It’s a sad but true hurdle about working as a TV news reporter:
People act differently — often way so — when they know they are being recorded.
Generally, this rears its head when trying to gather information on touchy subjects. Sources and contacts will often divulge far more after an interview than during it, and they feel much freer to provide information when they know they will not be taped saying it.
(This happens before interviews as well. Journalists everywhere can recall countless times when they spoke with someone on the phone, received valuable insight or information, and then asked that person to say the same thing in an on-camera interview, only to be told, “Whoa, whoa … I can’t say that on camera.”)
But the gaze of the lens does not just affect a story’s flow of information. It affects a story’s flow of emotion.
People get nervous or hesitant for a whole host of reasons once they know they will be recorded. For the most part, they simply do not have experience with having their actions documented, and often they respond by behaving how they feel they “should” behave, instead of how they genuinely want to behave.
For storytellers like myself who specialize in emotional stories, this creates a giant challenge.
But when you surmount that challenge and capture genuine emotion — and put your viewers in a position to appreciate that emotion — you feel tremendous about what you can achieve in this business.
This past April I was introduced to Tad Landau and Mary Wood. They are not famous; they are not what my producers would call “a big get” as far as stories are concerned. But they do share a beautiful friendship — and an unusual one, at that.
Landau is a firefighter for DeKalb County in Georgia. Wood is an elderly woman in his district whose 911 call two years ago was answered by Landau’s team.
The 911 call turned out to be a somewhat false alarm, but upon arriving at Wood’s house, Landau met a woman with little means or support and no living family in the area. She needed help in many ways but did not feel she could turn to anyone.
Landau changed that.
He became a friend and de facto aide for Wood, coming by her house regularly — often on shift breaks with his team — to make peanut butter sandwiches and help her sort through bills. He continues to visit faithfully and, if he does not see Wood on a given day, he hears from her on the phone.
On this surface, this was a nice story about an unique friendship. But I knew it would only work on television if I could capture that friendship organically on camera — a challenge made even steeper when I learned from Landau that Wood was very nervous about it.
But once we started rolling, it all came together.
Wood turned out to be a firecracker of a personality — an irrepressible octogenarian who quickly got used to my presence and, at least outwardly, did not worry whatsoever about being recorded. And when she saw Landau, she started glowing — no inhibitions at all.
In fact, she took advantage of my presence, making sure she said repeatedly on-camera how much she appreciated this godsend of a gift in her life.
A few days later, I attended Wood’s 90th birthday party — which Landau had organized — and again found her totally unfettered by the presence of a camera. She stole the show, and more importantly for the story, the pair allowed their friendship to shine through in a genuine fashion.
I simply did my best not to fight it. I got to know Wood by spending time with her, and I allowed both people to get comfortable with telling me their story. Then I got out of the way; in the story, I acknowledged their various on-camera winks and nods while staying in the background when those beautiful, organic moments arrived.
For me, the piece immediately became a career highlight, and I love to talk about it. I showed it at a college journalism conference two weeks ago as an example of how great, sincere characters can elevate a story. Last week I learned the story had won 1st-place honors in its category for the NPPA’s quarterly video competition.
I will be the first to admit, when doing emotional stories, I do not always leap the hurdle imposed by the camera’s presence.
But when I do — when I successfully capture the beautiful moments of life to which we can all relate — I feel genuinely, appreciatively satisfied.
Watch the “Tad and Mary” story above, or check out the link on 11alive.com.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.