Last Friday in this space, Anne Marie Drew, a professor of English at the US Naval Academy, wrote about being interviewed by ABC-TV News, and the curious detail of having to be videotaped while walking as part of the segment.
"I don't know what school of broadcast journalism teaches that walking is an effective visual technique," she wrote. Well, Anne Marie, at the risk of striding into a media minefield of controversy, let me walk you through a few basics in this subject. As a former TV reporter, I too have stumbled over the dilemma of how to introduce each new character who appears in a news package.
What we're talking about here is called "the establishing shot." In some cases, especially up-close-and-personal segments, the establishing shot is easy because you just start by showing the subject doing what he/she does best. ("Pounding railroad spikes with a sledgehammer in each hand is tricky for most people - but not for John Henry!")
However, a serious problem can occur when a story includes sound bites from many different people. Inevitably, we must deal with someone like Anne Marie, an academic type whose occupation is maddeningly devoid of a spellbinding establishing shot (the only thing worse is an economist - many times have I heard reporters bemoan the difficulty of showing somebody "'doing" economics).
Anne Marie was also right in step when she noticed how often the walking shots appear in daily newscasts. I once worked with a photographer who added an extra element by having people walk to a door, open it, and go through.
In the editing room, there was always an argument because the photographer insisted that we could not, must not, cut away from the shot until the door had closed fully. "Why?!" I would rant. "It's just a door! Who's going to care whether or not it's closed?"
"That's not the point," my coworker would reply. "You have to let the door close to complete the sequence."
Yes, Anne Marie, we have artistic values to consider here. We also have egos, so be glad you were not included in a walking two-shot. Barbara Walters loves to use walking two-shots in her celebrity specials. They seem to imply that she has a special bond with her guest of the moment. TV news thrives on subtle implications. My dream is for Barbara to interview me someday, because I'm determined to provoke even greater audience speculation by holding hands with her in the walking two-shot.
I also fantasize about ways to make my establishing video truly memorable. When the narrator's voice says, "Jeff Shaffer is a most unusual writer," I think viewers would be compelled to watch the segment if they saw me a) sword swallowing, b) break dancing, c) bungee jumping on horseback.
Am I going overboard with my reactions to what Anne Marie Drew said about TV news? Probably. But as most ex-reporters know, it's a field that's hard to walk away from.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society