For a One Mand Band popping solo live shots on a LiveU and working from an SUV, multi-day extreme weather coverage involves packing a lot more than Gore-Tex and a credit card.
In the case of hurricanes, there is plenty of advance warning. Yet too often in our business, crews assigned to chase a big storm aren’t really ready to go when the call comes. Getting gear together takes time and a plan. Trying to remember at the last minute “what I forgot last time” is no substitute for a go-list. For instance:
- Do you have a pair of wade-worthy boots that will also stop a roofing nail from puncturing your foot? (they are all over the ground in storm zones).
- Do you know how you’re going to get gasoline on day-two, with no stations open on the barrier island you are trapped on.
- Do you have a 5lb bag of rice handy to help dry out electronics?
As a veteran of storm reporting from Katrina to unnamed nor’easters and
paralyzing blizzards, I’ve learned the hard way to be equipped for McGuyver-style self-sufficiency for at least 3 days and nights in areas with no power, gasoline or open minimarts (and no sat truck and fellow crew members to fall back on).
Below is my One Man’s Band list for expected multi-day coverage in hurricane zones:
Dealing with extreme rainfall and keeping electronics dry.
- Hair dryer (and a power inverter that can handle running it in your vehicle).
- 5 lb bag of rice. (sealing a wet camera in a large Ziplock or trash bag filled with rice overnight can pull enough humidity out to get it running again).
- Array of Ziplock bags. (protects everything from wallets and cell phones to body-mics and IFB boxes).
- Contractor style heavy trash bags. (These don’t shred in the wind and can go UNDER your camera rain cover as an insurance layer.)
- Gaff tape/Duct Tape (to secure above bags in extreme wind)
- Cloth shop towels. (Better than paper towels, reusable – but cheap enough to toss)
- Paper towels. (Because you don’t need a shop towel everytime)
- Condoms. (These work great at sealing up my wireless stick and shotgun mics. Cover with windfoam and hope no one notices. They also work well with tape at sealing exposed xlr and video connectors.)
- GoPro in watertight box. (Take this out in extreme conditions when exposing your regular rig is just too risky)
- Spare camera (if you’ve got one, bring it).
Dealing with wind:
- Sandbags to secure for tripod and lights.
- More duct and gaff tape.
- 1000 watt inverter to convert car outlet power
- Power bar
- Extension cords
- Chargers for all batteries and devices
- Spare cell phone.
- Hand-held scanner
- 10 gallons of gas. (Carry outside vehicle on roof or other accessory rack)
- Multi-tool such as Leatherman or Gerber
- mini-screwdrivers suitable for small electronic components
- needlenose pliers
- Jumper cables
- Webbing straps/strong enough to serve as a tow rope.
- Tire puncture plug kit and the knowledge to use it (driving over nails and jagged debris can do you in)
- Fix-a-flat capable of filling a tire
Night operations (remember, the power may be out in your hotel):
- Battery powered camping lantern
- Bibs (Much drier than rain pants)
- Goretex top with watertight pockets for ziplocked items
- 3 pairs of dry everything… underwear, tshirts, shorts etc.
- Sleeping Bag (you might end up sleeping in the car or a shelter).
- Steel Toe/Steel Shank rubber boots. (You may be wading in seriously polluted water and walking in areas littered with debris noted above. If you see shingles or siding on the ground you can bet there are nails everywhere)
- Rubber sandals/flip flops (to dry out your dogs on down time.)
- Lots of CASH$$ (Credit Cards don’t work where the power is out)
- Bug repellent
- Baby wipes
- Hand sanitizer
Food and water 2/3 days:
- Case of bottled water
- Power bars/Cliff bars
- Tuna meals
Container for all the extra stuff:
- Plastic tub
- Folding-top dry bag like those used on canoe/boat trips and camping.
For more ideas on storm coverage look at:
And just in case you thought packing for a hurricane is a big deal. Read this post on shooting in a war zone: http://gizmodo.com/5330715/ask-a-pro-how-to-shoot-and-not-get-shot-in-a-war-zone
As a major market One Man Band television reporter, the question I’m most often asked is something like: “How the heck can you do anything that passes as legitimate TV reporting if you’re busy driving, shooting, editing and posting to the web?”
Washington Post and CNN media critic Howard Kurtz recently spent part of a day with me and arrived at this conclusion: “A one-man band is cheaper, quicker and more nimble — but cannot produce the deeper sounds of a small journalistic orchestra.”
Many of the readers who commented were not nearly so kind.
Obviously, the answer to putting the “multi” in multimedia journalism is efficiency in how I do my reporting; how I shoot and edit; and in how I put new technology to work.
As critics of One Man Banding always point out: “there is only so much time in the day”.
