On July 13, 2008 I found myself in a once-in-a-lifetime situation when I happened to catch a few seconds of a road rage incident on video and gave it to the police to help with the case. Later, I was astonished to see a freeze-frame from it at the top of the front page of Oregon's largest paper, but I soon found out that the footage had been on the Today show, Inside Edition, and (apparently) every evening news broadcast in the country. Google searches showed references to this in Italy, Thailand, just about anywhere you could imagine.
No one was ultimately harmed (physically, anyway - a couple of folks had their lives upended, though) in this incident, which is certainly a good thing. But the frenzy around it was unsettling to me; as soon as it was published (including some really stupid factual errors) the story was around the world and it made me wonder: how accurate are the stories I know nothing about but read all the time? If something as small as this could have errors in it (some of which I won't go into as they really should be kept in the courtroom, as far as I'm concerned) because of a feeding frenzy does that bode well for our acceptance of everything else we read in the Oregonian or hear on the Today show? A small example: somewhere, somebody got the idea the video was taken with a cell phone and you can tell from the headlines that the media thought this was a cool concept. My cell phone doesn't even take stills, let alone video, but never mind: CELL PHONE CAPTURES ROAD RAGE INCIDENT, blared the trumpets. As a guitar player I know only too well that you can't take back a note once it's been played.
I also found the immediate media concern trolling a little hard to take. When I told one local TV station's door-to-door news crew I really didn't want to participate in the whole process because it seemed like they were trying to sensationalize the issue the reporter popped up with "But you might have some information that's vital! And if you didn't speak up the case might be harmed! Then how would you feel?" And I lost track of how many times I was asked to describe how I felt when I was filming the incident, always framed as a leading question telling me how I should have been feeling and cueing up the response they had in mind but which I never did give to anyone.
The most amusing things I saw were comments to the Oregonian's story online, which assured me that the entire event had been staged and that the photos were hoaxes. I really did try to figure out how you could stage something like this and get an arrest in less an hour but I just couldn't do it; I'm simply not creative enough.
When I gave the footage to the police I had no intention of making money from it, and in fact it never even occurred to me that they would release it - I thought since it's copyrighted material they could only release it with my consent (and my contact info was written in VERY LARGE letters on the disk containing the file) but I was certainly wrong. Since everybody and his brother in the media was running this thing and making money from it (you make money off this by selling commercials; it's called content) I felt it was only fair that I get a few shekels of trickle-down too. That's when I realized that there is a real lack of something that I will call the Accidental Mediast FAQ. The AMFAQ needs to be written and posted with clear Google references so you can find it easily, and it tells people in the position I was in what they can do and how much they can charge...but I was flying blind. So here are a couple of tidbits for you should you ever find yourself in this particular time-dependant situation, and remember that the phrase "time-dependant" is understating things by an order of magnitude. You have to work fast, and that works against you if you don't understand the process.
First off, and remember this: make the arrangements with everybody yourself. I didn't understand how this works and it cost me some money. You don't need to speak to agencies that represent the networks; you can speak to them directly yourself, and if you're in the middle of something like this where they are running your footage right now they will actually call you back. You won't know who to call but start with your local TV station, tell them they are running your copyrighted footage and you'd like to get paid for it. Then, while you're doing that ask for a contact number for the parent network itself so you can do the same thing there. It really is that simple.
You need to negotiate deals with two kinds of entities - the local media and the national media. The local TV stations will pay you what's called a "stringer" fee - in other words, they will pay you as though they had hired you to shoot something for them in a normal fashion. If you have a REALLY big story and really big balls you could probably ask for more; try it and see how far it gets you, I guess. I didn't think I had the new Zapruder footage. Ditto for the local paper. Now, although you have worked something out with the local media, you still have to contact the parent media and go through the same process, but the dollar amounts are different. Nationally, right now in 2008, you can ask (and get) $500 per network for something like this. Local stringer fees are probably going to be in the $75-100 range. As you can see, it adds up, and I am guessing that if you have access to somebody who actually knows how to milk the whole thing (in other words, somebody who knows the right people) it could probably be considerably more. I'm sure I've missed some opportunities to make money off this but obsessing about cities of gold is something I'll leave to dead Conquistadors.
But if you ever stumble across the AMFAQ email me about it, okay? And increase your skepticism level.
Update: some of the comments on YouTube (there are several versions of this there) really outdo those on the Oregonian. I'll also mention that Newsweek also contacted me about the story and used a quote from me to close the article, which can be found here.