Overheard on the scanner: “Police assistance requested at the scene of the fire. Homeowner is trying to attack the TV crew.”
Yes, it was me. Allow me to explain.
My third month on the job, I was sent out on breaking news when a house caught fire north of Medford. Not to sound insensitive, but I’ve always considered house fires to be a pretty standard, frankly easy form of breaking news. You show up, shoot video of the flames (oooh, fire…), grab a firefighter to get an interview about what happened, try to talk to the homeowner (although I hate shoving a camera in the face of someone going through a hardship), and take off back to the station. If you’re doing it right, a standard house fire should take about a half hour to cover.
During this incident, I had covered a few fires, so I knew the drill. I arrived at the scene and saw smoke billowing out of the windows, but no visible flames. Firefighters walked calmly across the property, spraying water while the roar of the fire trucks’ engines blared and lights flashed. After a few minutes, I caught eyes with a firefighter and asked if I could speak to someone. He waved me over to the driveway to talk.
(A brief aside – you’re not allowed to walk on to someone’s private property. It’s called trespassing. But during a fire, firefighters casually toss those laws aside, and often invite you to walk on the property to get the video you need, as long as you don’t get in the way. I once hiked in a complete circle around a burning house to get some good shots, and no one ever said a thing. If they are going to invite me on, I’m going to get my video.)
I walked up the driveway, set up my tripod, and began shooting video of what I thought was a pretty disappointing fire (no flames!). That’s when I saw a man make a beeline for me.
“What the fuck are you doing here?!” He yelled.
“Uh … I … ah,” I made vague vowel sounds trying to form words.
“You need to get that camera off my fucking property right now!” He was within arm’s reach of my camera. “Turn it off right now!”
“I’m talking to the firefighters!” I finally managed to get out. “I’m talking to the firefighters!”
My heart was racing. I picked up my tripod and brought my camera closer to me.
“You’re still recording!” he continued. Pointing at the red tally light on my camera. “Stop taking pictures of my house!”
“I’m here for the firefighters!” I was stuck in a loop, and it was the only thing I could think of to say. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was in a rural part of southern Oregon, where people protect their property like it was their children. For all I knew, this man was prepared to fight me. Or shoot me.
It was at that moment that a veteran firefighter stepped in, hands raised to his chest, and guided the man away from me. He took him aside, where the man continued screaming and pointing at me. I’ve never shot video faster in my life. Wide shot, medium shot, tight shot, let’s get the hell out of here! I grabbed by tripod, speed walked to my car, and put as much distance as I could between me and the crazy man.
When I got back to the station, my co-workers laughed nervously. They had heard the reports about my incident over the police scanner.
“Are you OK?”
I was. But it wouldn’t be the last time I would have an altercation while on the job.
Being a reporter means being out in the world every day. You are constantly driving to different cities and meeting people from different communities. And not all of them are going to take kindly to a young punk in a tie pointing a camera at their property. It’s not very common, but you need to know how to react in those kinds of situations. No, I never got shot at, or punched, or arrested. But I did learn that occasionally people’s attitudes and reactions will make your job very difficult. Sometimes you need to be a professional and defuse a situation. Sometimes you’ll need to be ready to defend yourself. And sometimes you just need to get the hell away.
One obvious solution to avoiding dangerous situations is to bring backup. Go somewhere with a partner or a group. There’s strength in numbers, right? One situation proved to me that it’s easier in theory.
Early one Sunday morning I hauled my gear into my little Subaru Go-Kart and took off deep into rural southern Oregon, where a small house had burned down overnight. When I say “rural,” I don’t mean “oh, there’s some farms nearby.” I mean “deep in the forest, gravel road, 20 miles from cell phone reception, banjo music” rural. Homes are hidden behind hills and trees. People who live in these areas live there because they don’t want to be found.
But alas, Sundays are tough days for news, and a fire in the middle of nowhere beats dead air.
I had arranged to meet the rural volunteer fire department chief at the scene for an interview. When I arrived, the two of us walked down the gravel road to the front of the house. From the front, the fire damage wasn’t visible, and the firefighter explained we would need to walk into the backyard to see anything.
Suddenly, a bearded man came walking toward us from down the street.
“Nuh-uh,” he said shaking his head. “Don’t be doing that.”
“Do you live here?” I asked. Maybe I’d get an interview!
“No, but I know the guy that does,” he said. “He had his house burn down, you don’t need to be takin’ pictures of it.”
“I’m really sorry, sir, I’m with channel 12. I’m just going to get some video. I’m not going to go inside or disturb anyone.”
