Seeing the Games in Greece Through a Local Lens
Lynn French is a veteran TV photojournalist. She has been doing one-man-band reporting for 13 years, and has served time as an assignment editor, producer, and every job in production. She is currently the Assistant Chief Photographer at KPNX-TV in Phoenix, Ariz., and is in Athens as part of Gannett's Broadcast division, which includes crews from KUSA, WXIA, KARE and KSDK. I e-mailed Lynn some questions about her experience there. Below is an edited version of our exchange.
Poynter: What is the story that local news can tell at an international event like the Olympics?
French: "These are your athletes." We are very fortunate in Arizona to have three dozen Olympic athletes with ties to the state. Some grew up there, such as the women's softball coach, Mike Candrea. Others went to college at ASU, U of A, or Northern Arizona, like long jumper Dwight Phillips and swimmer Amanda Beard. And some moved to Phoenix and Flagstaff specifically to train for their sport, like shot putter John Godina. Each one ... speaks to our viewers in a way that says "be proud." Whether you are raising kids in Mesa, paying tuition at ASU, or moved to Glendale for your job, you can feel good knowing this environment produces the best athletes in the world. We look for our "Arizona athletes" to talk about their experiences tied to the state and how living in Arizona made them a world-class athlete whether it be that first time in a swimming pool as a kid or using the altitude to build lung capacity.
It is very entertaining to check the Olympic websites of different TV stations to see several of us claim the same athlete. A good example is Stacy Dragila. She is from Sacramento but lives in Scottsdale to train.
Phoenix is a tough city to live in sometimes; it was 112 there this week, I saw in my e-mail today headlines like "dead baby in a car" and "forest fire start." Giving our viewers a reason to care about a world event that is not war, does not have a death toll (so far), and allows them to watch people win gives them a respite from the day to day grind and lets them feel something that is bigger than the regular hum of life.
Give us some details about the restrictions/news gathering rules that you are under. What can you photograph and what is off limits?
When you leave the United States, you leave your rights as an American journalist at the border. Months ago we were told to list all of the sites outside of the Olympic Village we wanted to shoot at, what day and time we would be shooting there, and submit a script for approval by the Greek Government, after which they would issue us a site- and date-specific permit for camera use. Needless to say, this is a foreign concept to U.S. news organizations.
Fortunately, NBC was able to get blanket permits for each camera. That allows us to shoot in the city, except for archeological sites which still require the permit (including script approval). The problem with this is when you think of Greece, what do you think of? The Acropolis, the Parthenon, Mt. Olympus. Well, those are archeological sites and we have been barred from shooting there.
Considering this is a country with a lackluster economy that is trying desperately to attract tourists, they will not allow us to showcase their biggest assets. If you violate the country's camera use rules, they may confiscate your equipment and we have absolutely no recourse. In my head I hear Sam the Eagle from the Muppet Show, "That's Un-American", yeah, well, it is un-American. But much like in the U.S., we cannot shoot military installations and security checkpoints either.
Isn't it true that you have very little access to the athletes? How do you cover the Olympics if you can't talk with the athletes?
We do have very little access to the athletes, especially athletes on Team USA. Even when they want to talk to us, there are numerous hurdles to pass over.
The one guaranteed shot we have with them is called "the Mix Zone." After an athlete competes, they have to walk down a corridor that is lined with the press. All athletes have to go past us, it is their choice if they want to talk. Really the only ones who do not talk are the athletes shrouded in controversy, such as Marion Jones. Everybody else wants to get in a "Hi, mom" to the hometown station. But the new big snafu in this happened earlier in the week. Some members of the press got in a smack-down at a diving competition Mix Zone, the police were called, and the IOC decided that each organization may only have one camera and one representative in the zone (ours being NBC News Channel as a whole) and they can only ask ONE question! I am sure you can imagine the four letter words used to describe this.
Fortunately, once athletes have competed, the USOC does not have as much jurisdiction over their actions and they generally will meet with us outside of the Olympic Village. Strangely, if an American athlete plays for another country, we have far more access to them. Coach John Kazanas of the Greek baseball team was able to bring any player we wanted to the front of the Athlete Village to talk with us as long as we needed, and the lone gymnast from Slovakia who lives in Atlanta met up with the folks from WXIA at our live shot location.
