Kisses, Snowballs and Worse: The perils of going live as a broadcast journalist

(Hat Tip to the Teachapalooza crew, specifically Melissa Harrison of TCU, for the head’s up on this issue.)

When broadcast journalists go to the scene and report live, everything seems to be up for grabs, thanks in large part to the dumber elements of our society. Case in point: A reporter for WAVE-3 in Kentucky was doing a live shot about a bourbon festival when some chucklehead decided to get his 15-minutes of fame by kissing her:

Reporter Sara Rivest dodged several people trying to disrupt her live shot before a guy eventually dove in for a kiss. Rivest responded, “That’s not appropriate” and she was right: At best it’s creating a problem for a journalist in a work environment. At worst, it’s sexual assault. In either case, it’s pathologically stupid.

Rivest talked about the incident on WAVE-3, outlining the issues she faces as a reporter in the field, including the ways in which men seem to think she’s there for their touching pleasure. She also explained that she’s not the only woman who has faced this kind of thing (I didn’t notice this until she said it, but the first time this guy hops into the shot, he was apparently pretending to grab or smack her rear end.).

She said she used nervous laughter to try to power through the segment, even though she felt powerless in that situation. She also said, clearly, that this kind of intrusive behavior is not OK.

Broadcast journalists go live for a wide variety of reasons, including covering breaking news events or trying to put a fresh touch on an earlier story. In doing so, they run a risk of having the public decide to be antagonistic toward them.

When the Green Bay Packers were in Super Bowl XXXI, the State Journal sent me down to State Street, an area near the UW-Madison campus where a great deal of alcohol is consumed and celebrations occur, to get some “color” for a story. As I wandered among the drunks, completely incognito under my giant parka, I saw a Channel 3 news truck parked on the road, with the reporter about to go live.

A group of revelers had gathered and the reporter, Rick Blum, was telling them that when he went live, he would love it if they all started cheering. Blum was standing on top of the truck with his videographer so they could be out of the crowd and yet still have the crowd as a big part of what he was doing. It looked like the fans were going to cooperate, but quickly things turned ugly.

First, some idiots started throwing snowballs and ice chunks at the journalists. Next, someone got a chant of “RICK BLUM SUCKS!” going. As it looked like the group was about to start shaking the news van, Blum and his videographer got down and went inside the van. I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing they never got the shot.

Other broadcasters have run into similar problems along the way, like this journalist in Mexico who was covering a protest. My Spanish is horrible, but this moment about a minute and a half in doesn’t need much translation:

I have no hope of translating any of this, but again, it’s clear what happens to this broadcaster in the Ukraine:

Perhaps the worst of all situations involving journalists being harmed while live on a scene was this situation from WDBJ in Virginia, where journalist Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were shot and killed by a disgruntled former station employee.

After this situation, a local news crew interviewed me as part of a localization story and they asked me what I tell students in terms of how to avoid these kinds of outcomes. My answers didn’t fit their narrative, which was about how to do things safely, going in pairs to things and knowing when to leave.

I tried to explain that, yes, I tell students it’s important to be safe on any scene, and yes, they might have to improvise/adapt/overcome when it comes to stuff going sideways, and yes, you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times…

BUT, you are literally at the mercy of the public when you enter any public space. The guy in the Spanish-speaking clip was reporting on the scene of a protest, so there’s clearly going to be some adrenaline flowing from those people, but it’s not like he knew he was going to be punched.

Rivest and Parker were going life on two of the most vanilla stories possible: a local festival and something for the morning show about the chamber of commerce. One got kissed, the other got killed and neither should have expected either of those outcomes.

These people could not have prevented these outcomes if they wanted to do their jobs well, and that’s a scary thing to consider.

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