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Visiting Practitioner - On the Road to AEJMC 2018

On the road to the AEJMC Conference I made a few stops. After two weeks as a visiting professor at WPTV-TV, in West Palm Beach, Florida, I hit the road again but this time as a practitioner. You might say I was a visiting practitioner because I have been out practice and I needed to knock off some rust. However, it doesn’t take long to get back into the swing of things. It is like riding a bike.

My first stop was in Cooperstown, New York. Fox SportsTime Ohio was a very good client of mine before I became a professor. When I found out that Jim Thome was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I threw my hat into the ring and volunteered to be on the FOX crew. My selling point was the fact I grew up just 15 miles from Cooperstown and I attended many Hall of Fame Inductions when I was growing up.

I was greeted at the rental house by my former colleagues with handshakes and hugs. It was like coming home both figuratively and literally. My old friends, producer Gene Winters and sportscaster Matt Underwood, were glad to see me and I was glad to see them. Within a few hours, the familiar feelings of being a practitioner energized me. It was a mixture of excitement and confidence. There was a sense that I was supposed to be there.

I enjoy working as a team to create a product or a live shot that makes us proud. Plus, we love it when the bosses text us kudos. Our goals are simple and at the end of the day we have something to show. We work together. There are no silos in production crews.

For a video clip of the interview:

But practice is essential. Four years ago, I sold my production truck and gear. I arrive in Cooperstown with the gear someone else brought. You have to make do with what you have. For example (the shot above), we had heavy cloud cover when we set up and the light panels did their job, but then the sun came out. I took out the reflector I brought and tried to give Jim Thome some nice fill light but he complained about the harshness and so I had to pull back. The result was a glorified news shot. Interview subjects like Jim Thome don't give you any time to reconstruct your lighting. You just have to roll with it. In a perfect world, we would have "flown a silk" and used Joker or HMI lights. But, the interview is most important and time is always the enemy, work fast, because the seconds count.

Unfortunately, researchers can have a dismissive view of the unseen workers because it is hard to put tangible values on the actions of a camera operator. If I put a camera in your hand and made you responsible for capturing images, with clean sound, I could change your perspective. It doesn’t take long to see that the reporter and the videographer perform together in the craft of sports journalism. Acquisition of information and sound is a team effort. In theory, Actor Network Theory, to be specific, requires a relationship between the journalistic approach, the technical expertise and the split second timing required to capture that moment right in front of you.

Theories and practicalities are like the chicken and the egg. Sometimes we can’t decide which came first or which one is more important. Often times, our quest for theoretical applications overshadows the reality of work. Many actions of the unseen actors in the process of creating a news story or a video are discarded. The camera operator is treated like a disconnected appendage in research but I can tell you that’s not the case in the practitioner world. Small actions cause redaction of information or create a different context.

When I was at the peak of my game, I could sense when something was about to happen and I’d put myself in a position to be in front of whoever we had to interview. I would jostle and maneuver my way to the center of the subject. It may seem easy, but it isn’t. The anticipation before an interview, whether sports or news, challenges the journalist to be ready mentally, physically and technically.

A mob of camera operators and reporters circle like buzzards. They will surround an interview subject with selfish intent. It's a pack of starving animals looking for the meat about to be thrown at them. I'm no different. We all crave that capture, that snare, and we want to have the first bite. In an unfamiliar setting, we can't trust those around us enough to create an alliance. In this mode, I look other photographers in the eye and gauge their ability to box me out. The one that looks back with focused eyes and pretend ambivalence is the one to worry about.

In Cooperstown, our crew wanted to get an interview with Chipper Jones at the MLB golf outing and so did 30 other people. Chipper passed by our mob of journalists in a golf cart. The pack scampered toward the fleeing cart, only to be stopped by an MLB official. He says, “Chipper’s coming back...go back and wait for him.” Some of the flock disperses. But I see Chipper teeing up on the next hole. I look to a photographer to my left from Atlanta, he’s got those eyes and demeanor of a rival. We both feel that awkward place between listening to the directions of the official and listening to our instincts. My only thought is that in order for me to get the shot I need, I need to box this Atlanta guy out. I don’t move. He doesn’t move.

Many times I feel like a retired ball player. I don’t know if I can still hit the ball and keep up with young ones. But I love the challenge.

I see Chipper hit his drive and then he puts his club back in the bag. He sprints up the sidewalk toward me and my new rival. I step to my left, as Chipper runs toward us, I hold my ground, blocking out the rival…then we step backward in pace with Chipper, holding my position a foot from him. We are joined by the mob behind us and they push on me and keep pushing back, as Chipper moves as far as he can until he can’t move forward. He stops for the interview. I’m a foot from his face, dead center. That was a victory that will not be analyzed in any research.

(You might not see me...but my lens shade is right next to the Channel 11 mic flag (I'm dead center, foot away))

I’m sure if you compared the shot I had to the shot by a camera operator holding his camera in the air, way in the back of our mob, I’m sure you could say that there is a contextual difference. Or look at that guy just behind Chipper's head. The photographer's shot is useless.

Being a practitioner is not just about buttons and knobs or repetitive work. Being a practitioner is about capturing “it”. We capture moments in time because we are active observers, we pursue our quests with a hunter's stealth, and if we don’t we redact truth. The click of a button is not the action. Photojournalism is anticipating an individual's actions, it is an act of physical motion and the craft requires intellectual considerations completed in split seconds.

Stuff doesn’t come out of thin air.

Practice and team work is essential. If you don't work in a team, then practice is even more important. I feel that it is extremely important that MMJ students are taught that technical skills are equal to writing skills in the multi-platform world of journalism. Some will read that and say I'm degrading writing, no I'm saying that, if the writing needs to be superior, then the technical skills have to be as well.

It's not rocket science. But to capture moments you need instincts and experience. In the real world, no one waits for you and it all flies by at the speed of life.

(interviewing Bob Costas with LiveU)

It was great to work with the Fox SportsTime Ohio crew again. I was very proud I could box ‘em out like I used to and get what we needed. I think it should be mandatory for all journalism researchers, especially those who specialize in MMJ research, to pick up a camera and jump into a scrum of photographers and reporters. If you want to find out what skills are important to MMJs come join us in a fight for an interview. You will find it out what you need to tell your students…after I box you out!


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