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When they're not being physically attacked, overnighters are often the victims of an onslaught of verbal and moral abuse. The nicknames for the profession are hardly flattering - night crawlers, ghouls, vampires, video vultures, ambulance chasers, gorehounds - and that's only how they describe themselves. Self-deprecation seems to come with the territory when you subsist off scavenged tragedy, and riding in the dark all night inspires introspection about the desensitizing implications of TV news. "Everything I've shot, I find myself worrying," says Siegal. "I get pangs of conscience. I was concerned for a while that it wasn't bothering me enough, to see what I was seeing. But you're affected in strange patterns. There was an FIU student who made a wrong turn, ended up in a bad neighborhood, got out of the car to take a piss, and was shot. That really touched me in a way I can't explain. You could see the body, and he was white, middle-class. He kind of bore a physical resemblance to me. For some reason it made me depressed. It's despicable of me, I know - I see black men dead every day and they don't have that effect. But it's just that simple. He looked like me."
"You become two different people when you're a photojournalist," says Moghari. "If two people are making love, that's not news. We end up searching for tragedy. It's not ambulance chasing, but it's more or less the same thing."
But life among America's Goriest Home Videos is more complicated than that. Despite the sorrow and horror of the incidents they film, the overnighters can't help but betray a certain exhilaration. Hovering over accidents with a camera is the ultimate in rubbernecking, and you get to record it for posterity. "It's vicariously thrilling," says Siegal. "Why go see Stallone's next movie for six dollars when I can see real exploding bodies for free, when I can get paid for it?"
Ambivalent about their own dependence upon tragedy, many videographers are also openly critical of the market hunger that maintains the demand for their video. "I think a lot of this stuff should never be covered," says Miami TV News's Roger Prehoda. "News is a matter of the impact of a story. Does it affect the viewer, and how many viewers? But some of the footage I shoot that gets bought - car accidents? I don't see it. It affects a family. Where's the news value?"
Unlike radio and print, TV news requires hard video, and news value, it seems, often depends as much upon the affordability and availability of film as upon a story's circumstance. For Miami's early-morning news (Channels 4, 7, and 10 carry the programs, beginning with Channel 7's 6:30 a.m. show), which hit the air before stations' regular daytime staffs are in place and before the day's events begin to coalesce, overnighters' footage is especially convenient, and a station's reliance upon free-lance late-night news seems to vary in direct proportion to the amount of early-morning news it offers. Those stations without morning shows do purchase from free-lancers, but they are less dependent upon them, and less willing to invest in stories with fleeting news value. (WPLG-TV Channel 10, however, rarely buys free-lance footage. "Ten is unionized," explains Siegal, "and they're generally required to call their own photographers any time of day or night and notify them of stories. They can buy from us if they had no knowledge of a story until after it happened, but that's rare.")
Given the coverage-to-purchase ratio, the main customer for overnighters is WSVN-TV Channel 7. With six and one-half hours of local news coverage to fill every day, WSVN accounts for almost half of Siegal's sales, and other videographers confirm the station's predominance in the market. "Channel 7 is the only station locally that asks for fresh video," says Moghari. "No one compares to them. They are our best clients, and pretty much run anything they can get their hands on."
"You never know what they're going to want," says Prehoda, "and sometimes lesser stories become really popular. Right now they're running home invasions again, and it doesn't have to be anybody shot and killed. Generally you don't pay much attention to those stories, and usually even their requirements would be stricter."
Citing a June New Times story they felt cast their station's news practices in an unfavorable light, Channel 7 refused to comment on this subject. "I don't have any comments for New Times," says News Director Patricia Clemm. "We try not to use them [free-lancers] much."
Channel 4 morning-show producer Mark Angotti says he tries to limit his purchases to noteworthy news. "We'll buy anything if it's a good story," explains Angotti. "But there's getting to be an awful lot of what I call the `nebulous crime-scene shot' - maybe two police cars, a distant ambulance. I wonder if television is becoming so saturated with that sort of thing that crime scenes are becoming a channel changer."
The local free-lance news market also relies heavily upon relative inactivity on the national/international front; more important stories can spell the death of overnighters' footage. This past fall, for instance, two major stories - the serial killings in Gainesville and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait - swallowed local TV time, bumping local news almost completely off the agenda. "That's a very real phenomenon," says Angotti, "and the greatest example is what's going on right now. I watched the evening news tonight, and there was not a single local story on any of the newscasts because of Iraq. Do you really think that yesterday the crime was any less? What people don't understand is that a news show is a commodity, 30 or 60 minutes, and you've got to represent what's most important."