But the “wireless revolution” and a new model for TV news reporting can, on some assignments, allow me to do more after coffee than I used to do in an 8-hour shift.
Even so, it’s not all Back to the Future. I also rely on the tried-and-true, time-saving, shooting and interviewing techniques that experienced reporters and photographers have employed for decades to collect solid video and sound that is easy to edit in a hurry.
The balance boils down to this: Every minute saved in logistics, shooting, editing and producing, is another minute I can devote to collecting information.
With all that in mind, here are the Top-Ten Tips that have helped me become a more efficient One Man Band multimedia warrior:
1) GO TO THE NEWS not to the Newsroom: My Blackberry means I don’t need to waste time being in a newsroom to “set up” a story. I’m also empowered with a vehicle and take-home gear. That way I can ditch the “morning meeting” and drive immediately to where NEWS is happening. I make calls on the way. Web research and email is done on the handheld. No source ready to talk yet? I might get out of the car and knock on doors while waiting for the returned call. People who see me shooting b-roll may approach with information. Bottom line — (with some notable exceptions) being there almost always beats being on the phone at the station. My office is my vehicle.
2) Leverage Your Digital Tool Box: My Tool Box includes a laptop with wireless broadband capability and AVID Newscutter editing software. This laptop is my lifeline because once in the field, it allows me to stay in the field to finish the job. Broadband Internet access makes it a virtual office. I can edit my packages without returning to base. With a strong cell signal, and FTP capability, I can feed my edited video without even going to a live truck. In a pinch, I can even go live via Skype from that same laptop — no truck or crew needed.
3) Always Edit and Feed from the Field: Where I work in the Washington/Baltimore area, driving back to the station to write and edit can cost me as much as an hour behind the wheel (traffic willing). As a traditional reporter, I used to be able to write while my partner drove back to base. Not anymore. Thanks to my digital connectivity, the solution is to STAY IN THE FIELD until the very end. A nice side effect is that the longer I’m at the scene of a story, the more late information that might come my way to distinguish my story from others who have left for home. If I am not assigned a live truck, my digital tool box allows me to feed a video file wirelessly, or via whatever WiFi I can find nearby.
4) Post to the Web First Whenever Possible: For too many TV reporters, the web is an afterthought. It shouldn’t be. Writing to the web first serves as an early outline for my TV story. It focuses me on the most important elements of the story. What’s the lead? What are the critical facts? Writing an early web story helps me take a moment to clear the clutter of logistics and shooting to focus on the information. Occasionally, I realize there are questions I have failed to ask. If I write early, I’ll have time to recover if I’ve come up short.
5) Don’t Waste Time Shooting Stuff You’ll Never Use: This is always easier said than done, but it’s a critical skill to develop. I try to think about the emotional hook every good story needs and build the shooting around that, rather than the press conference or “official” sound bite. For instance, a school board event about test scores is really about kids. That’s why 3 cut-aways and a single soundbite from the superintendent is all I need. Then I’ll muster the courage to quit rolling tape and bolt to a school or library – where I can use the time and tape saved to shoot sequences with kids that capture the pride (or disappointment) as they experience success (or failure) trying to read for me aloud.
6) Ask Open-Ended Questions: A good line of questioning starts with: “Tell me about ….(X) ? - or- “What are your thoughts on …(Y) ? -or- How would you characterize ….(Z) ? These kind of open-ended questions force the interview to put their thoughts into a declarative statement that’s more likely to produce a productive sound bite that can also be held up to scrutiny in follow-up questions. In short, don’t waste tape on video note-taking (Who? What? When? and Where?) – that’s what pens and pads are for. Instead get to the point and ask an open-ended question that gives your interview a chance to shine (or hang himself) in the shortest time possible.
7) Reactions are Just as Important as the Action: A burning barn is compelling action, but the reactions of the people watching the fire are equally important to compelling storytelling. Laughs, Tears, Shock, Fear, Anger and Joy are all reactions. To get them you’ll need the judgement and courage to turn away from the action just long enough to capture some of these moments in video and sound. No matter how compelling the action — don’t forget to think about the reaction.
8) Don’t Waste Tape Panning and Zooming: There is a time and place for panning and zooming — but too much of this can make your story look like amateur video. In addition, pans and zooms can be time-consuming to shoot and hard to edit to the rhythm of the short broadcast sentences you write. Better to build your story with sequences of solid tripod shots: 1 good wide to establish the scene and context; then a series of tight shots to focus on surprising details. Hold them all for 10 to 15 seconds – perhaps just long enough for some action to play out in the viewfinder. You’ll thank yourself for the time saved in editing.
