TV journalists are an insatiably curious and often brave lot, driven by an abiding passion to report the news and a dedication to break stories.
Their story-getting and telling abilities, aided and abetted by their camera crews and other support staff, are the stuff of legends. Think of the BBC’s John Simpson donning a burka to enter Taliban-controlled Afghanistan before the US-led attack in 2001 or CNN’s Peter Arnett reporting live from under a desk at the Al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad in 1991 as US bombs exploded around him.
Often the most compelling stories combine great reporting with pictures which do far more than illustrate the story. Ted Turner, CNN’s founder, once said “the news is the star”, and the history of television news is one of compelling images which have moved the audience and sometimes changed the course of events.
In 1984, the BBC’s Michael Buerk reported on the appalling famine in Ethiopia which had been largely hidden from the world. Buerk’s reporting was powerful and compassionate – and a good example of writing of the highest quality, as you will read below – but the global impact of the story owed as much to the great skill of his cameraman, Mohammed Amin, the brilliant Kenyan photojournalist, in portraying horror with humanity. The pictures led to an international response to the disaster.
In 1992, when ITN’s Penny Marshall and Ian Williams revealed the dreadful conditions in the Serb-run concentration camps of Omarska and Trnopolje in Bosnia, their reporting was a model of how to report evil and inhumanity – but it was the images of terrified, emaciated Bosnian prisoners in the camps taken by cameramen Jeremy Irvin and James Nicholas which provoked outrage around the world.
With the help of acquaintances and colleagues who are television news journalists, my book contains a list of 12 memorable TV news reports from around the world. Some were produced for TV, while others were made with online platforms in mind and probably would not work on a conventional channel. It would be easy to have chosen coverage of momentous events – such as man’s first step on the Moon in 1969, the planes crashing into the World Trade Center in 2001, the tanks rolling in to free Kuwait in 1991. Instead, however, I wanted to celebrate stories for which the journalist and their camera operator had to do far more than just point, shoot and talk – they had to uncover things that many would prefer them not to.
The thing that unites the stories on the list is that they all tell powerful stories in a watchable, compelling way. The universal truth still remains – great television is about the content. Here are four of the best:
A Message from Aleppo, by Waad Al-Kateab
In recent years, Waad Al-Kateab, a Syrian citizen journalist, has won multiple international awards for her courageous and unflinching portrayal of life under siege in the city of Aleppo, focusing on the human cost in the last functioning hospital, where her husband was a doctor. Few pieces of recent modern television news have reflected the impact of war on civilians with such humanity and honesty.
Cry Freetown, by Sorious Somura
This brilliant but hard to watch documentary, with terrible violence from the first few seconds, tells the astonishing story of Sorious Somura, a Sierra Leonean journalist who chronicled the atrocities of the civil war in Sierra Leone at great personal risk when the RUF rebels captured the capital Freetown in January 1999. By pretending to sympathise with the rebels, he was able to film their atrocities. In the documentary, he also reflects on the risks he took and the decisions he made.
Smuggled by Nigeria’s “Pushermen”, by Nima Elbagir
This is a chilling and very dangerous undercover investigation for CNN by the Sudanese-born journalist Nima Elbagir into the Nigerian gangs which offer to smuggle people into Europe via Libya. In one sequence, the smugglers press her to take condoms for the trip and advise her that on the journey she may be raped – in which case she should not resist – and/or be forced to trade sex for help. The viewer is relieved to see her get off the bus heading North, but it is an unforgettable piece of evidence of the incredible risks people are prepared to take to try to get to Europe.
Ethiopian famine, by Michael Buerk
Michael Buerk’s original report of the Ethiopian crisis in 1984 for the BBC provided a chilling picture of the ravages of famine on the land and its people, and forced the world to act. His opening words were as powerful as the distressing pictures that accompanied them: “Dawn – and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the 20th century.”
These are just a few shining examples of almost countless memorable television news stories that have appeared over the years. You will probably have your own favourites, stories that stick in your mind perhaps years after you first watched them. Let me know about them by leaving me a comment at my website, TVNews3-0.com, or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.