emotion

Mighty Ivy, Jerry & Susie, and finding three dimensions in tragedy

“Find the emotion.”

TV reporters and photojournalists hear that refrain often. Our medium, after all, lends itself less to in-depth analysis and more to visceral video. As such, we often receive assignments that offer the greatest potential to witness raw feelings.

But rarely are we asked to push beyond those feelings.

We are told to put our most emotional moments at the front of our stories, not set them up with context. We are sent to horrific scenes and given little time, both on site and in newscasts, to get a sense beyond the basic. We are pushed to keep things moving.

So often, though, such a philosophy produces reports that only connect on a surface level – and, while powerful in the moment, are almost immediately forgotten.

I want my stories to be remembered. More importantly, I want the people in my stories – the ones who open themselves to news coverage at extremely vulnerable times – to be remembered.

This past month, I received two specific opportunities to tell such stories. I tried to produce pieces that would provide both powerful moments and the depth and poignancy to earn them.

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LESSONS LEARNED: On the job at 11Alive

I am on vacation — and out of commission — for the next two weeks, so I wanted to use this space as a vehicle for reflection.

Since I started the Telling The Story blog last winter, I have written extensively about lessons about storytelling. Many of those have been learned through my own work as a reporter for WXIA-TV/11Alive in Atlanta. Here are three of the moments that stand out to me, along with brief snippets from the posts themselves:

Tad and Mary, and the quest to capture emotion on camera: Last 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. (more…)

Tad and Mary, and the quest to capture emotion on camera

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.

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PODCAST EPISODE #1: Jon Shirek, reporter, WXIA-TV

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Let the next chapter begin.

Two months after kicking off the Telling the Story blog, I am proud to introduce the Telling the Story podcast. This will continue the discussion about how journalists — and all of us — reach the world. Each episode of the podcast will feature an esteemed storyteller, answering questions and conversing about both the craft of storytelling and its role in the changing media landscape.

I could not be more thrilled to begin the podcast with one of my favorite storytellers: WXIA-TV reporter Jon Shirek.

Jon is a friend and colleague of mine. We have worked together for four years at the NBC affiliate in Atlanta; of course, I arrived just as Jon was beginning his fourth decade at the station. He is, I would say, the most respected and veteran storyteller in a newsroom that houses many great ones.

He also recently made a big change. Five years ago Jon was asked to become a backpack journalist, meaning he would have to shoot and edit his own stories instead of working with a photographer. He warily accepted the challenge, and he continues to crank out terrific work.

This is no small feat. Young journalists today are told in college they will have no choice but to shoot their own stories. Jon had been working with a photographer for several decades before he was asked. To learn the skills while remaining a great storyteller has been an impressive achievement, one that often gets taken for granted in the WXIA newsroom.

“I think it has made me a better reporter in a lot of ways,” Jon told me. “It has helped me economize my approach to stories so that I have a better idea, while I’m talking to somebody, the direction the story needs to go.” That said, he notes, “I am still a work in progress. I cannot pretend to be a photographer after five years.”

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