A soldier’s return: why the story outranks the tool

I pride myself on using powerful cameras, wireless microphones, and slick digital editors to capture the finest images and sounds – and then using my station’s on-air signal to present them on television.

But I am constantly reminded how none of it matters without compelling content.

The other day I was on a plane to Greensboro, N.C. to do some behind-the-scenes work at one of our affiliates. I spent the entire flight with headphones in my ears, which meant I completely missed when the captain described what was happening under my seat – and would soon occur right outside my window:

Our plane was carrying the remains of a U.S. Army sergeant who served during the Korean War … and who was finally coming home, 65 years later.

I spent the flight entirely unaware of this. But then we landed, and I lifted up my window shade to see, standing outside, nine young men in military uniforms.

I did not know what they were doing, but I immediately pulled out my phone.

I started rolling as the servicemembers saluted, stood still, and then walked toward the undercarriage of the plane.

Soon they walked out of my view, and I turned to ask my fellow passengers if they had known about this.

Yes, several said, and they repeated the captain’s story. They said the servicemembers had come to transfer the sergeant’s casket from our plane to a vehicle waiting on the runway.

I walked off of the plane and into the terminal to find several dozen people pressed against the window to watch the ceremony. I soon stood with them, taking out my GoPro camera to capture the moment. It left most of us silent and in awe; even the crewmembers on the ground stopped what they were doing to pay their respects.

Once the transfer concluded, I felt compelled to share what I had just seen.

WOW: Extremely powerful moment flying into Greensboro: my plane was carrying the remains of a Korean War sergeant found…

Posted by Matt Pearl 11Alive on Thursday, March 24, 2016

I post on my work Facebook page multiple times a day, and I never know which ones will interest my audience. In this case, I combined my two video clips into one using my phone’s movie editor app; then I uploaded the final product, wrote a brief description, and shared the moment on Facebook. The whole thing took five minutes.

And then it took off.

By the day’s end, my little home movie had reached 25,000 people. By the following afternoon, it had reached 100,000. By the next day, it had reached 200,000.

Among that number was one person whose comment stood out: Sam Strickland.

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 6.16.55 PM

“Thank you for sharing,” Sam wrote. “This is my uncle Raymind McMillan. He is finally home after 65 years. We had the honor and privilege of being in his presence while he was returned home today! I’m thankful for the respect he has been shown.”

I first noticed Sam’s comment Friday afternoon. I then got to watch the likes and replies pour in for her comment; at the time of this writing, more than 400 people had given Sam’s words a thumbs-up.

How cool, I thought, for Sam to feel an additional stream of love at an already powerful time.

That’s how social media works, right? We see or read something we think others might also appreciate, and we use our various social networks to tell dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people at once. The basic idea is at the heart of journalism and storytelling:

If I find something interesting, maybe others will find it interesting too.

A colleague reminded me of this philosophy a day later, and sometimes I wonder if we truly consider it enough in our day-to-day workflow. The rise of Facebook has awakened this impulse in many of us who can now use our social platforms to engage with our communities. But how often do we do so with our assignments on air? How often do we truly consider our audience, and how often do we instead go through the motions or work for the approval of our colleagues instead of our viewers?

And how often do we acknowledge the power of the seemingly simplest tools in our arsenal?

Not long ago, I would have felt sheepish about sending my producers a crudely cut iPhone video for air. But this time, I arrived at our Greensboro affiliate and immediately told its managers about what I had shot. They did not hesitate to share it online and then run it on air in their 11 pm newscast.

Back at work, I still turn first to my souped-up camera, with its far more powerful zoom and microphones. If I had possessed it on that day in Greensboro, I would have certainly used it instead of my phone. On a daily basis, the best tools enable me to tell the best stories.

But the stories always outrank the tools. And I would rather share a great story with a lesser tool than a lesser story with a great tool.

A week later, I remain thrilled I got to share this one.

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