It’s not often that a university gets to boast that one of the most famous news reporters in the UK has done a free talk at their campus. It’s hardly surprising then, that Coventry University is very proud to have Jon Snow as their visiting Journalism lecturer, and even more so to have his wisdom imparted onto the Coventry public for the fourth time for Coventry Conversations. In his latest talk, postponed from March 2 2011 due to an emergency interview in Egypt, discussed his views on reporting the Japanese tsunami disaster, the importance of hands on journalism over video packages, and the Twitter generation of Journalism.
“The biggest challenge with reporting the tsunami was the size of it,” he began: “We knew immediately that this was very big. Channel 4 was actually a little mob-handed with it. We had three teams covering a huge area.” He added that the practicalities of getting to the affected areas was a complete gamble, with flights having major delays to enter the country, and even upon arrival there were problems. “There was only one bullet train running, and around twelve boxes of equipment for us to carry it looked difficult. However, we got through the terminals and into Osaka with no problems. An independent Japanese TV company helped us, we had three vans with drivers and translators.”
Writes Jon Dudley…
He continued, stating that Channel 4 wanted instant transmission. Due to time difference, this meant that he had to report live at 3am, aired at 6pm in the UK. “It’s an absolute killer, in 106 hours we must have had 8 hours sleep. 40 miles from Fukushima, there was no sense of a nuclear explosion, but 36 hours into our journey we were in the centre of the tsunami wreckage. We had to report under car headlights using a portable satellite as there was no power.” Jon went on to discuss how the scene affected him, and what had to be done as a reporter. He stated that you had to put your emotional issues aside as a professional, but upon witnessing complete wreckage and death on a mass scale, to hide any emotion off air would be to deny ones humanity. He added: “You have to write with respect for the dead – the use of words is the only way to convey this.”
Sausage machine journalism, the practice of combining both public and other footage into a package, is background information, Jon stated. “One person, one report, one camera-man – one pair of eyes. We were experiencing it ourselves, we didn’t just slash in other information. Journalism is one person, the reporter, communicating with another person, the audience, the individual journalist can voyage into terrible tragedies and witness people like us. They have nothing left of life, or aspects of their lives.” He continued by stating that this is the golden age of Journalism, with a brilliant capacity for computers, writing and words and the most content being able to be gathered. Websites such as Youtube, Google and Yahoo can publish videos of stories as they happen from civilians who risk their own lives for any footage they can gain, while Journalists can enter the area and gain a hands on, real world account of what is happening. He said: “There’s something different about being able to stand there amongst the action and report, and any shots I transmitted were shots by me and my camera-man.”
The second section of his talk was on the subject of monetising quality Journalism. Specifically, he commented that Channel 4 makes very little money from sending anchors out to cover stories abroad, and claims that in most cases it is a waste of time. If an anchor is flown out to read an autocue from London, money is wasted in an field where income is relatively low. Youtube and Google can use videos and images collected from Journalists, and don’t have to pay a penny towards it. Jon Snow, however, feels that a connection between the two must eventually be forged and both can benefit from each other with both gaining income. “I don’t know how it will work, but it can happen – somehow.” Filming the tsunami story cost tens of thousands of pounds, with a staffing of around twenty people, expenses, travel and equipment all being an important factor. “There’s no point funding crap – but quality journalism will be funded, even at two pence a piece” he commented.
He compared Google and Channel 4 with the story of Gordon Browns resignation as Prime Minister: “Channel 4 had a helicopter in the air instantly, following Brown’s car to find out what was happening. We had reporters covering the action as it happened, where as Google wouldn’t know where to begin. If they had any further technology they would have to charge for it.”
Finally, I asked how he made the decision of taking three days of disaster footage and turning it into a half hour package ready to broadcast. Surely the wealth of information and stories of peoples miracles, peoples loss, and sheer impact of death and destruction is too much to cover? “Ingesting too much information from one event makes life difficult. Even if you get five good examples of one story, you have to pick the best, and that can be difficult to achieve” he responded.
Jon Snow aims to continue to work as a hands on reporter, aim to change what he is shocked to see and wishes to change.