Journalists get to cover all kinds of interesting events, from cultural festivals and car shows to political rallies and criminal trials. Events are great content fodder and fun to attend. The story can be just as much about attendees and people on the sidelines as those on center stage.
Remember to research every possible angle. If it’s a big event, hundreds of other journalists and bloggers will also be writing about it, so if you want your piece to stand out, do something different.
1. Do your homework
Research the event thoroughly beforehand. If it’s an annual parade or festival, study past coverage to get an idea of the main attractions, participants, and audience. Contact the organizers for information such as a list of speakers or side shows and check if you need to fill out a press pass application. (We’ll cover press credentials in more detail shortly.)
If an event does require registration and credentials, call up and confirm. I had arranged to film at an Obama rally in Boston, and after arriving at my hotel, I discovered the organizers had changed the arrangements last minute. They required crews to register and set up equipment at the venue the night before. You couldn’t just turn up on the day with a camera. Good to know!
2. What’s the story? Find Your Lede!
Always look for a relevant and timely angle. What type of content are you planning to write? Is it news? Entertainment? A feature? What medium are you working in? Is it for a magazine, a blog, or a video? Are you covering events live? Determine the approximate length and focus of your project beforehand so you know how much content you need. Readers don’t want a play by play of what happened; they want an interesting story.
3. Plan ahead
My course on pre-production skills stresses the most important step in producing is the planning process, whether it’s a full-length documentary or a short segment. The same applies to freelance writing. Small details are often as important as the content. If you miss half the show because you can’t find a parking spot, well that’s on you. Are you filming? Snapping photos? Make sure your devices are fully charged and you have extra batteries.
For notetaking and interviews for print, pack a reporter’s notebook, a handful of pens (that work) and a voice recorder or simply use a phone app. I like to write down people’s names and titles or have them spell their names on video or audio, just to make sure everything’s correct. They may be hard to contact after the event.
If there’s someone well-known hosting or attending the event and you want to interview them, contact the organizers or their publicist beforehand to find if this is possible. You won’t get time with the president or a pop star, but you may have access to the local politician who’s MCing a presidential rally or the famous folk singer performing at a festival.
4. Arrive early and leave late!
I’ve already mentioned this, but please make sure you leave plenty of time to arrive, park, and get to the right spot. Traffic may be crazy and parking spots limited. You may also have to register and receive a temporary press pass. (They come in cute lanyards and many journalists and crew like to save them as souvenirs. I have my own little collection!)
As for staying late? You may stumble upon another story, something unexpected may occur, maybe a counter protest, or you bump into an interesting person. You just never know what will happen. So, stay alert throughout and then linger afterwards.
5. Do I need a press pass?
While some events will provide a temporary press pass, political rallies usually require press credentials, especially for sitting presidents or presidential candidates. If you freelance for a news organization, you probably already have one. If you don’t, then consider joining The National Writers Union (NWU).
As a freelancer writer or photographer working in any genre or media, you can apply for a press pass by providing evidence of work you’ve published in the past few years. Some presidential rallies even require a background check, so contact the press office and find out what you need. Since my press pass had expired, I once talked my way into a Hillary Clinton rally citing the First Amendment and claiming access to freelancers should never be denied. They did let me in, but I recommend saving the drama and planning ahead!
Here are some resources on press passes:
6. Do I need release/consent forms?
For journalistic purposes, you don’t need consent to use a person’s image when at public events and on public land (like a park or street). But as a courtesy (and to protect yourself), if interviewing or filming anyone under age 18, I would strongly suggest getting the parent’s permission regardless.
If the event is taking place on private land, and especially if children are involved, you will need signed release forms. If you work independently as a freelance writer, blogger, or videographer, you can create your own consent forms using your name or company name (there are plenty of online resources) making sure there’s a line for a parent or guardian’s signature. For documentaries it’s advisable to have every interviewee, regardless of age, sign a release form at the time of the interview. This way, you can avoid legal problems when the film is released.
For my documentary about therapeutic horse riding, I filmed a special event at a therapeutic horse-riding center, where all the riders were either under 18 or vulnerable adults. I knew beforehand that I needed permission for each person involved and so took a stack of forms with me. This is time consuming, so factor this in when you cover such an event, and don’t forget to bring a couple of pens and take a moment to explain the form.
7. Make notes
Jot down your thoughts as soon as possible after attending an event, so your feelings, observations, and descriptions are fresh in your mind. What was the atmosphere? How did people act and behave? Alternatively, you can record your thoughts on your phone when you’re there.
8. Expect the unexpected
At political rallies or protests the audience or crowd are often just as interesting as the politician and speakers, so make sure to interview as many attendees as possible. If you can, find people with different views so you can offer a balance of opinions in your piece. This is especially important during election season. Of course, at a political rally you may only find one side, but you can always ask some challenging and probing questions to elicit different responses.
9. Politics is long-winded!
If you’re covering a political rally, especially a presidential rally, plan for the whole day as it’s a long process. These events inevitably start late and include speeches by local politicians or community leaders before the actual candidate appears. Wear comfortable shoes (you’ll be standing for hours) and dress appropriately for the weather.
If you spot a famous person at an event and you’d like a quick interview, but didn’t book one beforehand, just ask their handlers or publicist. The worst they can say is no. I once got an interview with Jason Alexander (George Castanza from Seinfeld) just by asking the event organizer. He came over immediately, and we had a great conversation. So, don’t ever be afraid to ask. Be polite, yet bold.
Here’s a list of possible events you may want to cover:
- Sporting events
- Political debates
- Political rallies
- Press conferences
- Parades—for example, Pride parades or holiday parades
- Festivals/Cultural events—for example the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
- Protests, marches, or demonstrations
- Court cases
- Public hearings
- Speeches and talks
- Trade shows
Covering events is fun—if you plan ahead! Stay safe and enjoy your journalistic journey.