Programming

When Journalists Become The Hunted

Egypt serves as a lesson in how TV news orgs react when their staffers come under fire 2/04/2011 11:14:52 AM Eastern

What started out as standard civil disobedience in Egypt last week took a turn so quickly that it caught virtually every single American television news organization off guard. But it wasn't the quick escalation in violence that sent execs scrambling: the turning point was when journalists themselves became the targets of the combat.

As reports spread of groups of people searching through offices and hotels on the hunt to capture or bring harm to journalists, the list of injured media members began to grow.

While many were foreign names that didn't resonate in America, there were plenty of high profile journalists that came under siege. Some incidents were caught on tape-from CNN's Anderson Cooper getting punched to ABC's Christiane Amanpour getting harassed to the point where she bailed on a situation in what seemed like not a moment too soon.

But many others came via reports, from a Fox News duo getting badly beaten to CBS's Lara Logan reportedly being detained.

As locals began to target journalists, the battle plan quickly changed for TV news execs. From Iraq to Afghanistan many of these same execs had dealt with managing journalists in high-risk situations. But in Egypt it swiftly became a question of how to try to get the story out while evading violence that was aimed at their own people on the front lines.

"This one caught us by surprise because it went from a demonstration to a riot to roving gangs targeting journalists in 24 hours," said NBC vice president of worldwide newsgathering David Verdi. "The mood changed when journalists started to become targets."

CHASING WHILE BEING CHASED

One of the biggest safety obstacles for execs is, in a sense, the commitment of their own staffers. Many of them are simply programmed to chase a big story, no matter the risk.

"Even if at the heart of the story there is obvious danger, so many of them just will rush in because they think that's what their job is," says CBS News and Sports chief Sean McManus. "Quite frankly it isn't even something that a lot of times they think about, it's just their instinct to go to where the story is. It's very, very admirable, but it can be very, very dangerous also."

But there is plenty that can be done in these situations, as execs have learned from sending journos into war zones for decades.

One idea may be surprising, especially to regular followers of the media business. While the term "news wars" seems comically inappropriate given circumstances, clearly Egypt, like any massive worldwide event, is a battlefront to see who can provide the best coverage. But in what may be almost shocking to many, rival networks (yes CNN and Fox News are both on board) actually band together in situations like this to exchange safety information via conference calls.

"[We have discussed] our shared experiences and any observations we have on how we can work effectively from a safety perspective, to reduce the risk for all of us," says CNN International managing editor Tony Maddox.

KNOWING WHEN TO RETREAT

But when things get really bad, even the most fearless journalists know you sometimes simply need to stay out of sight. And as things continued to break down late last week, that's what happened. CNN's Anderson Cooper broadcast live the night of February 3 from an undisclosed location and looked to be sitting on the floor of a hotel room, sometimes talking into a cell phone to hear or be heard and linking in people via Skype and other such technologies. Quality of picture or sound was hardly top of mind.

And the NBC camp quickly had to bail out of its previously-preferred set-up on a high-visibility hotel balcony overlooking the action-filled Tahrir Square when staffers started receiving threats from the streets below.

"We are lowering our profile," NBC vice president of worldwide newsgathering David Verdi said after the conflict started to get increasingly dangerous. "For instance, where we were broadcasting from a balcony, we've come off the balconies, we've shut our lights, we've tried to have the lowest profile that we could possibly have."

NBC's attempt to move to a more remote (and they hoped, safer) area altogether proved problematic. NBC left its first hotel, after making extensive plans to quietly move to another one. When they were told at the last minute by hotel staffers that they were now forbidden from broadcasting from there, it left the network to scramble for a new plan.

Another safety mechanism sounds simple, but execs say it is crucial: staying in close contact. At ABC, it's a mandate.

"The rule is nobody goes anywhere without everybody knowing-everybody knowing including the folks in New York, not just the folks on the ground in Cairo," says ABC News senior vice president Kate O'Brian.

And finally, if and when something does occur, execs say you have to go back to the old adage of not becoming part of the story. That sounds good on paper, but when Cooper was attacked and Amanpour got harassed, their networks were quick to publicize it and send out video.

Still, CNN's Maddox says, even in that case you need to put it into perspective. While Cooper was attacked twice in the span of about 24 hours, he walked away virtually unscathed.

"And we were also very quick to contextualize it, we weren't the only news organization that was facing that," he says. "Other organizations got attacked, had stuff stolen, other people were in the thick of this as well, they had gear stolen, the two fellows at Fox got a really good hiding and were clearly very badly hurt. That was an awful incident."

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