This week pulled the rug from under my feet. I was prepared for a few days researching new stories for the show I work on, making calls and contacts, writing proposals and tracking down statistics.
On Monday afternoon my boss strode across the office, barking that I needed to turn around a story for transmission next Wednesday. A week and a bit sounds like a long lead time, but although I work in News, I don’t work on the news; our stories have to be more than reporter-stands-in-front-of-courthouse-and-delivers-piece-to-camera. We have to incorporate actuality (following stuff as it happens), journalism (finding out original stuff) and first-hand testimony (hearing stuff from the people at the heart of the story). We have to write compelling scripts and use music- we’re making mini-documentaries, basically.
I confess that I find the adrenaline and jeopardy of working on a fast turnaround story energizing. But conversely, it also wrings me out and leaves me a shell of my former self. This week’s filming was centred around an incredibly sad story, and involved all the things I find most gruelling about my job: undercover filming (hate), and setting up said undercover filming in the space of a day, being two of these things.
But the hardest part is working with families who have lost someone in tragic circumstances. I’m always humbled by their bravery in speaking out about whatever evil took their loved one (in this case, it was prejudice and hatred). I’m always acutely aware that it’s so hard for them to talk about their loss; I feel awful when I chime in from behind the camera with “I don’t think we’ve quite covered the moment when you actually found out about their death”, or something similarly crass (it has to be done, though- and I do phrase it in a more sensitive way than that!). I want to tell them that I know something of what they’re feeling, that one of my most cherished people died too young and too suddenly. Sometimes I do tell them- most of the time I don’t.
Essentially, though, for all the difficulties of working in current affairs, I’m glad after weeks like this one that I’m able to tell stories which matter. I’m under no illusion that television can change the world. But I also take issue with those who blame the world’s problems on TV. It’s the most consumed media and it has a far wider reach than an earnest broadsheet newspaper, in terms of taking stories to people. “Oh, we don’t have a television in our house”, uttered with smug self-satisfaction, just doesn’t wash with me (I suppose it’s the smuggery that doesn’t wash, rather than the lack of TV- of course, a box isn’t mandatory). It smacks of snobbery: just because information is packaged in a way that’s instant and easy to consume, doesn’t make it bad.
The television gravy train stopped running years ago. My generation of journalists and broadcasters don’t enjoy unlimited budgets and unquestioned expense accounts; we can’t get away with embroidering the truth and trampling all over ethics. I hope that as we rise to producer level, exec level, controller level, we’ll help rid television of its rancid reputation and perhaps put something back into the world which we, in the work that we do, can’t exist without taking from.