Putting Candidates Under the Videoscope
One late night last November, Mitt Romney, campaigning in Greenville, S.C., was approached by three young women in bright matching outfits looking for a hug. Mr. Romney, thinking they were cheerleaders from nearby Clemson University, obliged.
The young women worked at a Hooters restaurant. Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, Scott Conroy, who works for CBS News, filmed the hug with his Sony hand-held camera and sent the image to the television network's political desk in New York. The video was published online the next morning. "You're standing there doing your job, and all of a sudden Mitt Romney's hugging Hooters girls. It's one of the times you're glad you're filming," Mr. Conroy recalled.
Mr. Conroy, whose job title is "off-air reporter," (because he does not normally appear on television) is one of many young journalists hired by the networks to follow the candidates across the country, filing video and blog posts as they go. Originally hired to cut expenses their cost is a fraction of a full television crew's these reporters, also called "embeds," have produced a staggering amount of content, especially video. And in this election cycle, for the first time, they are able to edit and transmit video on the fly.
As a result, the embeds have changed the dynamic of this year's election, making every unplugged and unscripted moment on the campaign trail available for all to see. One particular video shot of American flags tilting over behind Hillary Rodham Clinton last November has been viewed more than 300,000 times on the ABC News Web site. A video of the Fox News host Bill O'Reilly shoving a member of Barack Obama's staff at a New Hampshire campaign rally has drawn almost 150,000 views on YouTube.
"There have always been cameras around campaigns. What is different now is how much more portable they've become and how much more prevalent," said Eric Fehrnstrom, who was the traveling press secretary for Mr. Romney's campaign until the Republican candidate dropped out last week.
Through cable television, network news sites and video sharing sites, these unexpected and unguarded moments at rallies and during campaign stops have become part of the narrative of the election. The campaigns themselves are well aware of how video clips can magnify a mistake or attach a faux pas permanently to the candidate.
"Whether it's a metaphor for the campaign or just a funny moment from the trail, there's a lot of demand for that kind of stuff," said Aaron Bruns, a political embed for Fox News Channel.
The methods of the off-air reporter trade are also increasingly being used as networks look for new ways to expand coverage while cutting costs.
Bulky satellite transmission units are gradually being replaced by portable broadband-based gear. Last year, ABC News assigned seven young journalists to serve as one-person bureaus in foreign countries where the network had not previously assigned correspondents. Fox News Channel has promoted technology that allows it to broadcast live reports from a moving vehicle.
Athena Jones of NBC News is, at 31, one of the oldest off-air reporters employed by the networks. She summed up the attitude of her colleagues: "We have a lot of mouths to feed. If you feed something in, someone will probably find a place for it in the 24-hour cable news beast."
Until January, off-air reporters like Mr. Conroy and Ms. Jones were the only television producers traveling with the presidential contenders. Since the Iowa caucuses, larger crews have followed the leading candidates to most campaign events, but the off-air reporters still film the rope lines and photo opportunities that are seemingly more intimate events for the candidates. The off-air reporters for ABC even post their itineraries on the social networking Web site Facebook.
"We basically keep our eyes and ears open at all times," said Eloise Harper, the ABC News off-air reporter who shot the video of the flags falling behind Senator Clinton. "We're always watching the candidates."
The emergence of off-air reporters dates to 1988, when the networks sought to save money by sending full TV crews to only some campaign events. Partly because most off-air reporters are relatively young and not members of a union, they create some cost savings for networks.
The off-air reporter role became especially prominent in 2004 when NBC News renamed them "campaign embeds," in an allusion to the embedding of correspondents during the Iraq war. During that election, hand-held cameras became ubiquitous, but the reporters did not have a ready-made outlet for their video.
Four years later, the 2008 presidential campaign is being conducted in the era of YouTube. Spurred by the proliferation of inexpensive hand-held video cameras and broadband Internet access, the dispatches that were once distributed internally are now published on blogs, and the video clips that would have wound up on the cutting room floor are posted on Web sites.
The ubiquitous camcorders and immediate Internet access do make the campaigns more wary of potential pitfalls. If a candidate becomes irritated during a newspaper reporter's interview, the instance may merit only a sentence in the next day's article. But if the exchange takes place in front of video cameras, "It gets put on the Internet for the whole world to see, not just for that day's news, but repeatedly over time," Mr. Fehrnstrom said.
Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University, noted that many people now own cellphones with picture- and video-taking abilities.
Rodrigo González Fernández
DIPLOMADO EN RSE DE LA ONU
Renato Sánchez 3586