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                   Wednesday, January 20, 2010 - 1:25PM CST

The dilemma of a news photographer

By DAN ROBINSON
Editor/Photographer
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There has always been a general rule in journalism to not get involved in the story you're covering. Doing so could result in the course of events being altered, causing at the least, the news report to not being entirely representative of reality, and at the worst, a needed story/message never making it to the public. But photographers, in the course of their work, often find themselves in situations where they could intervene in a story and thereby change the outcome. It's a tremendous catch-22 for the photog. Do you intervene and ruin the story/shot, or keep rolling and just do your job?

I have found myself in this dilemma with icy road coverage. A few times, I have come upon situations (particuarly with an icy bridge) where by virtue of being present there, I have the power to prevent what would be certain accidents - by warning approaching drivers (if it is safe for me to do so). So far, when this has happened, I simply haven't been able to separate myself from the story and keep rolling as a 'fly on the wall'. In some cases, I've driven hundreds of miles and/or stayed up 24-36 hours to cover an event, only to go home empty-handed because I was there at a risk zone to warn motorists - by flashing my lights, running my lightbar (gasp), waving my arms holding a flashlight, and doing anything but setting up my camera. The worst of these instances was a three-day trip to Hickory, NC to cover an ice storm in December of 2005, in which I spent the height of the event at a glazed-over bridge over I-40, frantically warning people to slow down before they hit it.

Those instances have left me pondering this very subject on the long, empty-handed, financially-lossed drives home. It brings up a very deep dilemma that news photogs sometimes face. If you consistently don't get the shots you need because you get involved in your stories, you could lose your job. In my case, as a freelancer, I see the immediate and certain effect of not getting paid for my work efforts when this happens. I've spent large amounts of energy, time and out-of-pocket money to cover an event, only to eliminate all chances of even covering costs by preventing the capture of footage that pays the bills. No footage sales mean I eat the cost of the coverage - and lose money. It's not a sustainable business model.

Sure, it feels great to go home knowing that I may have stopped a crash - maybe even saved someone's life. I would have a hard time sleeping at night to know that I could have stopped a serious accident and yet deliberately chose not to. For these reasons I will never regret my decisions to warn drivers. But if I consistently try to play the 'hero', my income dries up, I eventually run out of money and my coverage efforts must cease. And at that point, the outcome of any future event remains the same as if I was there and just let accidents happen without any warning efforts. The accidents happen either way.

A photographer simply cannot be a 'guardian angel' and spend their time going out on the highways to warn drivers. How could he/she keep doing it? Would gas stations allow a photog doing this to fill their tank for free? Would grocery stores and restaurants give him/her free food? Would banks allow them to skip a mortgage payment or two? A photog doing this will quickly either lose his/her job or go out of business (in the case of a freelancer). So at that point, the accidents will happen one way or another. They happen just the same whether the photog stays home or whether he/she is there rolling tape. So the question arises, which one of those is worse?

When accidents-on-tape make air, they are seen by millions of people. It's hard to imagine that someone who watches dramatic video of a crash on tape won't think just a little more about highway safety after seeing it. And maybe, the next time they're out on the roads, they might change their behavior enough to prevent their own accident someday. Out of the millions of people who see a crash video, it's hard to imagine that this wouldn't happen to at least a small percentage of viewers.

Contrast that with the alternative - the crash gets no coverage, never gets airtime, and is forever forgotten along with the thousands of others that the weather event caused. Most of us don't like bad news - but what if bad news never received coverage? We'd never improve, we'd never be prepared for dangers, we'd never learn from the problems that life can throw our way.

So far, the accidents I have caught on tape were situations where I had no way of safely providing any useful warning to drivers. Standing along icy I-64 in Charleston waving at 60mph highway traffic is not only risking my own life, but could actually trigger different accidents that may not have happened had I not been doing it. These situations are ones I prefer, as they allow me to avoid the dilemma of having to choose to either do my job versus try to change the outcome of the story before me. And many times lately, I just don't attempt to cover some events - because I know that any situation where I could get dramatic video may also be one that I could probably prevent the incident from happening. I'd be doing a service to the public, but spending my way to bankruptcy in the process. I can't afford to go on long trips to be a 'highway danger warning officer' out of my own pocket.

And so, with many events I cover, I'm faced with this quandary. If I film accidents that I could have prevented by warning drivers, I'd become the scourge of society and bear the weight of public criticism as a heartless bystander who failed to act. But if I know a coverage trip will result in me warning drivers and preventing the capture of footage that pays the bills, I'll just stay home, as I can't afford that financially unsustainable scenario. In which case, the aforementioned accidents happen anyway in my absence - without news coverage.

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The following comments were posted before this site switched to a new comment system on August 27, 2016:

I think one of the problems you face is that when ice video is spectacular enough to be rebroadcast across the country, an affiliate picks it up and makes light of it. "Check out this amazing video of the ice rink in Charleston earlier today; boy I'm glad weather in Oklahoma isn't like that today; Rick, how does that weather look for the next 7-days?" (pitch....) Never is there a safety lesson involved or a graphic about what to do in icy situations or information on icy roads in the area because that area is not currently experiencing ice. We only get the warnings DURING an event. So the idea of making an example of cars and people getting damaged on icy roads through video played on the news is a lost cause unless that news is broadcast to the audience experiencing the adverse weather because then, and only then, will they relate. Your focus on the lobby for more warning products is probably your best bet. News will follow the lead by NOAA/NWS and the rest will work itself out over time, I hope. My opinion only...
- Posted by SMOK from Moore, OK
Yes that frustrates me as well. YouTube commenters are no different either. Many see it as comedy. I think it's a result of just about everyone ignoring/not knowing about the degree of impact. I feel thankful that up to this point I haven't had to watch someone lose their life in a crash. Going out there is definitely not fun - cold, exhausting and dangerous - and if I can figure out that the footage doesn't make any difference, I'll be more than happy to quit trying to get it. Already I love being in the STL area and not having a notorious bridge to worry about missing newsworthy action with. Staying inside during the winter is a lot easier to deal with.
- Posted by Dan R. from New Baden, IL

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