Always look around the room
What journalists (and the public) lose when covering events on TV
One of the best pieces of journalism advice I ever received came from Wayne Hansen.
In 2007, Binghamton University announced that men’s basketball coach Al Walker was being “reassigned” to a new job in the school’s athletic department. The school tried to pitch the move as a positive for both Walker and the school.
No one was buying it. Walker had done a fine job transitioning the school to Division I basketball but there was a sense he and the program had plateaued. Because he had a year left on his contract, they couldn’t outright fire him. But everyone know that’s essentially what was happening.
Still, school officials attempted to paint this as a positive move for all parties.
The press conference was held in the tiny media room on the ground level of the BU Events Center. We were in the room when Walker and athletic director Joel Thirer walked in together. Thirer went to the table at the front to start the press conference, Walker stayed in the back of the room, waiting his turn.
Which is when Wayne, the photography director of the Press & Sun-Bulletin, took this picture, which was on 1A the next morning:
Later, Wayne told me that when two men walked into the media room, every eye, every camera, followed Thirer to the front of the room. He watched Walker instead, and got that picture. Not only is it a great photo, but it accurately captures the story. This was not a happy reassignment and a new chapter. This was
“Always look around the room,” Wayne said to me.
It’s some of the best journalism advice I’ve ever heard. Don’t just focus on what’s in front of you, what the people you're covering want you to be focusing on. Look around. Use all of your senses in your reporting.
This story came back to me last week, after Andrew Cuomo resigned as New York Governor.
This may not seem like a big deal, right? Why do you have to be in the room, when you can just watch it online? It’s a waste of time and money to send reporters and photographers to be in the room when they can just watch it at home. It’s just reporters’ ego and their need for access.
The same arguments can be made in sports journalism. Why travel to cover a game in person when you can just cover it off TV and watch the press conferences or attend via Zoom?
And yes, some of wanting to be there is just old journalistic norms and routines holding true. And yes, some of it is pure journalistic ego.
But there is a serious journalistic reason for wanting to be in the room where things happen, one that goes beyond even being able to ask questions.
When you cover an event by watching it on TV or online, you are watching a mediated experience. A reporter only sees what the director wants them to see, what the camera crew is able to capture, what the commentators what them to hear.
At a time when the core value of journalism (especially sports journalism) needs to be giving readers something they don’t know or haven’t seen yet, writing off a mediated experience limits reporters.
That’s what was lost during Andrew Cuomo’s announcement. That’s what’s lost when every journalist has to cover a mediated event, whether it’s an NFL game on TV or a streamed press conference.
A chance for reporters to use all their senses in their reporting.
A chance at telling the whole story.
A chance to look around the room
This week, I started what I can without hesitation call my dream job as the director of online journalism masters programs at St. Bonaventure University. My alma mater has launched two online programs, one in sports journalism and one in digital journalism, and I’m thrilled to be running these programs and teaching in them.
I spent seven wonderful years at SUNY Oswego, and I will miss my amazing colleagues in the Department of Communication Studies and the incredible students I had the privilege to teach.
But the chance to go home, to teach alongside the professors who taught me how to be a journalist, was just too good.
And to answer the question I’ve gotten a lot, my family and I are still living in the Rochester area. It’s a fully online program, so my commute remains the 12 steps from our bedroom to our home office.
The Other 51
The Other 51 has been on a summer hiatus for several reasons — preparation for the new job, wrapping up loose ends at the old one, general pandemic fatigue and malaise — but I’m hoping to have new episodes back in the fall.
In the meantime, my daughter and her best friend have launched season two of their theater podcast, Two Kids and a Broadway Star, and yes I’m biased but I also think it’s really great so check out their episode with Drew Gasparini wherever you get your podcasts.