As the situation in Egypt shows no signs of settling down and the focus on Thursday turned to journalists being targeted, B&C has been in constant touch with executives from the major television news outlets to talk about how to cover the exploding situation while trying to keep their staffers safe.
ABC News senior vice president Kate O'Brian spoke Thursday with B&C executive editor Melissa Grego about covering Egypt. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
Tell me about the week, what has surprised you the most?
I'll talk about ABC's coverage, because that's what I looked at the most, and know the most. I was surprised by a lot of things, because the story has changed so rapidly. It went from a peaceful but celebratory and strong demonstration to something that became a lot more unpredictable very, very quickly.
Let's talk about Christiane and the situation Wednesday. By the time that happened, things were of course established as being much more unpredictable and violent. What do you tell your staff and reporters and on the scene about how to handle themselves and prepare and how do you feel about how she handled herself in the heat of the moment?
I think she handled herself perfectly in the heat of the moment. It was a situation that was very unpredictable. Things had been very safe going from point to point until [Wednesday] and everything changed on a dime for everybody, for every journalist there. I think she was caught out in a situation where she was doing exactly what she had been doing for many days out in street, which was talking to people in the street. And it was a surprising wave of hatred for Americans and support for Mubarak that I think took all of us by surprise.
But if you watch the interview you can see, I could see Christiane sort of calculating how many questions can I ask and when is it wise to walk away? And she walked away exactly when she realized that this group was potentially getting unruly, which they did. They threw things at the car -- now there was no immediate bodily harm to our folks. But that's the closest I ever want to get. It was pretty amazing [Wednesday].
Going forward what is the plan for keeping your staff safe while still being able to tell the story?
We are taking every precaution that we can with them. We know where everybody is at every moment. 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. Each decision is a moment by moment decision. Because situations like this change rapidly throughout the day. It could be that there's a moment that's safe and then a moment that's not safe. So we have extremely experienced people on the ground, from Christiane all the way to local camera people all of whom have covered situations like this before, so we are listening to what they say and are making decisions here about what makes the most sense.
Is there anything you can pluck out of this week that you learned about that you haven't seen before?
I've learned, although I think this is something we all know, never to assume anything. We thought certain roads were safe this morning and they turned out not to be safe. I can't say that I learned anything about the coverage or about how to manage the folks on the ground. This is stuff we've lived through before unfortunately. All of us in this business have been in dicey situations where our folks are at risk. And so with experience we have a sense of how best to make our decisions. Looking back at this week it just feels like so much has happened in the week it feels like it's been a month.
Watching coverage from overnight, I was wondering how or when will anybody sleep and how much of a factor that will be as this continues.
When you're a foreign correspondent or when you cover other parts of the world even if you're based in the United States, part of the deal is you've got to cover the events on local time and you've got to deal with broadcast times on U.S. times so people get their sleep when they can and cat nap and will tell you last night we did wake people up who were sleeping to make sure they were aware of what was going on although most of them were hearing the gunshots so it's not like we really had to wake them up.
And it was very difficult, remember there was no internet or phone for a number of days. So it added an extra bit of complication to it, so the fact each person is vitally important in this effort, camera people, audio people, producers, drivers, everybody has a role and they all had to do them 110% this week.
Are you planning on ramping up your presence there?
We're talking all day long about are we right sized there, and we'll make the decisions as we see fit, whether it's ramping up, ramping down, changing the people.
If I could underline anything the safety of our people in the field is the most important thing for us. We understand our raison d'etre as journalists but I am absolutely dedicated to making sure our people are the safest they can possibly be.
I know you've gotten this question before, but obviously the resources that have been dedicated to news globally over the years have been limited. Do you see that as being any factor in covering this particular story?
I think that has absolutely no impact on this story whatsoever, we are covering this story the best way we possibly can. We have 7 or 8 on air talent in the area, which is certainly what we would have had in the past and maybe we have more now because we have more platforms to provide coverage for.
The resources issue is an interesting question and we do get it all the time. With Tucson a month ago, the same question was asked of us. It has always been our plan and it was all the way through the changes of the last couple years that everything we do has to be done efficiently and in a scalable way. When we have a big story, we ramp up to cover the story the way it needs to be covered. And then we go back to the level that makes sense for every day coverage. This is a very good example of that .
It's been a crazy news week, we had a huge weather story, we had seven correspondents out on that. We have a huge story in the Middle East, we have seven or eight correspondents on that. We had the rumors of [a nelson] Mandela illness, so we had to start looking at covering that. And I have to tell you, I don't feel like we've given anything short shrift across the board.