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A 'feeding frenzy,' courtesy Project Watchdog.

A |feeding frenzy,' courtesy Project Watchdog

You know the old saw about the guy who can't walk and chew gum at the same time?

I never realized that it had any relevance to reporting - until last month, when 26 actors gathered on the steps of the monumental State Supreme Court Building in New York City with one assignment: pretend to be journalists.

They were filming the next television public service announcement in the SPJ/Advertising Council Project Watchdog campaign, which is designed to remind the public of its stake in a free press, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The scenario was simple: We see an impressive governmental building with a broad flight of steps leading up to it. A person who looks like an important public official is being pursued by a media mob from the top of the stairs to his limo, which awaits him at the bottom of the stairs. The news people are seeking answers to a vital question that the public official is ducking.

It's such a common scene - one repeated frequently in real life on the steps and in the hallways of city, state, and federal buildings - that you would think that even my eight-year-old could play it with just a little coaching.

But as I watched actors trying to be journalists, I began to realize the full extent of the acrobatic feats we journalists perform as part of our jobs.

To portray a reporter it's not enough to just ask probing questions.

Or to ask questions and strain to hear the answer.

Or to ask questions and listen and jostle for position in the pack.

Or to ask questions and listen and jostle and take notes at the same time.

Or to ask questions and listen and jostle and take notes and avoid getting hit by the cameras.

No! A good reporter has to do all of that - and walk backwards down steps without falling.

It's no wonder we're so high on ourselves sometimes. We perform superhuman feats.

For a former newspaper reporter like me, filming the PSA was a revelation. One reporter can produce many inches of copy in a few hours. A small number of broadcasters can put together a 30-minute news show every day.

But to shoot one 60-second PSA required at least 50 people - the 26 actors, plus photographers, sound technicians, lighting specialists, and directors of various kinds, and several people representing "the client" (SPJ).

There was a food truck from which a guy dished out soup, coffee and cocoa to warm us during the cold-night shoot. And there were two others who ran a bus and a van, in which we sought periodic refuge from the chill.

But not only did the shoot take many people, it took time. The set-up started shortly after 5 p.m. and the filming didn't end until 2:30 a.m. - eight-and-a-half hours and 117 takes later.

How could it require 117 takes to produce 60 seconds of film? Each scene had to be shot from different angles. We shot from the left and then from the right. Sometimes from the top, and sometimes from the bottom. Then from across the street. We shot the wide scenes. Then we did the close-ups. Then we'd go to the next scene and do it all over again.

We shot a series of takes - and then retook a few to see if it would look more real if the politician said "can't" instead of "cannot." (As in, he cannot comment on ... whatever.)

When it is prohibitively costly to reassemble the whole crew, one films and refilms to make sure everything is just right. Second thoughts aren't any good back at the cutting room.

Simply put, the purpose of that perfectionism was to produce a PSA that may make those who see it pause and think when next they are inclined to gripe about the press.

That's not an easy task. How can we penetrate the negative or apathetic feelings people have about the press and and get them to realize that the rights described in the First Amendment to the Constitution are there to protect the public, not just the press?

The SPJ Project Watchdog Committee (led last year by Bob Wills, editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, and this year by Frank Gibson, a metro editor of the Nashville Tennessean) decided, in consultation with Lowe Marschalk, Watchdog's advertising agency, to meet the issue head-on.

We would show a scene many Americans have come to dislike - the press in a "feeding frenzy." Let the viewer sympathize with the poor public official who has to meet the news mob - and then plant a thought. Get the viewers to entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, they should be glad the press is asking aggressive, impertinent questions about how their money is being spent and how their government is performing.

Have the viewer sympathize with the public official at the top of the stairs, but encourage the viewer to begin to wonder about the official (while coming to appreciate the persistence of the press) as he works his way down to his car.

The PSA's voice-over announcer will attempt to complete the task by asking viewers: How far should the press go in protecting their right to be informed.

Although SPJ's Watchdog team hadn't seen the final PSA by The Quill's deadline, it should be going out to stations in April. (Print and radio ads are being developed, too.)

Henry Sandbank, whose higher-paying clients include Federal Express, Subaru, and Volvo, liked the challenge of directing our PSA.

"I occasionally get tired of advertising [products]," he said. "I like to do something that has something meaningful to say.

"You realize that the press is a part of the process, almost another arm of our government. We need something that connects people to their government. The only thing we have is the press."

Sandbank said that when people see the PSA, "They're not going to say they love the press, but maybe they'll realize it takes energy to get information, that people don't just volunteer information.

"I hope the public feels, |I want to know.'"
COPYRIGHT 1989 Society of Professional Journalists
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Mississippi Maze: 25 Years of Sullivan; film about journalists to raise public awareness
Author:Vahlberg, Vivian E.
Publication:The Quill
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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