Where's Wendy??

Wendy Saltzman's CBS Atlanta News Web Blog

Stakeouts and Hidden Cameras

            I’ve spent about 16 hours in the car over the last few days, doing what some people seem to think it one of the coolest parts of my job.  The stakeout.  As I sit here for hours on end, it gives me a chance to catch up on mindless tasks.  In fact, I am writing this blog right now as I am sitting in the sweltering heat, running down a tank of $4 gas, staring at a parking lot.  But hey, my boss wants this story, so this is the price for a good investigative journalism.


The first question I always get is,”Wow!  So who are you staking out?”  And “Are you going to jump out of the car and ‘get them?’”  Ya… Something like that.  Except that stakeouts often require a lot more sitting, for very little action.  If you ask any photographer, this is by far the worst part of the job.  I talk with my photographer as we sit here about his weekend, upcoming vacations, and after about 4 or 5 hours, the car goes silent.  We’ve talked about just about everything, and we still have another 50 hours to spend together in tight quarters without bathrooms.  Not very glamorous.


I remember once at a previous job we got a tip that Goodwill workers were stealing from the thrift stores where they worked.  The tip came from an insider.  This was good stuff!  So me and my photographer spent 6 or 7 days documenting worker after worker walking out of the store, and loading up their cars with goodies.  Bingo!  We would sit all day until the end of the first shift of workers, and then again late at night when the second shift left after closing.  We probably put in 40 hours in front of that store.  Then finally on the last day, as we watch the supervisor walk out we asked her about all of the employees “goods” they were loading into their cars, including the piles she had put into her car.  “They purchased them,” she told us.  Ok, I asked to see the receipts.  She walked us into the store, and there it was… The book that logged every single one of the employees purchases—A Goodwill requirement.  Fortunately my exchange with the supervisor had been fairly non-confrontational from the start, so she was fine with our questions.  But that was a week worth of work, wasted.  That is my job.  A large part of it is checking out tips that may never turn into anything. 


            Most of my time is actually spent doing grueling, ho-hum work like putting in record requests and fighting government agencies for information and interviews.  There are some fun days where we do hidden camera shoots, but those days are the exception and not the rule.


            Which brings us to hidden cameras.  They are one of the best parts of my job, and the worst.  The bottom line is overall viewers love watching hidden camera stories, and I have made a career off of it.  I am nominated for a National Emmy for a hidden camera report on a ring of “Identity Creators” I did here at CBS Atlanta.  I was also nominated for another Investigative Emmy at my last job for a hidden camera report where we followed government workers to Las Vegas on a government funded junket.


            But with hidden cameras you really never know what you are getting.  Just yesterday I was on a hidden camera shoot.  Now, let me start here by saying there is a lot of vetting that goes into this before we are even allowed to take a hidden camera out of the office.  There are legal, ethical, and journalistic principals that have to be considered, and I have to get my News Director’s approval before all shoots.  We never take a hidden camera into any “private” area.  And we never use a hidden camera to document anything unless there is no other way to get the video.  Then once you take that camera out the door, what you are getting is a crap shoot.


            There are a lot of unknowns when a hidden camera comes into play.  You can see a “viewfinder,” so you basically have no idea what you are shooting, much less if the camera is even on.  We have shot video’s where the camera battery goes out, so there is audio but no video, we have shot video but maybe someone’s hand or a piece of clothing is in front of the camera, and there have been times we come back to the station with just plain nothing because the camera just wasn’t recording.  But I think my favorite, which just happened yesterday, is when we chop off someone’s head and all you see is a body in the video from with a talking chin.  This can be especially distracting when that person is a female.  She is saying great stuff.  So what do I do?  Show viewers her chest, or leave out the information she is saying.  Another dilemma. 


            So whose chest I was shooting yesterday?? And who have I been staking out writing this blog in the car all day is another subject…  You’ll have to wait until I post that story.  Stay tuned!

September 29, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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