Networks' Race for Crisis Footage Becomes Amateur Hour
Glut of freelance video submissions prove invaluable to breaking-news coverage; in the right place at the right time, an amateur cameraman can score a $10,000 payday.
by Warren Cohen
Thursday, September 13, 2001

With thousands of cameras all over the world, CNN is, of course, supremely positioned to chase breaking news. But its defining image of the recent terrorist attacks on New York City was captured late Tuesday night in the lobby of a Lexington Avenue hotel. There, a CNN producer paid $8,000 to a camera-strapped tourist -- who, while on the ferry approaching the Statue of Liberty, filmed an exclusive, up-close angle of the second jetliner slamming into the World Trade Center.

Ever since L.A. citizen George Holliday filmed Rodney King's beating by LAPD cops in 1991, amateur video has become a staple of network news broadcasts. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that 38.4 million American households almost 40 percent -- own at least one video camera. Technology, moreover, has improved over the past decade, helping network directors more rapidly incorporate freelance film into breaking-news broadcasts. "When [using amateur video] was first taking off, I knew the day would come soon when there wouldn't be anything of note that happened that wouldn't be videotaped by at least one person," says David Bartlett, former president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

A vast pool of random, non-staff tapers recorded the terrorist tragedy. Gamma Press, a Paris-based news agency and subsidiary of Hachette Filipacchi Medias, recovered the video of the first plane to attack the World Trade Center. It was taped by a professional cameraman on a yearlong project documenting firefighters: While filming firemen who were routinely checking manholes, he heard a plane and pointed the lens at the right place at the right time. Gamma sold the tape to CNN and APTN, the Associated Press's television arm. ABC got an amateur to sell a worm's-eye view of the second plane's impact; CBS bought a tape of the same moment but from the less-widely-filmed southern angle. Increasing the tapes' exposure, the networks struck a rare, 24-hour deal on Tuesday to share all exclusive video.

Prices for such videos vary wildly. Eason Jordan, chief news executive and newsgathering president for the CNN News Group, said it's not uncommon for the network to pay $10,000 for amateur footage and that it once paid $50,000, for a story he wouldn't disclose. Other networks said that less exceptional video will fetch $2,000; according to one source, CBS paid $45,000 for its Trade Center shot, but a CBS spokeswoman refused to comment.

Before the amateur video glut, some networks appended solicitations to their news broadcasts requesting submissions. Most famously, CNN opened an 800 "Newshound" number in 1988 so freelancers could alert the network. It and an association of gonzo news gatherers are no longer in operation. "It's a rare day when someone somewhere doesn't approach us with amateur video tape," says Jordan.

While most footage arrives unsolicited, the networks employ a variety of acquisition strategies. ABC instructs its correspondents in the field to spot folks with video cameras. On Tuesday, correspondent Chris Cuomo flagged down a person between on-air sessions to get a video that eventually aired. Tom Yellin, executive producer of Peter Jennings Reporting, says the network aired three amateur videos during the crisis. "People know that one great resource for news organizations is the cameras that live in the hands of people not normally known as journalists," says Yellin.

Personal contacts help, too. A young desk employee at ABC had a friend who snuck past police to get footage of what was left of the World Trade Center. ABC not only broadcast the footage but interviewed the cameraman on air. Minicams also allow networks unprecedented access: On Wednesday CNN got exclusive footage of the disaster zone by giving handicams to Red Cross workers, who took the devices into media-restricted areas.

Before the practice took hold, some news directors were leery of airing amateur video, fearing pranks. Before any video airs, a producer reviews it for news value, authenticity and appropriateness. (CNN once received a tape of a supposed earthquake in California, which was discredited before it was broadcast.) Another concern is making sure amateur video in which people appear doesn't violate privacy rights. "People shooting don't think about the rules, but airing a video that might contain a privacy issue amounts to editorial control," says Bartlett. "Networks have to be careful before they air the stuff." Says Fox News spokesperson Rob Zimmerman, "We screen everything that comes in before deciding to use it."

In the early 1990s, the sale and purchase of video was no more than a handshake agreement. But in 1993, Rodney King cameraman George Holliday filed a $100 million lawsuit against CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC a local Los Angeles station. He claimed his copyright to the King beating was violated when the tape, which he sold for $500, was rebroadcast on other stations without his consent. A judge dismissed the case on First Amendment grounds, finding no safeguards to republishing works of "great social import." Today, however, all network deals with rookie newsgatherers are codified on paper.

Of course, sometimes amateurs don't want payment at all, preferring to donate their work as a public service, especially in case of a national tragedy like the terrorist attacks. The Red Cross, for instance, didn't ask CNN for a dime.