From “Clunky Motorola radios” to Twitter: A brief account of Jon Snow’s reporting journey

“The social network is on fire. Despite Egypt’s best efforts, the revolution is
under way. Whether it ends in Mubarak or no Mubarak, the movement for
change travels on the shoulders of the web,” blogs Jon Snow, the Face of
Channel 4 News, from Egypt’s capital, Cairo. Snow published this
comment as soon as the telephone lines and internet connections
were reinstated in the country, on 29 January 2011, after more than 48
hours of “blackout”.
Writes Teodora Beleaga…

He also acknowledged the gravity of Egypt’s authorities’ decision to
interrupt virtual communication in a tweet to a 24-year-old budding
journalist from Glasgow: “@journodave you get the Tweets badly spelt or
not at all! Very up and down web connection here in Cairo: hence effective
silence for some days.” But there was no silence in the news, as some
Communication Satellites (COMSATs), which were in use long before
social media and mobile phones, did their job rather well. Thus, despite
the “blackout”, Jon Snow still presented Channel 4’s 7 O’Clock News.
Since journalism “put simply, is a form of communication” (Niblock
2010: 1) one would not be too far from the truth in assuming that any
developments in the means of communication would have a form of
impact on journalism. Yet, what Snow has proven through his “get
straight out there and see what’s going on” approach is
that, regardless of the constant renewal of the technological means of
transmission, journalism remains governed by the same old principles –
some of which are yet to be agreed on by academics, but are nonetheless
recognised by professionals (i.e. news values).
This is a brief incursion into Jon Snow’s reporting journey with a focus
on the way his packaging of news has changed over the years as a result
of technological developments. Although Snow is currently still classed
just as a “presenter” in his biography page on the Channel 4 News
website, his current responsibilities also include operating a
SnowMail, SnowBlog and Twitter account. With modesty, he told the
Institute for International and European Affairs’ (IIEA) audience: “I’m
not a great internet wiz, although I use it a great deal,” adding what it
meant for him to go from working for a television station to working for
a multiplatform newsdesk in less than four years “I probably work three
times harder than I’ve ever worked before”.
Consequently, Jon Snow writes a daily account of the evening bulletin’s
headlines, posts at least one blog entry a day sharing his opinion on
current events and tweets as events unfold. On Friday, 4 February 2011,
between 4 am and 5 am (UK time), he tweeted from Cairo as American
tanks manipulated by the Egyptian army were attacking the peaceful, anti-
Mubarak protesters; his last tweet, minutes before 5 am, reflects his
passion for reporting: “I’m going to try to sleep, but if tank fire resumes I
will tweet again; if internet sustains…it needs to because they can’t
reopen the banks without it”. And he woke up in less than three
hours tweeting the night’s aftermath: “As usual…the morning reveals
slow movement in Freedom Sq despite horrific night… 4 dead, 800
injured…Handful Mubarakists, 3,000 protesters?”.
Originally from Haywards Heath, Sussex, Jon Snow has been presenting
the Channel 4 News since 1989. His journalistic career started by chance
in 1973 at LBC (London Broadcasting Company) and continued at ITN
and ABC. In his almost 40 years of reporting, Snow has travelled in more
than 85 countries and has interviewed the likes of Ronald Regan, Nelson
Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, Alistair Campbell, Monica Lewinsky, Bill
Gates and many, many more. His many notable honours include the
Richard Dimbleby Bafta award for Best Factual Contribution to
Television (2005) and Royal Television Society awards for Journalist of
the Year (2006) and Presenter of the Year (2009). On his reporting
genius, Andy Kershaw, the BBC One DJ, says that Snow “whipped the
floor” with the other journalists in his reporting of the 2010 Haiti
earthquake ” (2011).