9) Ask “Show Me” to Create Action: I create action in my stories by asking people to “Show Me”, rather than asking them to stand still for an interview while holding a stick mic in their face. Instead, I put a wireless lavalier mic on them and ask for a little tour with questions like: “Show me where the car ran off the road?”; “Show me what’s left of your barn after that tornado?”; “Show me where you heard the gunshots?” Afterward, shoot some tight shots to match what your interview just said to use as cut-aways in editing. It will all feel a lot more real to the viewer.
10) Listen Carefully, but Pretend You’re Deaf: There are lots of times I hear someone say something that would be great in my story, but they said it while I was shooting something else. This is when I swing the camera around, cock my head like a spaniel and say: “ I don’t hear so good. What’s that?” Many people will automatically regurgitate their comment without thinking they are being recorded. If you are lucky, and close enough, you’ll pick up this pure gold on your shotgun mic. Moments like these put the reality in the original reality TV.
Embedded with other journalists on the US Naval hospital ship Comfort, I was among those who ventured ashore to document the stunning medical crisis that had unfolded in Haiti in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake.
(January 22, 2010) Jugard DeCastillion lay dying before my eyes. The 21-year old man’s mother fanned his face as if it might force more air into his failing lungs. He gasped. An embolism, the doctors said. He’d been crushed by falling walls when the earthquake struck in Port au Prince. Eight days on, it had come to this.
A portion of one hand was amputated. His organs were likely damaged and failing now.
Infection. A young man’s last hours. There was struggle to breathe but no panic.
He gasped again, and rolled his eyes toward me. Who was this guy standing over him with a video camera asking his mom muted questions in broken, elementary French?
He was lying in a steel-framed hospital bed apparently salvaged from the wrecked hospital. It had been carried outdoors into the courtyard of the St. Francois de Sales hospital in Port au Prince. The blue plastic tarp that shielded him from the sun gave the light a surreal tint.
Thank God it hadn’t rained.
At least 86 other men, women and (mostly) kids shared this outdoor hospital ward. Mercifully, a light breeze carried the stink away.
Women sang rhythmic hymns in Creole as they wrapped bandages.
Less than 50 meters away, the main hospital building was a stack of broken slabs. The bodies of at least 35 patients and staff had been buried somewhere under the ash-colored rubble, according to one of the doctors.
The survivors couldn’t get to all the victim’s bodies. But they did find a way to tunnel through a section of the pancaked building’s remains to break into the wrecked pharmacy and recover what medications and supplies they could.
I visited other makeshift hospitals too. Places where amputations, Cesarian sections and even brain surgery had been performed, by necessity, outdoors in shocking, non-sterile conditions. Volunteers pulled doors out of rubble and used them as litters and operating tables.
Thankfully, I didn’t witness any of this horrible surgery in progress. But I saw the survivors who would either heal or die under tarps, with their families clustered around to shoo the flies away, feed them, and carry off the stinking bedpans. There were tens of thousands of horribly injured and sick people all around Port au Prince.
Back at St. Francois de Sales, several one-story wings and annexes to the original main building still stood on the hospital grounds, but frequent aftershocks reminded patients and doctors why they preferred to stay outdoors despite the flies.
Some Polish soldiers had arrived with relief supplies. Volunteers from Catholic Relief Services and the Archdiocese of Baltimore had found their way here to help.
A padlocked iron gate kept the chaos outside the hospital grounds away.
The wounded at Gettysburg or Shiloh had it about the same nearly 140 years ago, I thought.
Maybe a miracle would save the man gasping for breath who was lying before me.
Working alone, now it was time to shoot the video, knock out the interviews. Show the world. Give ‘em a look at reality. Keep your cool. This was just one tragic vignette and our local guide was offering to take a small group of us to see more of his shattered city if I hustled. A fellow reporter held the camera for two quick standups. Above all, I had to make it back to the landing zone for a flight back to the Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort to write, trac, edit and feed before 11 p.m. back in Washington.
News doesn’t sleep. After witnessing this, sometimes neither do I.
Video: the following report aired about 10 hours after I visited St. Francois De Sales. A second report summarizes much of what I witnessed in Port au Prince and on the USNS Comfort.
Postscript: James Lea, a North Carolina-based freelance journalist who is also in his third year of medical school consulted with doctors at St. Francois de Sales about DeCastillion. A decision was made to have Lea accompany DeCastillion in an ambulance back to the field medical evacuation station at Verreaux where the Navy had dropped off embedded journalists by helicopter that morning. Thanks to Lea’s advocacy, DeCastillion was flown to the ship. However, the Navy’s admissions records do not match the ID information DeCastillion’s mother gave me. As a result, his fate is a mystery to me.