This isn’t the kind of story you would expect or want see on TV. If you’ve read previous "Transition to Digital" tutorials, you may know that in my view, the first rule of broadcasting is to not become the news. Yet, that’s exactly what’s been happening at TV news stations in the San Francisco/Oakland market for more than a year. It’s been reported from the UK Daily Mail Online to the New York Times, yet it seems to be one of the most underreported stories in the industry.
What’s the news? TV news crews and photojournalists are being robbed and assaulted on the streets of the Bay Area, some in broad daylight. One robbery took place at a live shot as it was actually on the air. Last week, the most outrageous media robbery to date occurred in Oakland, taking the concept of live shots to a new level. The robbery wasn’t live and the gunshot didn’t air, but it was close enough to demonstrate the possibility exists.
Wait? What? Shots fired?
Right before 8 p.m. Friday evening on Sept. 27, a KRON TV news crew on the Oakland streets had completed shooting a follow up on a fatal car crash. Suddenly, reporter Jeff Bush was robbed by two men armed with a gun. The robbers demanded his computer and camera equipment. Bush surrendered his gear and took cover quickly. A recently retired Oakland Police Officer was accompanying Bush as a paid security guard. The guard fired shots, hitting one of the robbers in the leg. Both perpetrators were later arrested.
This wasn’t an isolated incident, but it is the latest incident. Every major San Francisco TV news station has been robbed at least once on the streets of high-crime areas this year. Stations have begun sending armed security guards with reporters working in high-crime areas. Some reporters refuse to expose themselves to security scenarios known to be risky but danger is difficult to predict.
Almost a year ago, a KPIX crew shooting a Noon-news stand-up outside an Oakland school learned that daylight doesn’t guarantee safety. Their shot was literally stolen by five men who grabbed the camera at the end of the report and fled with it while the camera was still on the air. See the incident at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fUkHkAnctV0.
A month ago, a KGO-TV crew lay faces-to-ground fearing for their safety after being confronted by armed robbers who stole their video gear. Newspaper photographers are being similarly accosted and robbed. After being robbed of expensive cameras on multiple occasions, the chief photographer for The Oakland Tribune won’t stay more than five minutes at any in one field location. The phenomena is centered in but not necessarily limited to Oakland.
Earlier this year, a reporter for Univision affiliate KINC was on the streets of Las Vegas reporting a news story in broad daylight, when a perp ripped jewelry from the reporter’s neck, and the incident suddenly became the story. See the incident at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9DHvL_Igxo. Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of such incidents yourself. Clearly, they are on the rise in at least one part of the country.
Another new normal?
Nearly a year ago, Bay Area TV news directors met with police in search of ideas to “reduce crime against the media.” Reports indicate everyone agreed news crews are vulnerable because they are easy and attractive targets. They’re easy to spot because a raised ENG mast advertises an immobilized TV van, possibly loaded with gear and probably unattended. ENG crews are easy to rob because they are absorbed in shooting the video or report they came to do and have learned to ignore distractions. They are attractive because the equipment is more valuable than stealing a random billfold, smart phone or briefcase, especially if the robber has connections to convert the stolen gear to cash.
Oakland cops say they don’t know where the gear is going because it isn’t on Craigslist or in pawn shops. I’m thinking that perhaps it’s going to an underground market that cares nothing about serial numbers, appears to be profitable, and knows quality and value. One group of media theft perps was arrested driving a Mercedes; another group was arrested in a Jag. This is the kind of stuff TV dramas are made of, not the environment any newsperson or TV crew should have to endure in real life. Media theft is a new trend everyone should be aware of.
In the Bay Area, local law enforcement and stations have agreed to recognize the problem and unions representing many of the TV journalists are calling for improved safety measures. Improvements include security guards, security cameras on news vehicles and GPS devices in cameras. Some news operations are working smarter, spending less time on the streets and more time in the safety of local cop shops. When police leave a crime scene, street-smart TV news crews leave as well.
Broadcast engineers put the safety of station people and property above all else. Shooting news on the streets can be scary, particularly for a one-person crew, but most seasoned ENG shooters have developed a sense and ability to deal with it. Crews used to be around to watch other’s backs, but times have changed, and we must do everything possible to make gathering news on streets as safe as possible remotely.
A Sony Betacam with a brick battery was as much of a pain in the shoulder as it was a powerful defensive weapon and confidence enhancer. Many of today’s new ENG cameras have the mass of a Subway meatball sandwich and would be about as effective as a defensive weapon. Short of holding a massive metal object with a handle, the new strategy is to be friendly with the community. Be ready with a tactical plan if the strategy fails.
Escalation of media theft has been largely in one geographic area, but most experienced engineers across the country have a story or two to tell about live shots gone wrong, and they usually involve a total stranger. It’s one thing for a person to act foolishly in front of a camera. Criminal thefts and assaults on crews and cameras are an immediate and imminent threat to stations employee’s lives.
What can engineers do to help?
People want to be on TV. Some are looking for their 15 seconds of fame. Some are strangely attracted to cameras, motivated by the challenge, seeming to have nothing better to do than annoy the talent and crew. Others want to steal the camera. This much is not new. What is new is a lack of respect. The media is supposed to be friends of the community, not the enemy. That’s the paradigm we were used to, anyway.
Will the media theft crimes in Oakland spread or remain isolated? We don’t know, but let’s not be surprised. Initiate security discussions at your station. Better yet, offer your GM or ND the opportunity to initiate the discussions. Most of us are here for the fun, not the risk. No show is worth dying for. The best deterrent is a plan, and the best plan is to be fully prepared for the worst. Does anyone remember Y2K?
Engineers should be proactive. Start discussions about security with shooters and crews. Ask what you can do to help them feel more secure. Dig for ideas. Becoming a crime victim on the job is the last thing any TV news crew wants. Promote the concept that everyone keeps their eyes, ears and options open. Identify and access risks just as you would the direction the sun is coming from. Understand your lights, cameras and related equipment make you a prime target for bad guys looking for those items.
Engineers must be ever alert for ideas to improve station security. You’d hope that others at stations would discover problems, loopholes and weaknesses, but in my experience, it’s almost always been up to engineers to find and fix potential hacks. Securing a physical facility is relatively simple compared to the streets, which are virtually impossible to secure. Sending armed plain clothes guards on security missions with reporters is an expensive solution that appears effective, but isn’t the objective to keep bullets from flying in the first place? I’m as sorry to learn that it’s come to this as I am proud that my industry isn’t afraid to defend itself.
Most experts agree that the best way to avoid danger is to not become a target. More time makes better targets. News vehicles and crews should keep a low profile and be designed to set up and tear down in moments, not minutes. Cables deserve proper cable ties, and everyone needs to know how to properly deploy and stow cables. All gear needs to be easily accessible and securely stowed when in the vehicle. The idea is to do the production without making a production out of it. This is one reason brightly painted ENG vans and news vehicles are going out of style in larger markets. Quick in, quick out, under the radar reduces risks. If you show up looking and sounding like an ice cream truck, you’re bound to attract a crowd.
Every market is different, and many stations have made policy or arrangements to avoid or work around most predictably dangerous situations. However, the most accurate of all predictions is that on the streets, nothing is predictable. Crews on the streets deserve our attention, because at least electronically, people at the station are watching their backs and sometimes, we’re all they’ve got. If someone in the field suddenly needs emergency help, they may only have time to key their two-way radio. Somebody at the station may have to dial 911 for them.