“No yer not!” He was raising his voice now. “Get the hell out of here, you hear me? If I see you step on that property I’m gonna to kick your ass!”
This was the first time a threat had been communicated to me so clearly on the job.
Finally the firefighter spoke up. “Sir, he has my permission to go on to the property to take video.”
“Who the hell are you?” the man asked. “I don’t care what you guys are doin’ here, if you go on that property I’m gonna kick your ass!”
“Sir, please go back to your home,” the firefighter said.
The man began stomping away. “I’m watching, and if you don’t leave right now I’m going to kick your ass!”
I was in disbelief. I’d never had someone threaten both me and a firefighter. Shocked, I began to turn around to ask the firefighter what to do, and saw he was already walking back to his car!
My backup was basically saying “nope!”
He clearly wanted no part of it, and clearly wasn’t about to take a punch just so a reporter could get some video. After a few moments, he left me in the middle of nowhere with my jaw on the ground and a pissed off neighbor a short ways away. Oh, and I still didn’t have any video. And I was on my own.
Desperate not to come back empty handed, I drove 20 miles to get cell phone reception, where I called the local sheriff’s office. Surely they would protect an innocent citizen who was just doing his job! I got ahold of a deputy and explained what the man had said, and told him I didn’t feel safe out there.
“Well,” he said. “We don’t have anyone to send out there to escort you. We’re tied up today. Sorry”
But the man was preventing me from doing my job! He was threatening to kick my ass, even if I was on public property! It was an unsafe and potentially dangerous situation.
“Well, it’s not against the law to say you’re going to kick someone’s ass,” he told me.
We ran the story without video that night.
My assignment one Saturday: a story on how Grants Pass police got their man. A suspect in a serious, violent crime (murder? I honestly can’t remember, it’s been so long) had been arrested in California and was being brought back to Oregon. The police report gave his address, so I went to the house to try to interview family members.
I knocked on the door, and a balding man with a harsh look on his face answered. I told him who I was, and said I wanted to ask him about the suspect. He said the suspect was his son, but that he didn’t want to talk. Civil enough. I thanked him and left.
I decided to go next door to see if his neighbors would talk. Now, as a one-man-band, you need to take your camera with you everywhere, because you never know when you need to get video and you don’t want to scramble back to your car to get it. I knocked on the door, and a young woman answered.
“Hi, I’m…” but before I could finish my sentence, she took one look at the camera by my side, and flipped out.
“Oh hell no, I am not talking to the news! You need to get the hell out of here right now!” and she slammed the door in my face.
(Sensing a pattern here?)
I didn’t even know who she was, but if she was adamant about not talking, I wasn’t going to force her. So I went across the street to get a wide shot of the suspect’s house, and that’s when the neighbor came back outside.
“You need to stop pointing your camera at the house!” She yelled from across the street. At that point in my career, I knew that it was a good idea to keep rolling at all times, so you have video evidence if something goes wrong.
“I’m not pointing it at your house,” I explained.
“Stop pointing it at that house or I’m calling the cops!” She yelled back.
“I’m on public property,” I said, motioning to the sidewalk beneath me. I had been on the job long enough to know what laws were on my side. “If you don’t want to be on TV, go inside.”
The more I tried to shoot video of the house, the more the woman would yell and get in the way of my shot. I found a neighbor across the street who agreed to go on camera to talk about the suspect, but the woman kept yelling and kept threatening to sic the cops on me, so he turned down the interview. Suddenly, the door of the suspect’s house opened, and the the father stepped on to the porch. The woman walked up to him and began talking, motioning over to me.
Whoa. The father of a murderer and their neighbors are tight. Now it was two against one. I never like those odds.
I didn’t want to see what the father of a murderer and his crazy neighbor had cooked up for me, so I drove around the block to throw them off. I spoke to several other neighbors on the back side of the house, who all explained that the house had a bad reputation. They warned me not to go near them.
The trouble was, I still didn’t have enough b-roll for my story.
As I went to my news car, I took one shot of the back of the house, thinking no one inside would notice.
Another woman came out of the suspect’s house from about 30 yards away and was coming straight toward me. I threw my gear in the car, jumped into the front seat, and locked the door just as she reached me.
“I want to talk to you,” she said through the window.
“Have a nice day,” I replied. I knew that conversation wouldn’t be healthy. I shifted the car into reverse and pulled away.
It didn’t turn out to be much of a story anyway.
Those are just a few stories of dealing with difficult and angry people on the job. Plenty more to come. Got a story to share from your own time as a reporter? Share it in the comments!