MMJs are shooting entire stories on cheap, small cameras like GoPros and iPhones, and viewers (and news managers) cannot tell the difference.

Brandon Mercer is a news director and RTDNA Region 2 Director for California, Nevada, and Hawaii