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MoJo checklist: covering political events with a smartphone during covid-19


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Umashankar Singh, NDTV India (right) interviewing JAP president Rajesh Ranjan (left).

While the coronavirus pandemic has forced many journalists to work from their bedrooms, some reporters have had to brave the streets to cover their beats.

Take some of the last year’s elections and imagine yourself being in the thick of the rallies. With social distancing measures and the risk of infections, these mass events are tricky yet vital to cover.

And there are more elections on the horizon in 2021, including local elections in the UK. So if you are heading out to polling stations, take proper precautions and use the right tools for the job.

In India, Umashankar Singh, senior editor, political and foreign affairs at NDTV drove himself more than 1,200km from his office in Dehli to the state of Bihar to cover the November 2020 election rallies and local issues using his mobile phone.

He spoke to Journalism.co.uk about his experience of covering the event and shared tips on covering elections with a smartphone.

Cover the essentials

“Social distancing was not possible so I had to take a lot of precautions,” says Singh.

Look at a highlights reel of Singh’s coverage (below) and you will see lots of people not wearing masks and remaining in close proximity, despite protocols and guidance from the election commission. As a result, Singh doubled up on his masks.

Because he was on the assignment for three weeks, he also had to think about food. So on top of his smartphone gadgets, he brought a microwave to prepare simple foods that were not handled by others.

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“People might laugh but I have a right to take care of myself,” he says.

Keep the inventory minimal

There are many gadgets and gizmos that you can get for your smartphone these days. But you only need three items: a smartphone, a selfie-stick and a mic, according to Singh. This will give you the range and capability to get the shots you need. Battery packs and lights are worthwhile extras too and, no pun intended, they will keep you light on your feet.

“Make it as simple as you can,” says Singh. “Don’t make yourself so heavy that you get confused about what equipment you need to use.”

You can also be smart in dark situations by having interviewees facing street lights to ensure your shots are well lit.

Less equals more and simple kit can help reduce mistakes. During elections, you need to capture events as they unfold. A bodged shot or missed opportunity because of gadget overload is a rookie error to avoid.

He also noted that throughout the election campaign, he saw more independent journalists (not associated with media companies) using similar techniques with a small arsenal of mobile equipment.

Take calculated risks

“If you have to go out, take proper precaution,” says Singh. “But conviction is the main thing. Without that, you cannot do anything – and do it happily.”

One clip that went viral on Indian social media was Singh’s shot of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s campaign trail as his helicopter took off and a subsequent piece-to-camera.

He had just one shot to get this right and it was all about timing. He waited until the helicopter started to generate the loud noise before taking off, and transitioned to a piece-to-camera which pivoted to keep the helicopter in shot.

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He had to also brave a mid-flight interview with several politicians, including JAP president Rajesh Ranjan (Pappu Yadav) and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav. He knew the flight time was 15 minutes and so had the interview wrapped up in 11 minutes sharp.

He accepted that he did not know how sanitary the helicopter was and that the interviewees would not be wearing masks.

“The question in my mind was that I should not do this because it can be a risk to my life but after some time you allow things to happen because it is the need and duty of the job.”

As you can see from the clips, Singh operated as a one-man band and this can be an asset. Multitasking and being positive about it too can be conducive for interviews.

“If you do it happily, you will spread positive energy and your interviewees become more co-operative.”

Once Singh finished his assignment, he quarantined for one week and tested negative for covid-19.

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