It’s no leap to see that the arrests of Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea have a lesson for the legions of backpack journalists covering local news stories across the country. One-man (or woman) bands are cheaper, and for the journalist, clearly more dangerous when things go bad.
For Lee and Ling, reporting for Current TV, little is known about the exact structure of their support system. We do know that Current does not have the around-the-world network of bureaus that can jump into action and get phones ringing in New York, London, and Washington when a crew fails to report in.
When CBS’ Kimbery Dozier and her crew came under attack in Iraq, it was their bureau chief who started sounding the alarms, and it was the intervention of powerful CBS brass in New York who were able to arrange evacuation and treatment for the critically injured Dozier. [Note: If you haven’t read Dozier’s book on the attack, the loss of her crew, and her struggle to survive, pick up a copy. It’s called “Breathing the Fire,” and it’s a courageous book]
The freelancer working for an internet news operation, even one with a high profile name attached like Al Gore, just doesn’t have that kind of backup available.
And neither does the local news reporter who goes it alone. I can recall several times in my reporting when a photographer and I got into a sketchy situation, and we needed each other. Once, in Birmingham, my photographer was targeted by an angry police officer after the shooting death of a cop. The officer was upset, and vented on us. He picked a fight with my photog over where he’d been standing, and then pulled out his handcuffs. Knowing he’d done nothing wrong, the photog handed me the camera and told me to get it all on tape. You can’t do that when you’re alone.
News directors love one-man-bands, and eager journalists are taking the jobs. There may, at times, be managers who think, “we shouldn’t send a backpacker into that situation alone.” But I’m sure it will happen anyway. Maybe you saw the YouTube clip of the one-man-band reporter doing his own liveshot who got caught in a gas station’s sprinkler system. That was amusing. But that shot showed how often things go wrong in the field–and how hard it can be for a person doing it all him or herself to get out of harm’s way, even if this time it was just a soaking.