When Jon Snow was starting his reporting career with the LBC, he recalls:
“There were no mobile phones in those days, but we had clunky
Motorola radios, which within five miles of the office could transmit a
just-about viable signal”. Snow successfully used one of these
radios to report live on the IRA bombing of the confines of the Houses
of Parliament in 1974. Of his early time in television, to which he moved
in 1976, he reminisces: “In the 1970s there was no lightweight video, you
could not carry a video camera into the field; it was too heavy. One
person could not carry a video camera and the recording mechanism was
so large, you’d need a wheelbarrow”.
But in 1977, when he found himself alone with just the soundman, having
to do a package from Somalia’s front line, Snow attempted to film his
own piece-to-camera. After having received a brief tutorial from a French
cameraman, he recounts the experience:
I tried to establish myself with the camera, keeping the lens wide as
instructed, but every time someone opened fire I gave an
involuntary jerk in response. My pictures would be all over the
place. Somehow I had to grab a piece-to-camera to prove I had ever
been there. I found a ledge near the top of my trench, perched the
camera, turned it on, ran back and gave a breathless account, trying
to connect this chaotic scene with the unsuspecting viewer at home.
This relationship with the viewer is most important to Snow as he asserts
it to be at the centre of reporting. Aside from the ease of collecting news
today – his above-mentioned package would have resulted in much better
quality image with current video cameras – Snow is most grateful to
networked journalism because content producers, such as himself, are
now answerable to content consumers. “For a boring several decades we
were able to travel a one-way street and push material out with no
consequences at all, as long as we kept within the bounds of the
regulator…Suddenly you’ve got to be accountable not to the regulator, but
to the viewer…What a delicious situation! What a vast improvement from
the previous set up,” says Snow.
Still, in the late 1970s, the technical problems for the television journalist
were still substantial. In 1979, for instance, having taken the first
interview in English with the Pope (John Paul II), Snow and his crew
could not synchronise the Pope’s lip movement with his words. This
ended in ITN using a mere two minutes of the interview and with Snow
throwing the whole recording from the transmission tower in Santo
Domingo into the Caribbean Sea. “I was, of course, a complete idiot,”
admits Snow. “Very soon, new video and digital technology would come
along that could synchronise the whole thing at the flick of a button”.
The 1980s would see the introduction of electronic lightweight cameras
which produced instant video. Snow describes these as “magically fast
and seductive” regardless of their being “twice as heavy as their film
forebears”. He was soon to get very familiar with these. When
reporting from the Afghanistan front in 1980, he replied to the
cameraman’s account of the camera being dead by saying: “It’s probably
only frozen”. They soon cooked the batteries on fire for
approximately ten minutes and when replaced back in the camera it
worked immediately. Thus his passion for the job prevailed once more.
From cooking batteries to revive a frozen film camera to being banned
from tweeting the latest Egypt revolution, it’s fair to assume that, at least
as far as reporting technology is concerned, Snow has witnessed it all. In a
lecture he delivered as a Visiting Professor at Coventry University, Snow
spoke of a “massive speed of change”, explaining with a sense of regret
how “no one ‘carries’ the news anymore; they make it themselves or
shove it off the internet and sell it to news corporations”.
Internet-based media, he argues, are in desperate need of regulation.
But what he misses most today is the luxury to do personal research since
instant processing has largely removed “the capacity to reflect, to
consider, to write beautifully, to research properly, to talk to people, to ring people up, to spend time making sure that really what you were doing reflected what was actually going on”.
Snow’s account of being a Washington correspondent presents the
American President’s residency as an open space to journalists: “I could
wander in and out of the White House any time I chose, buttonhole an
official, or wander into Speakes’s [Press Secretary at the time] outer office
to make a request for information or an interview.” Yet today he looks
back and sees the dangers of open access: “In reality, of course, it meant
that journalists were so close to the centres of power that we were
seduced by them: we rarely challenged them for fear of damaging our
status, and we were frequently taken in by them. It took me some months
to realise quite how quiescent the US press actually was”.
Despite his vast experience, Snow still describes his career as “short”. And while he claims that “becoming a good journalist
takes your entire life” he still stresses that “this is the best time to be a
journalist”.
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