Athletes may be restricted, but their families are not. We get a lot of insight and stories from proud parents and excited spouses. The Olympics is also about the spectators and the culture around the Games. Honestly, some of us have signs that we parade around with that say "We are from KPNX, if you are from Arizona, please come talk to us!" It works, really well actually. I am fortunate to be with a very visible anchor who our viewers immediately recognize. We get quite a few people who just walk by in a crowd and stop. There are the ubiquitous stories like pin trading, the always odd design of the mascot, and "fashions of the Olympics" (this time it is the Roots pageboy hat, the Australian yellow-soled sneakers, and the olive branch laurels). Then there are the great finds that feed your soul and remind you why the crappy hours and bad food is worth it. I am still looking for those here.
Give us a sense of how many stories you are filing daily and what the conditions are for filing.
It sounds brutal -- we are feeding live wrap-around packages for the 6:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, and look-live packages for the 4 p.m. access show, the 5 p.m. newscast, and two packages and a look-live analysis for the 6:30 p.m. access show every weekday (all different stories). Weekends get a look-live package each for the morning show and the 6 p.m. newscast. And we are live with a package at 11 p.m. It is grueling to say the least.
The only thing that makes this possible with a crew of two (the sports anchor and me) is the 10-hour time difference and our buddies at the other Gannett stations and NBC affiliates. Granted, these are not the NPPA visual extravaganzas I would like to put on the air. If I can get one of those a week, I will count my lucky stars. The majority are either patchwork quilts of NBC News Channel Mix Zone interviews with our athletes and Video On Demand b-roll or shake-n-bake features shot in 15 minutes or less.
The conditions are not bad, just sort of humorous. All of NBC took over the second floor of a shut-down furniture factory across from the International Broadcast Center (and next to a gravestone cutter). They installed miles of temporary wiring, air conditioning ducts, and brought in huge generators to supply enough power to the building. News Channel split up their various paths according to ownership groups and time zone requirements (trying to spread out the Eastern and Pacific folks). All five of the Gannett stations are on path 7 with WTHR from Indianapolis. Because we have been paired with them in the past, we split duties on bringing the 48 anvil cases required to get us on the air (cameras, switchers, edit decks). Everything was shipped two months ago and was set up in a matter of hours by our Gannett operations guru and some killer engineers from WTHR. I just saw Brian Williams stroll through in a Team USA uniform. It is all of NBC.
What do you wish you could tell your viewers that you will never be able to tell them on the air?
How happy we will be to get home. I know, I know, I know, it is the opportunity of a lifetime, it is the greatest show on earth, there is no greater assignment. That is what I have been told. My family thinks I am running the studio cameras at every venue, and some people at our stations talk to us like we are on a paid vacation ("you are so lucky, it must be nice to get to hang out in Greece for a month"). Under these conditions and deadlines, it gets very frustrating when no one relates to how tired and on the edge you are.
I am so glad I watched the Bill Murray film "Lost in Translation" just before I came here. I have lived so many moments out of the movie so far and we are only a week into this thing. Don't get me wrong, I love the challenge of this assignment, it is like a Super Bowl, presidential election, and natural disaster all rolled into one. But the novelty wears off pretty quickly and it becomes a routine like covering a special legislative session.
I am thankful to have folks at my station who have done Olympics and other large international assignments who know it is not what you see on TV. I end up calling their voice mail in the middle of the night just to rant because I know it will get a good chuckle in the morning. So far, my longest night of sleep has been four hours and we have had one good meal. No matter how glamorous a story is, that will wear you down fast.
What do you wish somebody had told you about covering this event a week ago?
Bring a better camera strap. I knew we were going to walk a lot, but by the end of the first day my neck was raw from the low-grade strap I have on the camera. Now I am just sucking up the pain knowing there is two weeks left. In terms of the mental game of covering this, I have been psyching myself up for months for the 25 days without a day off, knowing I would be in unfamiliar surroundings fighting hassle factor at every turn. That has not gotten to me nearly as much as I anticipated. I have a week of vacation when I get back, which I am spending in North Carolina trying to get my internal clock back to normal.